YOUR BRAIN’S DAY-JOB: MEMORY FORMATION & storage
Life comes to us and comes out of us via our bodies. They are the medium by which the experiences and expressions of life are transmitted in and out. The human body has an enormous capacity to act as a cultivator and a storehouse of information; a function that orients us to our internal and external environments. Its intelligence allows us to learn and develop, efficiently and effectively while adapting to fluctuations of internal and external states. By understanding and attuning to the body’s vast capacity to recognize and hold memory (and energy), we can learn how to refine and release memory energy, as to not only survive but to thrive.
Internal and external awareness is informed by stimulation communicated through the senses: touch, taste, scent, sound and sight. Once stimulation is indicated, the brain instantaneously coordinates and deploys action based on instinct and/or memory. For example the reptilian part of the brain (responsible for sensing) will activate a strong instinctual response of jerking one’s hand away from a hot frying pan. Not only does the hand move away from danger, but one’s heart rate will increase and stress hormones will be released into the body for a defence response initiation: fight, flight or freeze. In this case, flight is selected. The limbic brain (which associates feelings and emotions to memory) quickly learns to identify a frying pan as hot, and as such, memory is formed associating potential danger with frying pans for future reference. This function of the brain allows us to move through our days with a relatively high degree of automated responses and adaptations for safe and effortless navigation in life.
Programming the Operating System of the mind
Similarly, memories can be formed based on second hand impressions we receive. For example, a child doesn’t know the frying pan is hot until they touch it for themselves (a firsthand experience, as described above). Or, they can be taught about perceived threats from a caregiver. Depending on how messages are not only delivered, but how they are perceived: received, translated and absorbed, can have an impact on just how deeply a lesson or memory is etched into the psyche. For example, if a caregiver calmly and without urgent emotional charge explains that the pan is hot and could hurt the child, hypothetically, information can more easily be obtained from a very logical perspective. However, if a caregiver is emphatic with their message due to having experienced immense pain from being burned themselves, or seeing someone else being burned, the message may be charged with an amplified level of fear. This fear can be felt by and transferred to the receiver, the child, creating a maladapted sense of danger.
Memories associated with intense emotion have greater staying power – consciously or subconsciously. When we are exposed to traumatic events, or interpret events as traumatic, especially during our formative years (ages 0 -14, even into early 20’s), we construct coping mechanisms for survival. (NOTE: the impact of trauma isn’t determined by the severity of the incident(s), rather by how it’s imprinted and held in the body) These survival strategies form an operating system (OS) we return to countless times throughout our lives. When encountering a potential threat or trigger, our psyche will scan for familiarity in the external environment as well as the response of the internal environment – reliance on the reptilian brain for physiological responses. Because its job is to keep us alive, the brain wants to eliminate threat as quickly as possible. As such, when triggered the brain rapidly reaches for old memory files within the OS to select a survival reaction it knows was successful in the past. This can be incredibly effective for not grabbing a hot pan. However, a go-to reaction that once kept us safe is not necessarily appropriate for new/current circumstances, relationships or environments. The child’s best approach to safety and survival was to not touch the frying pan, but as an adult this approach is outdated and no longer appropriate or beneficial for moving through the world, or breakfast.
Threat on survival is not limited to physical safety. As we move through life, again, especially through our formative years, we are constantly taking in information and learning how to survive amongst others: familial, social and societal. It is imperative to a child’s survival and development (which we can refer to as healthy desire) to belong and be tended to. As such, during those early years, children are constantly taking in information and learning how to be adaptive, acceptable and hopefully likable enough to be loved and gain a sense of belonging (again, healthy desires). During this time, the brain sponges information and constructs the foundation of the individual’s OS. Here countless associations are created and categorized forming how one identifies in the world – the ego is born. The ego can be our ally and our nemesis. A healthy ego assists us in our “healthy desires”. It reminds us to brush our teeth, motivates us to get adequate rest in order to wake up energized and clear for the day ahead, and encourages us to engage socially for meaningful connection. An unhealthy ego, on the other hand, is often formed by maladaptive survival techniques which hamper ease and induce characteristics such as hypervigilance and avoidance. Resulting in overprotective or overly performative behavior.
For example, if a child grew up in a chaotic home with loud arguing and abuse, they may have learned to protect themselves by staying small, quiet and out of the way. For a defenseless child, this is a brilliant survival tactic. However, as an adult, when encountering loud noises the limbic brain, responsible for memory association, may not be able to distinguish a dangerous and loud conflict from a jovial and enthusiastic party. Instead of discerning current reality, the Default Mode Network (DMN), also part of the limbic brain, is activated and attempts to quickly determine what the stimulation means to “me” by reaching into the archives of memory files and retrieving the application of get-small-and-quiet-and-to-stay-out-of-the-way. The individual becomes charged with fear and the body flooded with stress hormones prompting the physiological reaction of freezing.
Because memories associated with heightened emotion tend to leave a deeper imprint on the psyche, the defense mechanisms associated with them are easily available and are therefore more frequently accessed. Further wearing the groove of pattern in our subconscious mind, until prominent habitual tracks are laid. Our brains use patterns for efficiency, and as such, seek familiar circumstances to apply its known application and run the ‘track’ successfully – though it may not consciously feel like success. This can look and feel like “why is this happening to me again?” or “why can’t I figure this out”. Returning to patterned states can also look and feel like excitability. An example of this would be moving towards chaos or even creating chaos, if you grew up in a chaotic environment. It may seem counterintuitive, but remember, the brain is seeking survival success based on old operating systems.
It’s important to remember that the initial formation of the brain, and the ego state, isn’t consciously constructed, rather it’s subconsciously sculpted by our perception — how we receive and translate, our environments and experiences. Throughout the years, the ego can be exasperated and worn-in as ‘who we are’ or ‘how we are’, dictating our decisions and directing our consequences as a maladaptive attempt to survive. As Carl Jung explained “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”.
Redirecting our fate is to identify the tracks we move along and the operating system we rely upon. This can be very illusive and daunting, as many of our patterns live in our blind spots while others are so deeply ingrained, they are mistaken as success and desire. So where do we begin?