I’m excited to introduce Bobbi Parish-Logie and the first of two guest posts on repressed and recovered memories. It’s a topic that can help all of us connect to our stories.
How the Brain Stores Memories
As a Mental Health Counselor who specializes in working with adult and child trauma survivors, helping my clients process memories is a large part of the therapeutic process. As they work to heal and transform their stories we often deal with repressed or newly recovered memories. The brain has an intriguing way of storing the information it receives for later recall, especially if there is extreme emotional distress attached to that information.
All of us who wish to tell our stories, either for just ourselves or for sharing with others, would benefit from understanding the memory storage process. In this post I will focus on how the brain stores information and why sometimes it represses or hides information from our consciousness. Next week I will be back with a second post that will describe how to recognize that we might have repressed memories and techniques we can use to recover them. For most of us, new information is first received in the pre-frontal cortex of our brain. That is the typical entry point into the mind. For some, with extensive trauma histories or a traumatic brain injury this entry point is shifted to another brain structures, but for most the pre-frontal cortex is the Grand Central Station of the mind. Here exists a huge sorting and categorizing system much like the card catalogs we used to see in libraries around the world. Remember those? Ah, nostalgia. I miss those beautiful wooden structures were the huge collection of books contained within a library was reduced to a perfectly ordered system of cards and drawers.
Our brain makes an initial sort of all information that it receives. Some data is immediately deemed unworthy of storage, like the color of the last five cars that passed you on the freeway. Having no significant meaning the brain tosses that information into the nethersphere. Anything that has the possibility of being needed later gets stored with other similar information and cross referenced with any other data that it could possibly be linked to. For example, if you read a newspaper article about the economy’s impact on the stock market your brain will likely store that under “Economy”, “Finances, General” and “Stock Market.” Our brain will use these tags to later access the right card catalog drawer and pull out possibly relevant memories.
Sometimes, though, an incoming piece of information sets off a warning bell in the brain because it comes with extreme emotional distress attached to it. When this happens the pre-frontal cortex and the emotional hub of the brain (the amygdala and the hippocampus) join together to assess the data. If they determine that remembering that information would be harmful to the well-being of the body it will store it in a secluded section of the memory storage system that is segregated from the rest of the files. This process amazes me, both because it happens with lightning fast swiftness and it is a sophisticated self-protective mechanism. From that point forward we fail to remember that particular instant in time, unless at some point in the future we find the key to access the specially stored memory. Next week I’ll be back to talk about those repressed memories. Sometimes you’ll know you have gaps in your memory but won’t know how to access them. At other times you won’t even know those moments in time have been sectioned away. We’ll talk about both scenarios along with how you can find the key to unlock what our brains seek to protect us from.
Bobbi Parish-Logie is a Marriage and Family Therapist who works primarily with trauma survivors. As a survivor of childhood abuse she is uniquely equipped to help other trauma survivors recover and heal. Bobbi hosts a Twitter Chat for survivors of sexual abuse on Tuesday evenings. She blogs about mental health issues at Resplendent by Design. ( A published author, Bobbi has one book on the market and two more coming out this year.)