Category Archives: memory

Reliving memories long after trauma. Why does it happen?

I just returned from a week’s trip to Lebanon to train participants in a Scripture-Engaged mental health-informed trauma healing program. It was a wonderful experience. I made new friends, heard important stories of hardship and God’s faithfulness. I ate good (no, great!) food, and saw some beautiful scenery. Now, as I try to get my body clock back on home time zone, I’m waking early. In those wee hours of the morning, many of these memories come without any seeming effort on my part. There are great ones–laughter, sweet times, a poignant story of pain and heartache, a story of courage–and the brief moments of terror in several taxi rides. Since we survived the taxi rides, these latter memories are no longer negative as much as they invoke a chuckle or two.

In a small way, I’m reliving and recalling memories. I can smell the smells. I can feel the tension of riding in the front seat of a taxi going 60 miles an hour on a city street or the driver’s attempt to squeeze between a barrier and a large truck at a high rate of speed with only inches to spare. I can feel it and see it. And I didn’t even try to recall either the good or the bad. They just appeared.

This is how traumatic memory works. You experience a trauma and later flashes of memory–painful, shocking, unwanted–appear after the subtlest of triggers. You do not merely remember it, you feel it. You taste it, as if it were happening again. They come in bits and pieces, flashes and images; rarely in a linear sequential fashion.

While most good and bad memories fade and are replaced by new and more salient experiences, some memories stay powerfully strong and consistently intrude into the present. Even when we tell ourselves, “We’re safe now. We are no longer in danger” or “You’re not a child anymore, you are grown up and don’t have to be afraid of being hit,” the memories and associated feelings keep coming. It is as if your logic and perceptions aren’t able to moderate the response.

Let me give you a little silly example. I once became violently ill  for 4 days after eating deli turkey. To this day I cringe and feel stomach pain when presented with deli turkey. That experience was more than 12 years ago. Yet still I react. I know that what is in front of me is not tainted but it doesn’t seem to matter to my stomach.  Sure, the reaction I have is minimal and faded compared to immediately after my illness. But it is not gone.

Why does this happen? What are the processes in play that keep us experiencing and reliving what may be old and distant–as if it were still present? What follows is brief and a relatively simplistic summary of two very complex processes. Use them to help you understand yourself or a friend and to increase your empathy for those trapped in such processes.

Memory and the Connected Self

Psychology focuses much of its work on the individual person–the self. However, the self never exists outside of social connections (or disconnections) with others. Our understanding of our self begins at birth with billions of interactions (smiles, frowns, words, touch, etc.) with others. As we develop and become aware of ourselves, we often have key experiences of success or failure that continue to shape our sense of self long into the future. Find someone with a powerful sense of failure and you will find someone who will struggle to interpret present success as indicative of who they are. Whether success or failure oriented, both outlooks form on the basis of how we perceive that others see us. It seems that shame and humiliation act as intensifiers making it hard to alter our sense of self even after corrective experiences. They turn me from “bad things happened to me” into “I am bad.”

Memory and the (dis)Connected Brain

In simplistic language, the brain is an amazingly connected and efficient organ firing constantly day and night. Memories are stored and accessed, intensified or eroded, and often altered through the firing of neurons. The efficient brain “learns” to access information quickly. Just as you no longer have to think to insert your key into a lock the right side up, you also no longer have to consciously recall a memory–it just happens. Because multiple hormones and structures in the brain are involved in memory formation, it stands to reason that ignoring a life-altering memory (and the full-bodied experience of it) is next to impossible. Structures like the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus are evaluating and communicating (or not) with high-level processing within the cortex even before you know it. Thus, a memory and its reaction is already well-underway before a person can think and critique such a memory.

So, are we doomed to be controlled by our past?

No. There is ample evidence that we can form new connections and minimize intrusive and unwanted memories. The brain is plastic. It is adaptable and changeable. And yet, we are not in the age of the MiB neuralyzer. God does not usually remove us from our histories or make them so distant they have no effect on us. Adaptation takes time and energy and rarely is so complete that the person no longer feels nothing when they recall a painful event (in fact, feeling nothing might be rather dangerous as it would be a denial of reality).

So, the next time you are beating yourself up for still struggling with the past (or are questioning why a loved one can’t move beyond a trauma), be gentle. Consider instead how you might develop a corrective response that accepts what has happened and gives opportunity for a new second response after the first automatic reaction.




Filed under Abuse, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Uncategorized

Dissociation (amnesia) and remembering abuse anew?

How is it that someone could forget a horrific event or experience? What is happening when something new is remembered about a very old event? Is it possible to forget (lose the capacity to recall) for long periods of time but then later remember?

Continuing my series on memory, abuse, and the controversies of recovered memories [you can read my previous posts: here, here, and here], I now want to address the issue of dissociation, amnesia, and remembering abuse. In those previous posts we have looked at how memory can be degraded by intent (conscious denial or unconscious rejection), by other overwhelming stimuli, or by failure to encode. But, since I have not spent much time on the topic of dissociation and repression, I want to say just a few words about these two ideas–in part because they are frequently used but poorly defined.

What is Dissociation? Is Amnesia a better term?

People define dissociation in a variety of ways but most definitions include some disconnection from present reality–sensations of disconnection from self, others, or time–and exists on a continuum. The most mundane forms happen everyday. You are driving from point A to point B but realize you cannot remember what you saw along the way. While we could describe this as a failure to encode data into memory, we could also describe the process, a disconnecting from what is happening in the present. Some dissociation is even beneficial. If you have ever been in pain but then got a distracting phone call, your pain perceptions probably decreased. You were, in effect, dissociating from the present experience of pain.

Now, when we talk about dissociation from a counseling perspective, we are talking about a more significant disconnection from present experiences, one that often seems to happen outside the conscious control of the person (but may be a practiced habit that happens without mindful decision). Dissociative experiences include feeling unreal, disconnected from the body, unable to engage the present, unable to remember salient portions of pesonal identity, or even, rarely, the presentation of alternate personality states that appear to fight for control of the individual.

You can imagine that if you are in the position of a repeated trauma (such as child sexual abuse by a parent figure) and unable to escape it, you might develop ways of dealing with the pain by disconnecting from the present. As a result, you might find that any time you begin to feel unsafe, you naturally disappear in some minor or major way. What happens during that “disappearance” depends on the individual. For some, they are reliving some other experience (I’m no longer present but reliving a painful event in my life). For others, they report being blank–thinking and feeling absolutely nothing. The most telling sign to a therapist is that the client no longer seems to be present in the room (nonreactive or reacting clearly to something other than is going on in the present). Whatever the form of disconnection, most then experience some level of inability to remember portions of the trauma.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that those who dissociate have greater capacity to self-hypnotize. In addition, McNally describes a study (in Remembering Trauma) that followed a person with psychogenic amnesia who had altered brain function when in amnestic states.

Does dissociation lead to forgetting traumatic data?

Can a person dissociate enough to create a persistent amnesia for a traumatic event? There is evidence that those who experience frequent disconnected states have greater difficulty remembering important details of traumatic events. However, many would say that repression is a better conceptual tool to explain such forgetting. But then, repression is not well-defined either (even Freud himself interchanged repression and suppression when talking about decisional vs. unconscious forms of forgetting). Despite the frequent use of repression in common parlance (and without the Freudian baggage) I would suggest that amnesia or motivated forgetting may be better terms, a bit more descriptive and less connected to psychoanalytic theory.

Whatever you call it, some level of forgetting can happen to those experiencing relentless traumas.

  • a young Jewish woman forced into an internment camp has her infant child ripped from her and killed. After the war, a relative asks the woman about the child and the woman responds, “what baby?” Only much later does she remember having a child or how this child died.
  • A young male cannot remember much about his childhood. When asked about his Uncle (only 5 years older than he), he can only remember a vague uncomfortable feeling. His younger brother recounts this uncle would routinely enter their bedroom at night to sodomize both boys. Only after numerous conversations does the older brother begin to remember abuse details, even beyond those supplied to him by his younger brother.

Forgetting then Remembering anew?

In my 23 years of counseling I have never encountered someone who recovered memories of a trauma after completely blocking all memory (I believe it is theoretically possible but extremely rare). I have, however, had a number of clients recall previously long forgotten or vaguely remembered traumas. Often when they recall events with VASTLY new interpretations, so new that it feels like an entirely new memory even as they admit the memory isn’t new to them. Here’s a real example (with details changed to disguise identity),

Alice, a 52-year-old elementary school principal, enters individual therapy at her husband’s insistence to deal with her irritability at home. She admits she has developed a fantasy of leaving her husband for the new (and younger) president of the school board. She discloses that this fantasy began not long after her husband suffered a work-related accident rendering him partially disabled. During the initial intake Alice denied any history of trauma or abuse. As the therapy progressed, it became evident that Alice connected her personal identity to that of being pursued–something that her husband no longer attempted. In addition, her attempts to flirt with the school board president had been ignored. In a moment of frustration, Alice exclaimed, “I’ve always known that men found me very enticing, ever since I developed [breasts] at an early age. I’ve always had to be so careful around men, especially married men. I knew they wanted me and that made me feel dangerous but desirable. Now, who am I if no one wants me?” Alice’s therapist asked her to recount a bit of her early sexual history and without much delay Alice reported her first sexual experience at age 12 with her 35-year-old, married Sunday School teacher. She recalled her teacher hugging and fondling her breasts while telling her about his failing marriage and the need for the two of them to avoid further sexual temptation. At age 16, she reported that she and a 4o-something father of a child she babysat engaged in a 6 month sexual relationship.  Alice’s counselor indicated some surprise at how Alice described both experiences. She asked Alice how she would describe the same interactions between one of her current 6th grade students and a school teacher. Alice immediately flushed with horror. “Why, it would be child abuse!” Once Alice regained her composure, she explored how she had always remembered herself as the protagonist in both experiences. In that session and over the next several weeks, Alice reported a flood of new memories, mostly about things done or said by the two sexually abusing men and now interpreted to be predatory behavior. On several occasions she reported that it felt like she had never had these memories before even though she recounted that she never forgot the sexual encounters. The new interpretations and labels created the experience of recovering long-lost memories–ones that seemed blocked as long as she was responsible for the trysts but freed in light of her victim interpretation.

In this little vignette I want to illustrate that memories of abuse can be forgotten, whether only small portions or large, and remembered anew. Recalled or recovered memories are frequent as individuals gain the freedom to explore events from different vantage points. A therapist does not need to go on an abuse hunt or attempt to conjure up forgotten memories for this to happen. Merely exploring the narrative of a prior difficult experience can be all the priming a client needs to begin to experience “new” remembering.

But here’s where good therapy differs from unethical therapy: how the therapist responds to or pursues memories may be the determining factor when it comes to the development of false memories of past abuse. In the next post we will take up the ethics of memory work and explore therapist habits that may produce false memories of abuse.


Filed under Abuse, counseling, counseling science, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, Uncategorized

Motivated forgetting amongst perpetrators?

I’m in the middle of a series on the problem of abuse, memory, and recovered memories. You can see the first two posts here and here. But, before I go on to address the matter of dissociation, repression, and re-remembering abuse, I want to point out that motivated forgetting doesn’t just happen to victims. It also happens to perpetrators.

Even when forensic evidence exists, it is common for perpetrators to deny their participation (or downplay it at least) in the offense. Some are quite capable of passing lie detector exams. They appear to able NOT to recall or respond in ways that would signal lying. From a theoretical point of view, we could offer two plausible answers

  1. They are extraordinary liars. They have perfected their craft and are able to beat the best technologies we have to detect their conscious lying.
  2. They have forgotten. By means of practicing an alternative story, by means of inability to see outside their own perceptions, by means of dissociation during the event, they have somehow forgotten. Cover of "Machete Season: The Killers in ...

Could it be that perpetrators use psychological mechanisms to forget–at least in part? I am still taken with Jean Hatzfeld’s accounts of his interviews with imprisoned genocidaires in Rwanda. In Machete Season, he documents how mass killers (already imprisoned and so thus with less need to maintain one’s innocence) seemed unable to speak about their actions in the first person but could speak with greater detail when using 2nd or 3rd person (we…they…).

To my mind, this suggests we are capable of forgetting many things (the motivation for forgetting how you chopped someone up is clear) but that we may remember when using a different portion of our brain and accessing a different perception of self/other. Self-deception takes many forms and is motivated by many  (often unknown to us) reasons.

To read another post I had on this book, see this link.


Filed under Abuse, deception, memory

Forgetting Abuse? Some thoughts on motivated forgetting

Could someone really forget something as horrifying as a rape or sexual abuse? How come some people say they never stop reliving a bad experience while others say they have forgotten and cannot remember what happened? How do we best understand these two, seemingly, opposing reactions?

In a previous post I began a short series on the controversies of repressed and recovered memories. In that post I made a few general comments about the nature of memory. It isn’t a particular structure or substance or even stored as one discrete movie but rather is a whole brain process connected to context, mood, and self/other-perception. Memories do not exist outside of narrative or story (unfortunately for those with traumatic histories, these narratives are usually quite jumbled up making it difficult to tell the story well). In general, stories help us remember and remembering tells a story.

In this post I want to address the matter of forgetting abuse. Is it possible? The short answer is yes. Common to forget all of it? No. Common to forget portions? Yes. And even more common to have the experience of a new memory even without ever having forgotten the abuse (this I will address in the next post). It is possible to forget, to no longer have access to one’s own history. But, the bigger question is “how” and “why” rather than “if”.

Complicating factors

Laboratory studies re: memory cannot replicate the experience of sexual abuse or trauma. Thus, we have some rather weak experiments or post hoc, retrospective studies. What these studies point to is that (a) most people don’t forget entire episodes, (b) some forgetting does happen, and (c) some confabulation or memory error also happens (e.g., eye-witness accounts are more frail than we imagine them to be). But even when we get a good study, we find it hard to apply the information to real life. For example, one retrospective study located a number of child abuse victims decades after their ER visit to a hospital. A goodly number denied ever having been abused. While the study could reveal some form of forgetting, we might also be witnessing lying and/or alternative interpretations.

So, we have to admit at the outset we have a large supply of anecdotes of full forgetting, partial forgetting, and no forgetting, and an equally large supply theories and explanations based in part on experience and low power correlational studies. Now, anecdotes and poorly supported theories aren’t reasons to doubt the reality of forgetting trauma (or the reality of false recovered memories). They are, however, good reminders to be wary of applying some general knowledge as complete answer to any specific case. Each case of forgetting trauma needs to be evaluated on its own merits (more on this when I get to a post on clinical/practical interventions).

One more complication. Adults who reveal child sexual abuse experiences rarely have any corroborating witnesses or forensic evidence. They have their memories and that is about it. Families, offenders, and communities have much to lose to admit such abuse could have happened. Thus, outside therapeutic environments, adults have few opportunities to be heard or believed.

By what mechanism do we forget traumatic experiences

“Normal” forgetting happens in a variety of ways. Each of these may be a partial answer as to why someone might forget something very powerful.

  1. Distraction leading to failure to encode. If you are introduced to someone and immediately forget their name (happens to me ALL the time), it is because the information never got encoded (too distracted by preparing to say my own name??). Distractions may come in the form of attending to something very specific or not attending to anything at all. Some victims of abuse report that their memories are fuzzy because they could only focus on the flower pattern on the wall during the actual abuse.
  2. Other memory intrusion. A previous memory may interfere with the clear encoding of a new memory or a new memory may interfere with the recall of an old memory. Victims of extended abuse often report difficulty in remembering when it started and stopped, who was present, etc., especially when  the perpetrator also provided more normal love and attention. The memories (and their competing narratives) make it hard to remember.
  3. Motivated Forgetting. I like but hesitate to use this term. “Motivated” could sound like “willful” or “intentional.” And while some motivated forgetting is intentional, most just happens outside the conscious experience of the one doing the forgetting. If I have a conflict with my wife and I spend the next 5 hours rehearsing her supposed sins against me, I may have difficulty recalling my own misuse of words. I may not consciously say to myself, “I am going to do this so I won’t be able to remember my angry words to her,” but I am engaging in what I call “motivated forgetting.” Obviously, abuse victims would rather NOT remember what happened to them and would rather maintain a positive view of a loved one who did the abuse. Victims may encourage motivated forgetting through several means (again, without conscious decision): repeating a false narrative (“He didn’t mean to do that and I am at fault.”) created by themselves or others, using conscious decision not to think about an event, dissociating during abuse and then dissociating when not being abused, focusing on another possible threat.

Now, these forms of forgetting may not sound like they would lead to the complete forgetting of an event. And that would be true for the vast majority of abuse victims. But, I think we need to remember that it is possible given enough anecdotes of some who recover memories (apart from suggestion by therapist or others) on their own and that do get corroborated by others. Is it common? No. Can mental health professionals cause false memories? Yes (but that is for another post in this series!).

So, why do some remember minute details of trauma? They rehearse them (whether they want to or not). Why do some forget them? Their memories degrade due to forms of memory loss discussed above. Other factors are also likely: natural capacity to dissociate, age/development of victim, culture where abuse took place (e.g., a one-time event in a rather safe environment will have a different impact than repeated experiences where safety has never been present).

In my next post I want to take a few minutes to discuss dissociation, repression, and the experience of re-remembering child abuse later in life.


Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling science, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, ptsd, Uncategorized

Best Christmas ever?

My colleague, Bryan Maier, has written a great and melancholic reminder of how longing and enjoyment of Christmas mingle soon after opening of presents. You can read it here.

He speaks the truth about our inability to remember most Christmas gifts and how quickly the unwrapping process is over, leaving us with a desire for more. If your family hands out gift cards or cash, I suspect the mingled feelings are even more prominent.

What Christmas was the best you ever had? Did it have anything to do with gifts? Location? People you spent it with?

One to Remember:

My wife and I rarely give each other gifts. That is a tradition we started back when we had little money to spend. Last year I broke with tradition and gave her an early present, captured here by my sister-in-law. Squint real hard and you can see the gift on her left hand next to her wedding band. 20.5 years with me plus recovering from recent breast cancer treatment (her fight and recovery was a gift to me!) was ample reason enough for her gift–as if she needed a reason!

But even a gift of jewelry won’t always stay in the mind. This year, one of my favorite gifts was this picture that I didn’t know existed. But soon I’ll put it away and not remember how great it was to give her the ring. I’ll see the ring on her finger and won’t be moved by it. That is the way of humanity. We have short memories for joy and thankfulness but sadly, longer memories for disappointment.

May we work hard to remember the many blessings of gifts we receive each and every day. The practice of remembering blessings will be a gift to you and to others as you are less likely to be a bitter person.


Filed under memory, Psychology

Funny how memory works

Went to log onto my Biblical Seminary course site from my laptop and somehow it no longer had my ID and password saved. Since it wasn’t one that I made myself I couldn’t remember either one. Called Eric, our registrar, for help. Wouldn’t you know it, both came back to me as I was talking to him and had fingers poised to type. I’m pretty certain my fingers remembered my password but not my brain. Now, technically, that isn’t true. What is more likely is that I had implicit memory of the password but not explicit recall. Something in the phone call made it come back to me. Ever had that happen? Weird.


Filed under memory

Healing experience of Peter?

Yesterday’s commment about Paul and possible suffering he might have experienced from intrusive memories of past murderous actions got some fun dialogue going here and on Fb. So, in light of the summer doldrums, let’s try another provocative thought. While neither this one nor the yesterday’s musing is based on the actual text (rather they are musings about the personal experience of two apostles), I think they are still fun to consider.

*in chapter 18 of John, the story of Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus is told to us. We are told he is warming himself around a communal fire during this episode. Fast forward to chapter 21. Jesus is now resurrected, has met with the disciples in Jerusalem and now meets the disciples in Galilee after a night of fishing on the Lake. Verse 9 tells us that when the disciples landed and saw Jesus, he was standing beside a charcoal fire cooking fish. What transpires next is Jesus thrice asking Peter if he loved him followed by the command to feed and care for “my sheep.”

Is it purposeful that the only two times in the book of John that charcoal fires are mentioned are these two? What memories does it evoke in Peter as he sees Jesus by it and smells the fire. Does it trigger a way of shame? Had they yet to talk about his denials? Was Peter hanging back? Was Jesus three questions intended to undo the damage done by Peter’s 3 denials?

Clearly, we can say that Jesus’ questions hurt Peter (the text tells us this) but we don’t know the nature of that hurt. What we do know is that humans often carry with them visceral reactions to triggers that bring them back to shameful past events. We don’t know that is what happened to Peter but it might well have.

We can also say that sometimes it is appropriate to have symbolic healing experiences that help commemorate and change our experience of something. I would caution those too enthused with ushering in healing with half-baked re-experiencing moments. And yet, I suspect we all have had some postive, even painful experience that resolved a negative experience from the past.

*This idea did not originate from me. I heard a pastor begin a sermon on this passage by remembering his own traumatic experience (bike accident) and how he physically remembered that accident when his young children were biking. He then mused about Peter’s reactions with Jesus in this passage. He did not suggest the text tells us much here but it was worthwhile considering how we respond when facing memories of past negative and shameful events.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, memory

Did Paul struggle with past memories?

On Sunday Steve Light preached from Acts regarding the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Prior to his conversion he was known to be one seeking the death of Jewish followers of Jesus. He witnessed and may have provided support for the stoning of Stephen. Upon his conversion those Christians in his circles were wary of whether he was a changed man or merely using it as a ploy to disrupt new churches. These folks had visceral reactions to such a person because they had likely experienced great suffering and distress by Paul’s hand.

Today, Christians generally think positive thoughts about Paul. He is the human author of most of the NT. His words give instruction, comfort, rebuke. We know he was a former violent man but we don’t experience him that way.

SO, here’s my question. Do you think Paul suffered from unwanted or painful memories of past actions? How did it impact him? We know very little about this from Scripture. Yes, Paul admits his past. He thanks God for unmerited grace and favor. But, he doesn’t address the existence of memories.

My thought? I think it is very human to remember shameful acts we have done. In fact, let me be bold enough to say we must remember them if we are to be human. The bigger question is rather HOW we remember them? Volf’s The End of Memory (which I have blogged through here some time ago) is instructive in answering this question. 

How do you remember shameful images or memories of your past? Do they hold you back from relationships? Do they keep you paralyzed? Are you constantly trying to better yourself to make up for the past?


Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, memory, Psychology, sin

Science Monday: Freud thinks forgetting is healthy?

I’m stretching the science end of things here to include some historical data. In chapter 8, Volf looks at the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud on the topic of forgetting. The chapter is interesting but I’m going to skip blogging on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and only make a small comment on Freud. Volf argues that Freud never saw forgetting as always having a deleterious impact on mental health. We know that Freud believed that bringing repressed memories to the surface so as to release pent up energy. But did you know that he also talked about removing or erasing memory? Volf recounts one of Freud’s cases (Emmy von N.) in Studies on Hysteria where he says the following:

…and I made it impossible for her to see any of these melancholy things again, and not only by wiping out her memories of them in their plastic form, but by removing her whole recollection of them, as though they have never been present in her mind. (Volf, p154).

How did he do it you ask? Hypnosis. Later when he abandoned hypnosis, he talked about the fading of memories through something called “effacement.” The idea is that when you “starve” memories by releasing/removing the affect given them, they fade into the misty past. This is not motivated forgetting in order to reduce distress, but the reduction of distress that causes memories to fade.

Makes sense. I forget things every day that have no meaning to me. But nearly hit me on my way to work with your massive SUV and I’ll remember it well. However, since most days I don’t have near misses, I’ll begin to forget…

All well and good, but if the abuse or wrongs suffered are so big or at such a critical time in life, can I ever really forget? Its certainly a lot easier to forget and go back to a “normal” time but much harder to do so if there never was a “normal” time.

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Filed under Abuse, counseling science, memory

The impossible gift of forgetting wrongs done to you

Sorry for the brief hiatus from The End of Memory. Starting a new semester plus am looking at two books that I may review in some detail right after (Jimmy Carter’s new book on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and Ed Gilbreath’s book on being a black man in white evangelical organizations–both have to do with dealing with longstanding conflict and hurts).

Volf in Chapter 7 begins a new section entitled, How Long Should we Remember? Continue reading

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Filed under Abuse, book reviews, christian psychology, Forgiveness, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Repentance, suffering