You may be wondering:
- Can I believe my memories?
- What if I’m not sure what happened?
- How do I deal with the memories I do have?
Such questions and doubts about one’s memories can get in the way of understanding what happened, how it’s affected you, and how to achieve the life you want.
To help clear things up, here’s some basic information about human memory and memories of stressful or traumatic experiences.
Memory Is Not Like a DVD
Our brains do not simply record and “play back” events exactly as they happened in the past. Instead, almost every instance of recall involves some processes of reconstruction by the brain, which means it involves some distortion too.
Yet this does not mean that memories are “only constructions” and can’t be trusted at all.
Recent research suggests that one brain system records what actually happened and another how someone makes sense or meaning of what happened. Other research shows that people usually accurately recall the “gist” and “central details” of highly stressful experiences. For example, someone may remember who the other person was and the nature of the most disturbing or arousing sexual act or acts (central details), but not all of the furniture in a room where it happened or the details of each act.
The fact that human memory is not like a DVD does mean that memories may not be completely accurate, and that any particular memory could involve a mixture of actual and imagined events (or parts of events).
Of course, the picture is more complex: Someone may block out or “edit out” disturbing emotions and sensations. A boy may focus his attention on spot on the ceiling, or imagine himself in a completely different place altogether. In those cases, the “central details” of the experience, for that person at that time, are things that would typically be peripheral details or not even part of the memory at all – and the main details of the sexual acts may not be registered at all.
There Is No One Thing That is “Memory”
Researchers distinguish a variety of different types of memory. When it comes to memories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, three types are key: episodic, implicit, and procedural.
Episodic memories are what we typically have in mind when we think about remembering something that happened in our past. They are memories of specific events, times, and places, and include the emotions associated with them. These are memories that we recognize as memories of events in our past, as in, “I remember the time I rode that huge rollercoaster at Great America.”
Episodic memories can be partial or fragmentary. Someone may remember only snapshots or brief “clips” of an event. Or remember visual images and sounds but not feelings, or feelings and sounds but not images, etc.
It is not uncommon to have such fragmentary memories of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences. Such memories can be quite confusing, and can lead one to wonder what – if anything – might really have happened, and whether one’s memories can be trusted at all.
But as explained above, just because a memory is fragmentary does not necessarily mean that the fragments aren’t memories of real experiences. Sorting things out can take time, however, and can require help from a therapist who understands how to avoid creating distorted memories.
Implicit memories are memories that contain information about a past event or experience but are not recognized as being about that event or experience. These memories are typically fragmentary sensations or emotions that get triggered by experiences that the brain associates with past experiences but – and here’s the rub – the connection is not recognized.
For example, someone might become afraid or angry when touched by an older woman. Or someone could have sudden disturbing images of rape when being sexual in a loving way. When such experiences happen, they can be very strange and upsetting, and can seem “irrational” to the person having them. He may think, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Am I crazy?”
But when such experiences are implicit memories, then what’s happening makes complete sense and is definitely not a sign of insanity. It’s just how the brain works sometimes. Eventually, such experiences may be recognized as fragmentary memories that are connected to past unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
Still, implicit memories can be very disturbing. Also, sometimes it’s just not possible to know, for sure, whether such experiences are memories of actual past experiences.
Procedural memories are memories of how to do something. Importantly, it is possible to have procedural memories based on experiences for which one has no episodic memories. For example, a child may know how to perform a sexual act without (consciously) remembering having performed it in the past.
Most procedural memories, however, are habitual responses to feelings of being harmed or betrayed (all over again). Many of the self-defense and self-blaming behaviors and thoughts that people have – retreating in fear, striking out in anger, self-criticism – are repetitions of childhood responses to being exploited or harmed by others (not only in sexual ways but physical and emotional ways too).
These kinds of procedural memories cause many (probably most) of the problems we have in our relationships. They are “conditioned responses” that are deeply etched into our brains, and are particularly likely to come out when we’re feeling stressed or vulnerable. Learning how to recognize such behaviors and nip them in the bud is one of the biggest challenges to becoming a healthy, happy and mature adult.
Fragmentary Memories May Be It
Some people will primarily “remember” what happened with thoughts and behaviors that involve reliving responses to experiences that they cannot (fully) remember as episodic memories. Some will only suspect that they had such experiences because they are having what may be fragmentary episodic, implicit, and procedural memories.
Such confusing memories are more likely if the sexual experiences happened when one was very young (before age 5), drugged in some way, in a state of intense fear or “numbed out.” Each of these can prevent experiences from being fully encoded by the brain systems that support eposidic memory.
Understandably, it can be very disturbing to have such limited memories of potentially life-changing experiences in one’s past. And it can be very difficult to accept that one may never know more. However, for a variety of reasons, it is generally not a good idea to seek understanding and healing by “recovering” memories. (For more information, see Personal Concerns and Questions About Your Memories? at former advisory board member Dr. Jim Hopper’s web page on recovered memories.)
- Human memory is not simple and straightforward. It’s complex and complicated.
- There are many ways that memories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences can be fragmentary, unrecognized as memories, and causes of confusion, doubt, and problems in current relationships.
- There are experienced therapists who can help men sort out these issues.