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The traumatic emotional memory

What is a memory? A memory is an association between a group of neurons such that, when one neuron fires, they all fire, creating a specific pattern of activity.

Our brain does not have unlimited memory space. In fact, as far as the brain is concerned, almost nothing is worth keeping.

There are three types of memory, each of which catalog’s information over a different period of time:

- The iconic memory is the shortest. It's that kind of memory when there's a very brief moment when a scene remains held by the mind before it evaporates completely.

- Working memory is medium-term memory. This is what we can keep in mind with a deliberate effort to concentrate. Information that is too important to be deleted immediately is retained for an average period.

- Long-term memory consists of those memories that are stored long-term.

The reasons that make information remain in the long-term memory are different:

  1. When information is stored through experience, such as events and details that are repeated over time and, each time, their memory is strengthened. These are the recurring experiential patterns.

  2. When information is associated with stored conceptual information, in other words, when we understand it. Understanding the inputs certainly helps us to memorize more easily, for example, the arrangement of the pieces on a board will be more easily remembered by experienced players than by beginner players.

  3. Some information remains anchored in our memories when it is linked to a strong emotion. When a memory could be in some way essential for our survival. This is the case of traumatic emotional memory.

What happens to these memories so that they are not 'forgotten' by our body?

To answer this question, I would like to share the natural path of our memories to deepen in which phase the memory can possibly remain stuck as a traumatic emotional memory.

The four phases are:

  1. The focus phase:

This phase is the neurological property of which 'a stimulus or object is placed at the centre' of consciousness, distinguishing it from its competitors. In other words, this stage is not only attention, but also requires the ability to concentrate and discriminate.

Focus, and therefore attention, need to feel an activation before experiencing the stimulus and this whole process is regulated by adrenergic activity.

When a stimulus increases our arousal and therefore activates adrenaline levels, that stimulus is discriminated against by its competitors, being relevant. The focus phase goes hand in hand with the second phase, the identification phase.

2. The identification phase:

When adrenaline levels drop and norepinephrine peaks begin, we are able to identify the values that make this complex of stimuli different or similar to those already known to our experience.

The noradrenergic apparatus decides whether a stimulus is present or not and determines the type of stimulus by generating nerve impulses that travel through the central nervous system to provide the main characteristics of the stimulus, such as color, sound, smell, etc.

It is at this stage that the relaxation of the system must take place, so that the system is no longer alarmed and begins to memorize the experience of the stimulus as assimilable. If this does not happen, the experience remains in a memory pattern that can be called traumatic emotional memory, remaining like a broken record until it is able to assimilate and metabolize it.

So, if it is true that the activation of the neurological system contributes to increasing concentration, it is also true that prolonged activation of the system prevents focusing. The reason therefore is that in this case the brain will try to pay attention to all current stimuli, thus creating an intense alert to all stimuli, instead of stimulating a specific focus, greatly reducing our capacity for discrimination and differentiation.

If a stimulus produces a high level of activation and remains at this level of activation even after focusing, then it will have every chance of becoming a traumatic emotional memory.

Neurological activation is closely linked to the emotional charge of the stimuli, as well as to the type of emotion to which they are linked. Each situation stimulated in the process of focusing and identification will be linked to a certain emotional platform, such as anger, security, curiosity, fear, etc. In this way the emotional platforms most rooted in each subject determine to a large extent the type of stimulating situation that most habitually triggers the focus in each brain and therefore in each person.

This means that we will focus more easily on those stimulating situations that are already linked to emotional platforms more capable of provoking neurological activation, such as joy, surprise, curiosity, and I must add, especially the so-called unfavorable ones, such as anger, fear, disgust and guilt.

On the other hand, stimulating situations related to security, sadness or admiration are less conducive to concentration.

The stimuli relevant to the neurological system end up being memory experiences, in which it is possible to locate the source of the stimuli, the emotional charge they have generated, and the degree of evolution reached in the phases of memory.

The recognition of a stimulus evokes many memories of this stimulus, both of the sensory modality of the incoming stimulus itself and of other modalities. This is because each stimulus has a representation in several points of the brain, in different sensory maps, in different sensory modalities and also has an affective meaning. In this way, the identification of a part of the stimulus can evoke the whole or make the meaning of the stimulus not always the same depending on the emotional state of the subject.

3. The assimilation phase:

Assimilation is the memory storage phase of memory. This requires the association with the stimulating situation of an emotional platform activated by acetylcholine.

While norepinephrine is the activator of the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system, acetylcholine is responsible for activating the parasympathetic branch, essential in cognitive tasks to achieve memorization in higher structures. In the phase of assimilation, a breakthrough occurs, because the emotional platforms activated by acetylcholine are regulated by a moment of calm, which allows a reflection and thus a change in the position and overall meaning of the situation.

Until acetylcholine is activated and noradrenergic activation is maintained, the situation cannot be addressed and then assimilated by the cortical brain. In this case the storage takes place in the limbic structures and every time this memory is activated, the perception of the system will be that the traumatic situation is repeating itself, because the emotional platforms that are activated at the level of traumatic emotional memory are platforms designed to respond to danger and therefore are experienced as alarming.

It is only when platforms such as curiosity and admiration, regulated by acetylcholine, are activated that we have the ability to assimilate and allow neocortical structures to consider these emotional situations as possible to metabolize and therefore to deal with.

In other words, the most effective antidote is to be able to activate an emotional platform linked to acetylcholine.

The practice of Mindfulness is scientifically approved to provide an important tool in creating a balanced relationship with emotions. Instinctively we try to fight or automatically repress unpleasant emotions, but these are dysfunctional strategies that only cost us energy without helping us achieve our goal. Training awareness and mindfulness offers the possibility of taking a healthy distance from emotional escalation thus allowing not to be overwhelmed by it in order to welcome and let go of what we do not want to hold.

4. The metabolization phase:

In this phase (serotonergic activation), the experience is managed, incorporated, and made its own.

People with traumatic memories show their recovery when they find the verbal or non-verbal expression of feelings (in the form of smiles and hugs), when they can integrate the traumatic event into their personal history and live it with confidence, without the excessive presence of strong emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, etc.


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