Memory, Brain and Psychotherapy

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

There have been many times during my career in mental health that someone has expressed exasperation about the need to discuss the past because they simply do not see its relevance to their present situation. It is understandable that people want help with the present situation that is the source of their discomfort. There are times when a very brief type of psychotherapy can succeed in helping an individual find a solution to some difficulty in which they find themselves. More often than not even present day problems have their roots in the past. The reason for many problems being rooted in the past is that even when we may want to forget certain unpleasant memories the human brain is structured to remember. How is this so?

Most of us are aware of the fact that it is difficult and impossible to remember specific memories past a certain age. Many people can describe memories of events as early as age four and five but have a more difficult time once they get to age three. Earlier than age three years old memories are no longer describable. The reason for this is the fact that we did not have words to label the events that surrounded our beings at the time. Does this mean that the brain has no memories stored away from age three to birth? Actually the answer is that we do have memories stored in our brains from the earliest ages imaginable.


To understand this memory phenomenon better I want to suggest to the reader a book that is both popular and excellent entitled Emotional Intelligence written by Harvard trained psychologist, Daniel Goleman. To understand Goleman’s explanation of early or emotional memories let us discuss the human brain:

The Amygdala and Hippocampus are small parts of the brain that sit above the brain stem. The spinal cord runs into the brain stem and can be located above the spinal cord. The Amygdala and Hippocampus are important parts of the primitive brain. Both structures are important in learning because the Amygdala measures the importance of emotional matters and stores emotional memories while the Hippocampus stores facts. We will discuss the Amygdala. A person does not need words to remember emotional events. The Amygdala stores the emotional memories without words and, thus, remembers emotional matters dating to the beginning of birth. To a large extent these emotional memories are what Freud would have referred to as "unconscious" since there are no words for the "forgotten events." Put another way, if a baby suffers trauma, it will grow up to be a person who will never remember the trauma in terms of words that can describe an event but its brain will remember the fear and panic connected to the event. Later in life, when something happens that even remotely reminds the person of something fearful; the original fear will come surging back. This is why some people have a "startle reaction" to something minor that would not bother another individual.

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When something fearful occurs, or when something happens that reminds the Amygdala of something fearful from the past, it immediately takes control and sends messages immediately to every part of the brain and body to take action. Instantly, hormones begin to secret and the individual is in action: either to "fight or flee." Under these circumstances there is no control because the entire system is on "automatic pilot." The situation does not have to involve fear alone. People who become instantly angry or enraged and are "losing control" of themselves are in this situation. Under these circumstances, the higher parts of the brain, such as the Cerebrum and Neo Cortex, which are the centers of higher, intellectual reasoning, cannot play their mediating role over our reactions. Under normal circumstance, the frontal lobes of the brain, which are just behind our foreheads, control our reactions because things do not occur automatically. What happens is that messages are sent from the Amygdala to the Frontal lobes where the information is placed under consideration, evaluated and disposed of in an appropriate way. In other words, we have time to "think it over."

In a manner of speaking, part of the role of psychotherapy is to help people transfer information from the "emotional primitive brain (Amygdala)" to the "high centers of intellectual reasoning (Frontal Lobes) so that people have greater self control and are no longer at the mercy of the memories of trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an example of how people are deeply shaken after a massive event such as a war, earth quake, assault or other traumatizing event. If left untreated, an individual can be permanently disabled by these types of events because they immediately react to the slightest occurrence that reminds them of the original trauma.

Both medication and psychotherapy provide the means for people to understand what is happening to them, reason it out and gain control over their lives. This is why events that occurred early in our lives continue to be important notwithstanding the fact that they occurred long ago.

There are different types of psychotherapies and therapeutic tools to help people gain this control over their responses. Among these are: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Therapy (IP), Psychodynamic or traditional therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR).

The type of therapy best suited to a person often depends upon the nature of their problems and what best suits their needs. Never make the mistake of believing that we live in the present only. Our brains are incredible computers that store amazing amounts of information. Comments and questions are welcome.

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