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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Memory, Brain and Psychotherapy

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 15th 2007

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.

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.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

onions~ - - Aug 14th 2007

I appreciate the insights you've shared in this posting. It's one thing to have aspired to work through childhood trauma I have always consciously remembered; however, I fairly recently felt as if I had reached an impass in my own healing process from childhood abuse. While I've successfully addressed the conscious baggage, I've subsequently found myself triggered (in a stereotypical PTSD fashion) deeper than ever.

At 40, I'm finding myself internally triggered more easily, and to a greater degree, into fight or flight beyond a level I've "ever" experienced. -At least according to all I remember of my life's experience to date.

I've healed so much through cognitive therapy, addressing the obvious. And after years of personally motivated healing, I understand therapy and healing is liken to layers of an onion. The further I've progressed and healed, the deeper layer(s) of the onion seem to surface. This dynamic had recntly left me feeling as if I have more "issues" than I'd ever previously conceived of. And being one who trusts my own intellect over emotion, this didn't seem logical.

Afterall, I've addressed what I do consciously recall which interfers with day to day coping. As my healing has led me to better coping in relation to my own life and relationships, my privately feeling the need to fight or flight has recently intensified to a degree I've never before felt!

 So back to the layers of the onion metaphor, your article lends credibilty to my suspecting that something deeper still needs healing. I couldn't make sense of this, beyond knowing my "reptilian brain" has recently been at the forefront of my personal concerns in feeling triggered by seemily innoculous events.

I believe that regardless of what happened to me as a child that led to my personal & professional challenges as an adult, -I'm still an adult- solely responsible for working through and beyond such challenges arising from my own ancient history. There's no room for, "I was abused as a child" excusing failures in making my way and contributing my best as an adult.

 But for all the progress in healing and acheiving I've made, there seems to be another layer needing to be addressed. And how could I address what I can't rationally recall as my own remembered experience still needing healing?

Your article has left me feeling a sense of renewed hope and afforded me validation for the healing still to be consciouly addressed, even while the trauma which possibly underlies my current struggles with feeliing so deeply triggered is trauma which I "know" of, yet happened as a toddler and is beyond my conscious recollection. I've accomplished so much healing surrounding what I recal: abuse at five years old, onward. Physical, emotional, sexual.

I've addressed my own shame in having acted out while I was still achild. I've addressed (and always will) my own "auto-pilot" self destructive tendancies as an adult, such as drug and alcohol abuse. I've been empowed with various coping skills- and have made incredible progress in what and how I contribute.

The more progress I've made, the more I've found myself deeply challenged. I have recently felt that sinced I've addressed all trauma I can recall, and there's no rational for feeling as easily traumatized as I have. Yet there is. My middle/"reptile" brain is Screaming for attention, at 40 years old. With all the work I've done, I can sleep soon knowing the deepest layers of my own onion of experience still need to be integrated through deeper layers of healing what I "know" yet do not consciously recall. -And it's not such a crazy aspiration afterall.

Thank you again for demystifying such concepts in this article as you have. I'm feeling empowered to do more healing, and confident my healing path for this layer of the onion doesn't need to amount to some new-age/ past-life regression thing.

HELP - Dustin - Jun 30th 2007
I am a normal 29 year old man. well alittle over weight. Married, one kid (10), part time job, back in school…. but the last 2 or 3 weeks i have been obsesing over death. It seemed to com out of no where. I must think about my death 20 times a day, and i feel panic….. it has gotten so bad, that if i do not worry about it,, i think something is wrong, the worrying has become comforting. Like if i keep worrying nothing will happen to me. i was raised Luthren, but have never really belived in the aftr life….. anyway, please help me. This is starting to scare me and affect my life big time. Is there anything i can do, or anything i can read to help me. I can not realy aford to talke to a therapist.

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