How we remember, and how we forget


How We Remember and How We Forget: Trauma, Denial, and Dissociation

I “forgot” a good part of my life.  I “forgot” the 3-6 months I spent in foster care, the events that led up to it, and the intense grief of being returned to a biological family I felt no connection to.  I “forgot” being trafficked for sex by my own father.  I “forgot” being placed in a freezer, tied to a wall in the dark in the garage like an animal, and forced to hang myself.

For a long time, I “forgot” about appointments, bills, and things I had done and said within the last 24 hours.  Sometimes, I still do.

I know a lot about forgetting.

Since then, I’ve been working at remembering.  I know a lot about that too.

A diagram of a neuron.

We remember information, experiences, and ideas because there are robust neural pathways between them.  If I am trying to remember a person’s name, I will most likely start with a piece of information that seems like it will lead me there: the face, trivia about the person, our last conversation.  If I am really intent on remembering, I will continue to dredge up these bits of associated memory until I am able to locate it.  So, the more connections we have between something we want to remember and other things and the more robust those pathways, the easier memory becomes.

Neural pathways become faster and more efficient with use.  When we stop using a particular pathway on a regular basis, it becomes less robust, slowing us down when we try to use it.  We may not “forget” information so much as lose the connections that allow us to find it.

I suspect that denial and dissociation both affect memory because of how they impact the neural pathways between parts of a memory.

Both the cortex and the limbic system are involved in memory formation. The amygdala, in particular, plays an important role in emotional memories.

In the case of dissociation, I speculate that the lack of robust neural pathways occurs at the time of the event.  Sensory impressions, thoughts, and emotional reactions are recorded, but with very little connection between them.  Whether this is because the brain functions that create order and connectivity are suppressed during traumatic events or because the parts of the brain involved in forming memories during life-or-death situations are different and don’t form connections as well, I’m not sure.

But I am sure that it happens because of how my own memories arise for me.  A major part of working through the trauma I’ve experienced has been simply finding things and putting them together–connecting pictures to words, declarative knowledge to sensory impresssions, physical responses to my knowledge of feeling states.  I “remember” nearly everything significant that has happened to me, but when I first began to work with them these memories stood in no particular order and in no relation to one another.

How the events were recorded in my mind in the first place has something to do with this.

Now, I know that the general wisdom is that we suppress trauma because we are trying to protect ourselves from the knowledge of what happened until we are in a position to deal with it.

I don’t entirely believe that.  I don’t think the memories are difficult to locate for the sole reason of emotional self-protection.  Partly, yes, but not entirely.

At the time of the event, we shut down certain types of awareness for two reasons that really come down to physical survival: one, we do this in order to suppress an awareness of physical pain so that our reactions to pain don’t interfere with doing what we need to do to survive.  Two,  we do this because conscious thought is the slow-track to action, and if we engage in it we could be killed before we’ve even come to a decision.  Much better to think like a lizard and just run away.

It is this state of suppressed conscious awareness that limits our ability to form connections between parts of a memory.  If a traumatic event is extremely intense, or if we have a lot of experience with being traumatized, touching on one aspect of the memory can re-start the process of suppressing conscious awareness, and our brains remain unable to form connections.

That is what PTSD looks like.  Elements of a memory are triggered, but instead of this access to the memory allowing us to form robust connections between parts of the memory, the connection is instead formed to whatever processes are involved in dissociation.  The more this happens, the better we get at dissociating as the pathways involved in dissociation get more and more robust.

But we may never figure out why red sweaters scare the bejesus out of us, or what happened after we put one on.  We may never link the scratchy feeling of the sweater with the color, or with the queasy feeling in our stomachs.  Not because we are avoiding that connection, but because we are busy doing something else.  We aren’t trying to protect our psyche.  We are trying to protect our bodies, and our brains don’t know that they can stop.

Denial, on the other hand, can lead to a kind of deliberate forgetting.  Every time the memory is accessed, we shift our attention away from it.  (For why, see Unsolicited, Bad Advice.)  The connections are there, but we train ourselves not to use them.  With time, the connections become tenuous, weak, frail.  They may break altogether.  The memory then becomes suppressed.  It is there, but we no longer know how to find it.

In dissociation, there may not be enough connections to the memory or between parts of a memory to start with.  In denial, we can intentionally remove them.

In the case of childhood trauma, the family can aid in this.  Children remember events partly because others in the family rehearse what happened with them later on.  Those pleasant sessions of “Remember when…?” reinforce and strengthen neural pathways between the details of events.  They also help children construct comprehensible narratives of what may be more fragmented impressions.

When traumatic experiences occur in the family, members often actively avoid doing this.  The message implicitly or explicitly stated may be that it would be better to talk (and think) about other things.  Without those rehearsals, children lose the connectivity between traumatic events and the rest of their lives and may have trouble accessing them as adults.  Or they may be able to access them, but assume the memories were simply bad dreams or the products of a fertile imagination.  The memories may not seem like memories because no one else seems to have them.

In cases of family abuse, both mechanisms involved in “forgetting” can work to “repress” a memory.  Elements of memory start out disconnected and isolated because of the functioning of the brain in the midst of trauma, and the connections that are there can become disused, slow, and inefficient because of denial within the family that means those pathways are deliberately avoided.

No wonder I feel like I’m giving my brain an extreme home make-over–cleaning, organizing, and re-designing.

Further reading:

The Brain Athlete. (2012)  Brain Plasticity Forms Who We Are.  Retrieved from:

—-Neocortext and Not Hippocampus May Form Memories.  Retrieved from:

How to Forget Unwanted Memories.  (2012, October 20).  Medical News Today.  Retrieved from:

Plasticity and Neural Networks.  Canadian Institutes of Health Research.  Retrieved from:

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Factsheet.  (2011, October 17).  National Institutes of Mental Health.  Retrieved from:


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: How we remeber, and how we forget: Trauma, denial and dissociation | Mirrorgirl: My life as a psychologist

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