Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Somatic Memory

Memory is a funny thing.  We rely on memory to provide us with an accurate recollection of past events.  Memory gives us quick access to critical information.  It enables learning and facilitataes mastery of certain tasks and processes.  Any perceived decline in one's memory elicits worry and fear.  I cannot tell you how many patients have come to me distressed about impaired memory.  People tend to assume that increasing forgetfulness is a precursor to overall cognitive decline, ultimately resulting in Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. 

I suspect that on some level, the fear of losing one's memory triggers a fear of losing one's very self.  After all, memory is essential to maintaining identity.  When I awaken each morning it is memory that gives me the sense of being the same person that went to sleep the night before (Shusterman, 2011).  It is memory that gives me a past, a history of experiences that have shaped who I am.  I cannot know who I am if I don't know who I was.  Without memory, I would be forced to reinvent myself from one moment to the next.  Imagine the energy and resources this would require!  There would be little left over for anything else!

Most people associate memory with mind.  We see memory as a cognitive or mental phenomenon that is regulated by the brain.  It is true that the mechanisms governing memory are physically located in the brain.  The brain, however, does not exist in a vacuum.  There are networks in the brain that extend throughout the entire body.  This means that most of what happens in the brain does not stay confined there.  Rather, mental processes affect and influence the entire organism.  Memory is no exception.

Memories of past events often consist of mental images and accompanying narratives.  When we recall a particular experience we remember what happened first, what took place next, and what happened last.  We simultaneously visualize the event in our mind's eye. 

Memory, however, is not just a mental phenomenon; it is also a physical one.  The body has its own way of remembering that may or may not be linked to recollection of a specific event.  Physical or somatic memories are stored in the body's cells and molecules..  Memory traces can even reside in our body's tissues and organs. 

Somatic memories are mostly implicit; they occur outside of conscious awareness and have no verbal component.  They emerge as acquired skills, behavioral habits, emotional responses, instinctual reactions, and intuition. That "bad feeling" I get about my new coworker -- that's somatic memory.  It's somatic memory that enables me to drive home on "autopilot" and remember nothing about the trip.  I use somatic memory when I play my favorite tune on the piano; I know it so well the notes glide off my fingertips without any effort.  Somatic memory is in play when a person or place "feels" familiar to me.  Somatic memory is also one of several vital components of personal identity; it's the part that "feels" like me from one day to the next. 

Somatic memory is an ever-present force acting behind the scenes in virtually all aspects of life.  Because it is implicit, we are not aware of its central role in our day to day experiences.  Sometimes, however, disruptions in somatic memory create problems that are difficult to ignore.

I've decided to stop here to prevent this post from becoming too lengthy. I'll continue where I left off in my next post.

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