Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The past in the present - memory in the body

Our bodies remember everything we experience, even events for which we have no conscious recollection.  Most of us have no overt memories of our lives prior to age four or five.  Yet abuse, neglect, and other forms of trauma experienced by children younger than five can have a profound negative impact that lasts an entire lifetime.  Over the years, I've worked with a number of adult patients who were abused as young children.  Those whose abuse happened when they were three or four years old typically have no memory of the abuse.  Nevertheless, they report symptoms associated with the abuse, such as difficulty with intimate and/or sexual relationships, low self esteem, emotional instability, anxiety, anger, agression, and depression. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was among the first to attribute this phenomenon to body or somatic memory.  He believed that the body stores memory that is implicit but not necessarally unconscious.  Rather, body (or somatic) memory is manifested through things like behavioral patterns, situations a person avoids without noticing, opportunities not seized or perhaps not even recognized ("blind spots"), predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, and personal boundaries.  Somatic memory is sometimes tied to a specific event, particularly a traumatic one.  Most often, however, the "habit structures" of somatic memory result from an accumulation of past experiences. 

Somatic memory is tyipcally beneficial (see my post from last week).  Sometimes, however, the memories stored in the body lead to patterns of behavior that are problematic or even self destructive. 

Traumatic events are not encoded into memory the way other experiences are.  Instead, past trauma remains present as a way of being that is imprinted on the body.  This imprint is experienced as a predisposition to react with fear and anxiety and an oversensitivity to situations that are in some way similar to the trauma.  The trauma "memory" is not "remembered" as an event that took place in the past.  Rather, it is experienced physically and emotionally as if the threat exists now, in the present moment.

Kurt Lewin talks about somatic memory being present in our "life space" or "lived space."  We literally act out the past in the space we inhabit.  This explains why we so often repeat the same destructive patterns of behavior again and again.  We may know these behaviors are damaging and make a conscious effort to change them, yet continue to do them and to suffer the consequences.  Freud called this the "repetition compulsion."  According to Freud, if a person represses, surpresses, or otherwise does not remember past trauma he is likely to repeat it by acting it out, typically without being aware of it.  This is his way of remembering.

My purpose in all of this is to stress that psychotherapy should not ignore the physical and physiological aspects of experience.  The body plays an important role in maintaining symptoms and can thus be an avenue for intervention.  In fact, many people are unable to engage in other treatment modalities until the distress associated with their physical experience of certain symptoms is mediated.  These are usually the "sickest" patients, the ones who don't respond to the most commonly used treatment methods.  In my clinic, we say these patients need "glue" to hold them together; our job is to provide this glue. 


  1. Can you detail how you would access Somatic memory? I am trying Holotrophic breathwork at the end of the month, after a colleague did it with great results and it is supposed to help access it.

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