Do you ever wonder why a smell, song, or other sensory cue may remind you of a time, place, person, or experience?
It can be wonderful when positive memories are elicited. Still, when the memories are negative or traumatic, it can send a person into a state of anxiety or panic as they try to avoid the negative wave of emotions that comes with the cue.
How Memories Are Stored
The book, The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, explains how memories are stored in the brain. He explains that for every experience, we have a vast array of neuronal networks that fire. These neuronal firings are related to information about all aspects of that experience, such as images, sounds, smells, tastes, beliefs, emotions, and other experiences taking place at that time in one’s life. Furthermore, when these neuronal networks fire together, they “wire together,” increasing the probability that the same network will fire again, thus creating a memory network.
Memory in Children
Take, for example, how children learn. When a child learns to read, they may be shown the letters C-A-T. They learn that it spells cat, what “cat” sounds like when read aloud, and that the word represents what a cat looks like. They are also taught that cats purr, are furry, soft, and make a sound like a “meow.” All those pieces of information and more are coded together in a memory network. Later, the child can hear a purring sound and associate that with a cat or read the word “cat” and come up with an associated image of a cat. The memory network is wired together, and when you tap into one aspect, other aspects come with it.
Likewise, with our other memories, even with traumatic memories, tapping into just one aspect of the memory often brings many more sensory pieces of information, such as the smell of perfume reminding us of a loved one. These reminders can be good and very adaptive and supportive, or in other cases, these reminders can be traumatic, negative, and maladaptive. The ensuing responses to the memories are added to the network, creating a pattern of behavior that may or may not be productive.
Memory & EMDR Therapy
Often, the work of therapy is to help clients manage negative emotions and behaviors that are elicited by various external cues and the accessing of maladaptive networks. EMDR therapy works to provide healing on a neuropsychological level. This therapy synthesizes the negative, maladaptive memory network and other positive, adaptive networks, providing catharsis and improved emotional, somatic, and behavioral responses. The result is that not only do one’s thoughts and perspectives evolve, but so do the felt disturbances elicited by various cues and triggers.
If you or someone you know has questions about EMDR therapy, speak with a qualified EMDR clinician.