“What were you like when you were my age?” My four-year son looked up over his covers as I tucked him in for bed. I paused. I thought about it. And honestly, I couldn’t remember - it was just blank. The truth was, outside of the yelling, my mom crying and my dad leaving, there wasn’t much more from my early youth that I recalled.
I started to wonder why that was, and that curiosity stayed with me long after my son had fallen asleep. And being the night owl reader that I am, I wanted to know, Why couldn’t I remember?
Spoiler alert: It turns out that stress and trauma suppress and actually shrink (shrink!) the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and memory.
Where Does Memory Come From?
For memories to be created, we receive raw sensory data from the outside world, which is scattered around the body like the straw from the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. Some of it is over here, and over there, and all over … everywhere.
We have implicit memory, which encodes the raw sensory data we receive and stores it, allowing us to use past experiences to unconsciously recall things. You know that saying, “It’s like riding a bike”, which means once you learn how to do something, you never forget it? This is a form of implicit memory.
For real permanent memory, known as explicit memory, we require a functioning hippocampus, which is a cluster of neurons in our midbrain that not only transforms the raw sensory data into an organized picture but also puts a “time-tag” on it, transferring it into long-term memory where it can later be retrieved, much like a master “puzzle-piece-assembler”.
The hippocampus develops gradually during our early years and continues to grow new connections and neurons throughout our lives. As we mature, the hippocampus entwines our emotional and perceptual memory into auto-biographical recollections.
Why Can't I Remember My Childhood?
With all children, even those with secure attachments, the hippocampus doesn’t have enough myelin to fully function until about the age of three.
But what happens to the hippocampus when there is stress and/or trauma?
If an infant or toddler has continuous stress such as a neglectful or hostile caretaker, the primitive brainstem responsible for our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn protective responses become so reactive that it can harm the development of the higher lobes, including the limbic system (which houses the hippocampus) and the cortex (our higher-level learning brain).
Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, says that the trauma after the age of three can actually turn off the hippocampus. “If you are massively secreting the cortisol stress hormone at the same time you’re secreting adrenaline, cortisol, in high amounts, shuts off the hippocampus temporarily. Over the long run, it can actually kill the hippocampus cells.”
There are also times that stress and trauma occur for persons older than age three, where they dissociate themselves to avoid experiencing whatever is happening in the present moment. Siegel says, “If your caregivers abandoned you or hurt you or ignored you in terrible ways, it makes no sense that that would happen to you. So how do you make sense of something which doesn’t make any sense?”
The answer is that we divide our attention. The part of our hippocampus, which is the narrator, is in the left hemisphere of our brain, but it has to draw on the hippocampus in the right hemisphere for storage of autobiographical data. And while we can take our hippocampus out of the picture (aka detach from what is happening), we can not block the implicit coding (that raw data of what is actually happening).
Siegel explains it further, “Say your dad drank and he attacked you - so you dissociated and thought about the beach. So now, years later, the therapist asks you ‘What did that feel like, were you terrified of your parents?’ Your left narrator wants to cooperate, so it calls over to the right side and asks ‘Any feelings of fear of parents over there?’ and the right side answers back ‘Nothing over here but sand and water.’ But your body also feels fear and you may be sick to your stomach - none of it conscious.”
Nurturing The Hippocampus To Feel Emotions
Reading all of this kind of blew my mind. My childhood, the experiences I had, and the way I internalized them, literally shut down parts of my brain, blocking things out, even the good stuff. And the way my nervous system responded as a child, greatly affects my responses as an adult.
My internal reality, which is constructed by the brain as it interacts with our environment in the present, using the context of past experiences, directly influences how I see the world, and how I show up - both as me and as a mama.
I had known since pregnancy that I wanted to approach parenting in a way different than I had received it, but I had never fully understood why until my son innocently asked me such a profound question.
By integrating our implicit and explicit memories and becoming conscious of the difficult moments of our past, we become more aware of how our past influences our mood and perspective. It is then that we can weave together our past and present. And because our children’s brains mirror the nervous systems of those around them, the more aware and emotionally healthy we become, the more our children move towards health, too.
In our house, we created a new ritual using my sons’ SnuggleBuddies Plush Toys. We have an Orange Fox and a Purple Elephant. Each evening as part of our bedtime ritual, we sit in our family's Calming Corner and pull out the mood emojis attached to the stuffies and talk about each mood group, and the feelings we felt throughout our day: happy (yellow), sad (blue), calm (green), and mad or scared (red).
Because I was someone who was not taught to name or feel her emotions (I was mostly asked to ignore or suppress them), this was new to me… perhaps just as new to me as it was my children. It turns out that simply recalling a feeling, linking it to an experience, and then sharing it allows children (adults as well) to wire their emotive midbrain to their higher-level "learning" brain for better emotional awareness and control.
And for us parents who experienced high levels of stress and/or trauma while growing up, this simple practice with our children has the power to regenerate our hippocampus, allowing us to integrate what was once disconnected. And as we heal the inner parts that feel wounded, and soothe our reactive limbic firing, we rebalance emotions and diminish the harmful effects of chronic stress.
As my children learn and grow, so too do I. We can heal the past when we learn how to show up for ourselves and our feelings in the present.
** Read part 2 here: Healing From A Childhood You Don't Remember