The effects of trauma on memory and recall
Published 26 Nov 2022 • By Rahul Roy
The mind is extraordinary and capable of retaining and pulling up memories from an individual’s life, but it is also capable of protecting that person from the painful and traumatic memories that he/she may have experienced in the past.
How does memory work? What are the effects of trauma on the brain? How to heal from a trauma-induced memory loss?
We explain all in our article!
Everyone loves a good memory - The moment with your family at the beach, the first kiss, the times spent laughing with friends etc; But memories can come back to haunt you as well.
Generally, most of what a person experiences leaves little to no trace in his/her memory. The brain tends to actively store memories that elicit strong emotions with strong visual, acoustic, or semantic cues. That is why as humans, we find it hard to recall every small minute detail in our lives because the mind doesn’t deem it important enough to be stored for future recalls.
But how does memory work for a human being?
How do memories function?
Memories are basically the brain’s ability to store and retrieve information. It mainly involves 3 aspects: encoding, storage and recall.
Information about what we hear, see or understand is received and converted to be stored for recall whenever the person wants to remember it. Over time, details in memories can be modified or sometimes even forgotten due to frequent retrievals.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is responsible for explicit memories that are cognitive in nature and it is where most memories lie. It integrates the raw sensory information into a complete picture, putting a time stamp on it and transferring it into a long-term memory box for retrieval later.
Alternatively, the amygdala is the part of the brain that controls implicit memories that are more sensory in nature associated with strong emotions, ready for future use in case of life-threatening situations when a person might need that additional adrenaline rush to survive.
Short-term memory is generally retrieved in the order it is stored in, while long-term memory tends to be recalled based on association, such as remembering your locker based on the lock's color.
How does trauma affect the brain impacting memory and recall?
Traumatic memories can be difficult to be recalled by individuals immediately after it has happened because certain receptors called extra synaptic GABA receptors that adjust brain waves and mental states in accordance to the levels of internal chemicals, hide the memories and these memories can only be accessed when the same receptors get activated again.
That is why although it might be difficult to immediately recall the memory, similar circumstances can trigger a sudden state of déjà vu and panic, heightening the senses of the person in response to the situation.
Researchers believe that traumatic memories are a type of conditioned threat response. Think back to the time when you were driving, and a car moves in front suddenly and you are required to take evasive action to avoid contact. It is more so true if you have been in a similar situation but with unfortunate circumstances. That feeling mixed with adrenaline, where you wished that never happened again, is something that vaguely resembles how a traumatic threat response could feel.
During a traumatic situation, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are secreted alongside adrenaline, causing the hippocampus to super-encode the heightened early moments of the situation. If the threat continues, the stress hormones continue to flood the hippocampus, causing it to temporarily stop encoding and recording information. This causes the information stored to be fragmented.
For example in the case of a hostage situation, the survivors would vehemently remember the initial shock and fear that enveloped them in the beginning stages of the incident, but as they lie waiting to be rescued for hours on end, the continuous flooding of stress hormones will cause them to create a blurry recollection of those moments.
On the other hand, the amygdala creates an emotional provocation, intended to stay alert and ready for action. It focusses attention on few aspects, sacrificing other moments.
During this period the networks of these 2 parts of the brain can get disjointed, causing disconnect between the implicit and explicit memories. This can impact the recollection of the sequence of events and the details surrounding the incident, but the emotional sensory feelings remain.
This emotional, sensory remembrance is called enhanced memories and are etched in the memories due to traumatic nature of the incident. Some aspects such as time, duration, description of the surrounding might seem blurry but a familiar smell for example can trigger past traumatic experiences because it is sensory in nature, and it is what is absorbed as information first in the heat of the moment.
That is why it is important for law enforcement officers to capitalize on the emotional memories of the victims to find information on the perpetrators rather than expecting the victims to give detailed description of the incident with a precise timeline.
Emotional trauma can manifest onto the victim in the form of PTSD, triggering flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. That is why it is very crucial for the victims to have the right psychological treatment to prepare them to face the open world.
What are the signs of trauma?
Sometimes the memory lost through trauma can be a good thing as it prevents the victim from reliving the harrowing moments of the incident. But it may be triggered back at any moment and that is why recovery from these traumatic experiences may take days, weeks, months or even years. The healing procedure varies based on the person and some of the signs of trauma are-
- Difficulties adjusting to regular life either at home or at work
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel good
- Emotionally distant and disconnected
- Waking up with nightmares or flashbacks
- Suffering from depression and anxiety
- Living in constant fear and jeopardy
How to treat trauma-induced memory loss?
Contact a trauma specialist or therapist who can help and guide the victim to heal from this emotional trauma. There are experienced practitioners who can help victims control their emotions, be more accepting in real life and regain their ability to trust people.
It is important to acknowledge that the events that have happened have happened and being in denial can hinder the healing process. But obviously different people heal differently so treatments may vary. Some forms of therapy to help these victims include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Prolonged Exposure Therapy etc.
It is clear to see that the brain tries to protect the person from painful memories by trying to erase them. This may come at the cost of remembering details, but it is protective in the short term, where the emotional pain is too much to bear.
Unfortunately, there is no sure shot way to heal a person with emotional trauma but there has been a lot of research done to advance its learning and treatment in recent years.
Trauma creates change you don’t choose but healing is about creating change you do choose. Memory loss can be frustrating and scary, but sometimes before a person can even comprehend the situation, the mind takes over to protect the individual from the emotional brunt of the situation. That is why healing trauma takes a lot of time and reaching out for help is the best point of action. The mind is capable of many extraordinary things but protecting a person from painful and traumatic memories may be one of them.
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PART III – How Trauma Affects Memory and Recall - The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims (justice.gc.ca)
How the Brain Hides Traumatic Memories | Northwestern Medicine (nm.org)
Trauma and Memory Loss - How Trauma Affects the Brain and Memory (casapalmera.com)
Can Trauma Cause Memory Loss? It's Possible (psychcentral.com)
Childhood Trauma & Memory Loss | Integrative Life Center (integrativelifecenter.com)
How Trauma Impairs Brain Function - The Best Brain Possible (thebestbrainpossible.com) A Traumatic Memory Can Be Near Impossible to Shake (uofmhealth.org)
6 Ways Trauma is Affecting Your Memories | Foundations Counseling, LLC (foundationscounselingllc.com)