Memory can play a huge role in your health – far greater than most people realize. Many traditions have long held that there is a mind-body connection, often explicitly stating that one’s mental health is largely responsible for one’s physical health. It turns out that modern science is starting to catch up with these assertions.
The information that gets stored in memory is often a complex set of information. This is what is known as associative memory in which multiple things may be grouped together into a single memory coupling. Perhaps the most well-known demonstration of associative memory is Pavlov’s famous experiment in which he intentionally coupled a sound (the ringing of a bell) with the presentation of food to a group of dogs. After enough repetition, the two independent things (the sound and the food) became coupled in the dogs’ memories so that the mere ringing of the bell (without presenting food) would then result in the same response as had previously occurred when the food was present (i.e. salivating.) But we all have lots of experiences of this sort in our own lives. If you’ve ever heard a song and found yourself feeling happy or sad all of a sudden, then you have experienced associative memory.
The fact is that associative memory is responsible for much of our pain. The reason is that our minds automatically encode memories in associative form. When we have an experience our minds group together not only the visuals, sounds, smells, and tastes, but also the kinesthetic response – in other words, our feelings. If you had a traumatic experience, say, a car crash, then your mind may group together the images and sounds and smells with the feelings of shock, terror, and pain. The result is that it is possible that subsequently any of the images or sounds or smells that you associate with the event could trigger the feelings as well.
I find it useful to reference the modern, scientific model of memory, in which we categorize memory as either implicit or explicit. Explicit memory is anything that you can consciously recall. For example, you may recall a specific event in which you first rode a bicycle. Explicit memory includes episodic (such as autobiographical) memory as well as semantic (i.e. remembering facts you learned or recognizing people you have met.)
Implicit memory, on the other hand, occurs below the conscious threshold. While you may have explicit memories of times in which you rode a bicycle, the actually skill of riding a bicycle is stored in implicit memory. You don’t have to consciously think about the mechanics of riding a bicycle in order to do it. In fact, it would be detrimental if you had to think about it. Instead, the memory is encoded, stored, and retrieved all below the conscious threshold.
When you combine associative memory and implicit memory what can result is that you may experience painful feelings, including not only emotional states, but also physical sensations, as the result of triggers associated with memories that you don’t necessarily even recall consciously. (Although, in some cases, such as post-traumatic stress, there may be clear recall of episodic memories.)
The point is that much of the emotional and physical pain that we experience, even if we cannot necessarily consciously associate it to specific memories, is likely due to association with memories. The good news is that it is entirely possible to decouple the aspects of associative memory, even if it is stored implicitly. The result is that recalling aspects of the memory or seeing similar images or hearing similar sounds or smelling similar smells will no longer result in an automatic painful response.
In order to understand how to decouple associated memories, it is useful to understand how memories get stored. Research shows that memories are unstable for a short period (around 10 minutes) following the actual event. Following that period the information is encoded into the mind-body in a more stable form. What is interesting is that in several studies over the past few years researchers have demonstrated something that alternative practitioners have known for years – that recalling a memory results in a new period of destabilization. That is then followed by a period of re-encoding the memory, a process known as reconsolidation. I think of this a bit like editing a file on a computer – you can open the file to edit it, and then when you save the file, the changes overwrite the old information.
Typically, when we recall memories the memory plays in much the same way as it was stored. It is typical that minor changes will occur naturally, either reinforcing or slightly modifying the memory. But usually the result is that any changes will occur very slowly, and the changes will be unpredictable. If the memory is particularly strong (even one below the conscious threshold that results in a seemingly irrational painful feeling) then the chances are that the reconsolidated memory will be as strong as before if not stronger. However, what is very exciting is that it is possible to use the destabilized timeframe in order to rewrite the memory with conscious intent. We can then reprogram our mind to store the old memory with a new feeling such a feeling of safety or peace or happiness.
There are lots of specific techniques for reprogramming memories, including EFT, FasterEFT, Eye Movement Integration, and various mindfulness practices. It is my belief that all of these techniques share the same basic principles of action. Here is my theory on the mechanics of successful memory reprogramming:
- Recall the memory. I believe that intentionally recalling the memory will often yield the best results. However, in practice I find that this process is still effective when used as the memory is recalled spontaneously. If it is possible to recall the memory explicitly then that is usually the easiest and most effective route. In other words, if it is possible to recall episodic memory details such as images, sounds, smells, and tastes, then that is my preferred method. However, if no explicit memory exists, then I believe this process will still work by simply tuning in to the feelings – be they physical or emotional. The key to success with this first step is to make the recall as strong as possible. Our habitual responses tend to be to try and avoid the painful experiences, but my experience shows that intentionally intensifying the memory/feeling is the best way to reprogram.
- Bring your awareness to the present and to the peace, safety, and happiness that are naturally present right now. Do this while still holding on to the memory. This is the step during which the various techniques can be most effective in achieving this goal. It is not particularly useful or necessary to try and consciously think about present peace, safety, and happiness. Rather, this will occur naturally simply by becoming aware of the present moment. Tapping and eye movement are two great ways to achieve this. However, by far, I find that the single most effective “technique” is to physically relax. If a memory (whether implicit or explicit) provokes a stress response then the best way to reprogram is to choose to physically relax instead while remembering the memory (which may mean simply allowing the feelings or sensations that arise if there is no explicit memory.) This may seem impossible or contradictory, but I promise that it really works if you do it. The key is to allow whatever happens, even attempting to intensify it while simultaneously physically relaxing. Notice the places where you habitually tense, and relax those areas. Notice your belly, your jaw, and your shoulders, for example – places where many people are chronically tense. Don’t get stressed if you can’t do it “perfectly.” Just by bringing awareness and the intent to relax you will be making positive changes.
That is it. Believe it or not, it is really that simple. Some times multiple repetitions of the process will be necessary. However, I believe that if you do the process with complete engagement, without shying away, allowing the memory recall to be complete and as strong as possible while using the tapping or eye movement techniques or the physical relaxation technique (or all three if you are obsessive like that) then the process will be successful in one round. It may then take several minutes or hours for the mind-body to reconsolidate around the new memory. Scientific research demonstrates that this usually occurs within 10 minutes to 6 hours, which is fairly consistent with the reports of alternative practitioners. During this time the brain and nervous system literally reorganize, creating new neural pathways and structures to support the new memory. And, in fact, because of the complex nature of the nervous system, it often happens that reprogramming a single memory can result in a massive reorganization in which many related memories also re-encode in happier, more peaceful ways.
The result is that you then have increased choice and flexibility. You can recall events that you want to recall, but without having to feel painful feelings automatically.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.