How Memories You Can't Remember May Be Affecting Your Mental Health

Monday, March 10, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Pre-language learning.

I'm not talking about that period in the morning when the kids are jumping on your back, you can't form a coherent sentence to save your life and it's a freakin' miracle when you finally figure out how to sputter, "Coffee." This other kind of pre-language learning happened long before you understood what coffee was.

Perish the thought. 

Pre-language learning might be an additional part to intuition, and it matters for anxiety responses.

Conscious memory requires language to transfer it into long-term memory. And when you're too young to use language, only emotion will be remembered but without words to explain it.  Many anxiety symptoms and scary thoughts stem from unknown childhood traumas that are triggered by familiar, but un-recallable, events. 

Why Can't I Remember Childhood Trauma? Pre-language Learning Complications

Here's how it works. 

Memory is divided into three parts: Sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory holds information for no longer than about 30 seconds and converts relevant data into long-term memory using language. So, if you are busy listening to Rush Limbaugh, your brain may remember this experience by transferring:

"This guy is a douchebag, I should never turn this on again," along with the requisite disgust. 

This works well, because you understand what you feel and why you are feeling it. But, prior to the acquisition of language, the brain records memories through the use of the senses and corresponding emotion. For example, as a baby, you would not understand that a dog is dangerous and may bite. You don't know the word "dog" or recognize features unique to "doginess". You may simply feel curiosity or wonderment petting the animal before you, recorded as: 

Texture (of fur)= Emotion (awe or happiness) 
However, after being bitten by a dog, your brain may record the smell of the animal, the feel of its fur or the sound of its bark and lock them away, remembered as: 

Scent (of dog) = Emotion (fear)
Sound (of bark) = Emotion (fear)

Years later, you may hear a bark similar to the one given before the bite. In that moment, your brain may associate that noise with fear and give rise to a panic response immediately, a shortcut to the amygdala registered in early learning.

The issue lies in the fact that experiences prior to language development will never be recalled in a recognizable word form. They were recorded only as a feeling, not as a logical thought or cognitive idea. Therefore, you cannot think or rationalize your way out of it. In the presence of a trigger, you only feel. That's difficult to take, with or without coffee. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

If you're interested in the way the brain works, this book gives a great neuroscience run down.

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns