The River of Well Being: Using the Implicit Memory System to Release Old Roles in the Body 

Michael Robbins, M.A., L.M.H.C. (reprinted from the SCT Newsletter, spring issue, 2006)          

Neuroscience teaches us that there are two forms of memory - explicit and implicit. (1)(Siegel, 1999) Understanding the differences between explicit and implicit memories may have direct implications for the strategies that we use as SCT therapists to untangle the deeper roots of dysfunctional roles and pervasive transference's.       

Memory is the way that we track and codify what we learn over time. The capacity to efficiently catalogue and skillfully retrieve our memories has tremendous survival value for us as individuals and for humanity as a whole. When our memory systems are interacting with our environment in a way that is flexible, stable and adaptive, they are constantly being updated and reorganized, so that the maps that we use to navigate the world match the territory. When these systems are dysfunctional, they become rigid and redundant or chaotic, ambiguous and disorganized.       

Dan Siegel calls the capacity to maintain a flexible, stable and adaptive flow of energy and information through all of the systems of our bodies and minds the ‘river of well being’.  (2) (Siegel, 1999, 2003) He makes the hypothesis that this river is banked on one side by rigidity and on the other by chaos. Any time that we overflow these banks on either side, we lose our sense of well being. If we develop a chronic pattern of existing outside of this river of well being, we develop long term patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that create significant suffering both inside of ourselves and in our interactions with others. This is very similar to the current SCT understanding of a maladaptive role system as a rigid system which is impermeable to new information in the here and now. (3)(Agazarian, 2006) Siegel bases his ideas on Complexity Theory, which is a mathematical model of how complex systems evolve over time.        

Evolution has ingeniously created two methods for us to catalogue and retrieve our learning's. One system operates mostly below our consciousness, often with lightening speed, to insure that our organism survives. This system, the implicit memory system, begins as soon as a human being is born and is probably operative even in utero, although exactly when this system comes on line is still the subject of scientific debate. This system is embodied, intuitive and non-verbal. The implicit memory system is associated with the right brain and with a part of the limbic system called the amygdala. It is dominant in human beings until about 18 to 24 months, when the development of the left hemisphere and the hippocampus (another structure in the limbic system) makes the development of language and more linear, logical thought, and an ‘explicit’ memory system possible.       

This memory system is called ‘implicit’, because when we use it, we do not have the explicit sense that we are remembering ‘something’. Implicit memories are in the form of a felt sense, a mood, or in a habitual pattern of tension or relaxation that becomes triggered in our bodies in response to some external stimuli or interaction. They are not memories that we can easily describe in a linear, logical fashion like a mathematical equation. When we make these memories conscious they carry the emotional tone and poetic flavor of an experience. The interaction of our implicit and explicit memory systems create the rich texture and color in which we can recall our experiences over time.       

Our deepest and most significant implicit memories are laid down in our early attachment experiences.  In these experiences, our mothers or caregivers communicated through their body language their own implicit learning's about how to survive in life. When our early caregivers communicated a pattern that was flexible, stable and adaptive, we developed a secure attachment which formed the foundation of a functional, resilient and emotionally attuned relationship with our environment. When that pattern was rigid, chaotic or traumatic, we (usually) developed insecure attachments which were ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized.  We can hypothesize that these distressing attachment  experiences and their associated implicit memories, form the foundation of maladaptive role systems which   are unconsciously and compulsively repeated over a life time.       

To further understand the implicit memory system it is useful to develop our understanding of the functions of the right hemisphere of the brain. (4) Although the following comments are rather broad and oversimplified, I hope that they will still be useful.  The most basic thing that one can say about the right hemisphere is that it is holistic, intuitive and nonlinear in its approach to the world. It is through the right hemisphere that we get our over-all, gut sense of a situation. This is the area of the brain that helps us to distinguish the face and voice of our early caregivers from a stranger. It is also through the right hemisphere that we make an immediate, intuitive appraisal of someone's affective communication and decide if they are safe or dangerous. Although other parts of the brain are also involved in our capacity for emotional attunement (particularly the orbito-frontal cortex) the right hemisphere is essential. Importantly, the right hemisphere also contains our internal map of where our body is in space. It is with the right hemisphere that we sense the subtle patterns of internal tension and relaxation in our muscles and breathing patterns that help us to mark the differences between emotional states and also form the patterns of our most basic identifications. These patterns inform the habitual way that we walk, sit, move and organize the flow of energy and information through every system of our body/mind.       

Understanding the complexity of the functions that the right hemisphere performs can help us to understand that the deepest roots of maladaptive (rigid or chaotic) role systems and the implicit memories that support them, are located directly in our bodies and sensory-motor experience. At the time that we created these roles they were an adaptive and creative response to our environment. The problem is that the environment that they were responding to no longer exists! Unless we develop our capacity to make these patterns conscious, i.e. learn how to connect and integrate the implicit learning's of our right hemisphere with the explicit learning's of our left hemisphere, they will maintain a subtle and powerful gravitational pull on our being. By making these unconscious, sensory-motor patterns conscious, we can begin to modify the pervasive background noise of our lives and find the fork in the road between repeating the old patterns with maddening persistence and learning something new.       

Fortunately, the understanding of the implicit memory system from neuroscience may help us to more skillfully disentangle ourselves from the maladaptive patterns which we are helplessly repeating. One of the most important keys to unlock this door, may be to pay very close attention to the sensory motor experiences in our bodies (right brain, implicit memory) and to resist the pull to interpret or analyze these experiences (left brain, explicit memory). These interpretations can only lead back to what we already know, reinforce the old stories and role systems, and further coalesce the maladaptive pattern. Indeed, this is what we have already been doing in SCT for more than a decade. The difference now is that we can understand a little more about the scientific underpinning of our interventions.       

A brief example of unwinding the sensory-motor pathways of an implicit memory  may help make all of this more real. In a recent group that I was leading, a group member was suffering from a bad case of constipation. This digestive difficulty is a chronic pattern for her that she has treated in a variety of ways with only moderate success. It is also easily exacerbated by stress. During the session, I asked her to explore, in a subgroup with other members who were also exploring patterns of physical discomfort (chronic shoulder ache, tight jaw etc.), the moment to moment sensory experience of her distress. The major interventions that I made to her and to the subgroup were to constantly vector them away from interpreting, analyzing or telling themselves or each other stories about their bodily felt experience. As this group member followed her sensory experience, she began to notice the impulse to lift her arms up in a gesture of reaching that was coupled by an equally strong sensation of something restraining her movement or pressing down on her arms like a weight. The stronger she felt her impulse to lift her arms, the stronger the counter force was keeping her from moving. This sensory experience was accompanied by an emotional experience of dread, followed by great frustration and anger, followed by a sense of defeat and helplessness.  With the defeat and helplessness, she noticed a sense of deadness and tightness around her belly and a clamping down of the muscles around her anus. Although it would have been easy to make up a story about this experience as a memory of an early interaction with her caregivers, we both resisted this pull and stayed as close as possible to the phenomenological exploration of her sensations and emotions in the present. As she paid attention to the pattern of sensations and emotions in her body, in the context of an attuned subgroup, she began to notice the subtle ways that she was maintaining the pervasive pattern of tensions which she had “imported into the present without any awareness that they belong in the past.” (Agazarian, 2006) The next step was to notice that she actually had the choice, in the present, to release some of the tension and the accompanying emotional responses associated with the sensory-motor pattern. As she found the fork in the road, she noticed, with some astonishment, that she could actually choose to loosen the tight, uncomfortable feeling in her belly. As she did this, there were little gurgling sounds as things started to move again!       

From the standpoint of our current understanding of the implicit memory system, we might say that she was beginning to make a connection between a current day symptom and the implicit memories that were stored in her body. By bringing her consciousness to the sensory level of the old, rigid pattern that her organism had used to cope with a stressful situation, she was beginning to develop a new, more adaptive and functional way to cope with stress. As the sensory-motor pattern of tension and the associated, emotional distress became conscious, her organism started to become more flexible, adaptive and stable. In other words, she started to rediscover the river of well being! 

(1)  Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind (1999, Guilford) 
(2) Ibid. Also see Daniel J. Siegel (2003) Audio course # T-101, Interpersonal Neurobiology, Networker U., www.psychotherapy 
(3) Yvonne Agazarian, SCT Newsletter, Spring Issue 2006, “Role Theory.” 
(4)For a deeper understanding of the differentiated functions of the left and right hemisphere please refer to either Dan Siegel “The Developing Mind” (Guilford, 1999) or Louis Cozolino “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy” (Norton, 2002) 
(5) Yvonne Agazarian, SCT Newsletter, Spring Issue 2006, “Role Theory.”