Scientists believe suppressed memories are created by a process called state-dependent learning. When the brain creates memories in a certain mood or state, particularly of stress or trauma, those memories become inaccessible in a normal state of consciousness. Suppressed memories can then best be retrieved when the brain is back in that state. For the first time, a new study from Northwestern Medicine has discovered how the brain locks those memories away.
As a 19-year survivor of a severe Traumatic Brain Injury from a motorcycle accident in 2003, I wonder why I do not remember the moments before I hit the mailbox with my helmet. I last remember having a discussion near my friend’s driveway followed by driving off to get more practice on the used Suzuki Katana I purchased the day before. I later learned that I ran into a mailbox (which I broke and received a citation) and dented my helmet. I was found unconscious, in front of someone’s house I had never met previously. I do not remember who called 911, nor do I remember anyone checking, talking, or even helping me in my time of need. I do not have any memories related to the accident. I wish I knew how I hit my head. How fast was I going? Did something cause me to drive up onto the grass where I collided with the mailbox? Even now, 19-years post, I only know what people told me. Wouldn’t you want to know what caused your TBI if you could?
I recently looked at an article posted online by Northwestern Medicine called “How the Brain Hides Memories”. You may be wondering what is a ‘hidden memory’? Well, they say that the brain will sometimes hide stressful, traumatic, or fear-related memories. So, it sounds like the brain hides memories from us during high stress situations when the emotional pain of recalling the event is too much to take. They also mention that long term, suppressed memories can create serious emotional health concerns like anxiety, PTSD, and dissociative disorders. I think I am glad that I do not have those memories playing over and over again in my head. Can you imagine having to flashback to the details of the day when your life changed? But… what if I wanted to recall this memory, is it possible? Could I do something to bring those memories back?
According to their new study, they say “the best way to access hidden memories is to return the brain to the same state of consciousness it was in when the memory was formed.” The doctors responsible for the study use a radio analogy to explain how this works. “The brain functions in different states, much like a radio operates at AM and FM frequency bands,” Dr. Radulovic said. “It’s as if the brain is normally tuned to FM stations to access memories but needs to be tuned to AM stations to access subconscious memories.” Now… Even though I do not remember everything that led up to my accident, I don’t think I want to have the same feelings I had before the accident just so I could possibly recall the details I lack from almost 20 years ago. I do not even want to go for another test drive on another motorcycle, nor do I want to be a passenger on the back of someone’s bike in order for me to recall 15-30 minutes of my life!
I am thankful for surviving my ‘last’ motorcycle ride, and not remembering the painful parts of it. I find it very interesting how the brain has protected me from the mistake I made in 2003. The scientists believe that this protective mechanism in the brain when an experience is overwhelmingly stressful. Their findings show that when faced with traumatic stress, the brain can activate a different way to form, save, and store memories. They are saying that these types of studies may lead to new treatment for patients for whom conscious access to memories become critical to recovery. Honestly, I believe I remembered everything I was supposed to remember after the accident, and I believe the things I am unable to recall are unavailable for a reason. And I am okay with that!
Medicine, Northwestern. “How the Brain Hides Traumatic Memories | Northwestern Medicine.” Northwestern Medicine, https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/medical-advances/how-the-brain-hides-traumatic-memories. Accessed 9 June 2022.