Trauma-a Brief Overview on its Affect on Memory

trauma can make us forgetful, fussy, and all over discombobulated

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‏I’m pretty fascinated by trauma and its affects.  I’ve written about it a few times, I’m trained to be a trainer in Trauma Informed Care, and I am trained in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Someone mentioned to me a while back that they wished that there was just a ‘one page article’ on trauma and its effects on the brain.

Therefore……here we go. Probably a little more than one page, but hopefully not too long that you won’t read it.

Trauma How trauma affects the brain:
Starting simply, there  are 2 sides of the brain, the left side and the right side. The two are connected by a ‘carrier’, which is known as the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum carries information back and forth between the right side, which holds memories that include emotions and feelings, to the left side, which has language and pragmatic, logical thoughts.

What Is The Corpus Callosum?

The brain is divided into two halves called the RIGHT HEMISPHERE and the LEFT HEMISPHERE. These two halves are connected by a structure called the CORPUS CALLOSUM.

When trauma occurs, sometimes those memories remain in the emotional, or right side, of the brain. In order to have language for the trauma, the corpus callosum must carry the memories into the left side. One of the things that is helpful about talk therapy is that it helps those who have experienced trauma put words to the emotional part of trauma. The words help organize the memories into a logical order, which is also a duty typical of the left side of the brain.

Some traumatic memories happen before there is language developed. An example: a baby experiences a lot of medical issues. Those memories of pain, and not being snuggled and cuddled as much as is typical in those first newborn days, remain as feelings without words, because they happen before language is developed.

For traumatic events that happen after language is developed, they rely on the carrier to transfer the memories between the two sides of the brain. One scientific affect of trauma is that the corpus calosum is actually changed with trauma. It doesn’t transfer memories as well, thus making it more difficult for there to be both words and logical order to emotional memories. When trauma has occurred, the corpus callosum is smaller, and it doesn’t do as good of a job of carrying information between the two sides of the brain.

Our ability to remember specific words does not work very well. We remember semantics, not syntax.  This means we generally remember the ‘gist’ of what was said (the meaning), but not the exact words. So, we know and perceive meaning without precise recollection of the words that were said.

Most people can attest to times, possibly when they were engaged in an argument, that they quoted something someone said, only to be told ‘that’s not exactly what I said’. We also have perceptions of what we hear, so our memories of someone else’s meaning may not be identical to their intention. Since we are remembering meaning instead of exact wording, that makes sense.

How does this apply to trauma?

We are remembering our feelings and emotions related to traumatic events. Our words for those emotions may change based on our ability to put things into words, particularly considering that we all have different verbal abilities.

Trauma relates to the recent (2019) hearing regarding the Supreme Court nominee. There was an argument that a traumatic event did not happen because it was not reported.  This reminds me of many people I have met with who experienced domestic abuse, and many of those incidents were also not reported to local law enforcement.

This does not follow along with what is known scientifically to be true of trauma, traumatic memories, and how those who have experienced trauma respond to their trauma.

Traumatic events happen all of the time that are not reported or talked about.Traumatic events can happen in childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, mid adulthood, and in elderly adults.  Trauma can occur to anyone, at anytime.  The traumatic event is real because it is perceived as trauma.

Someone who is not remembering the specific events of the same evening, whether that is a situation that could be perceived as date rape, a trauma from a dog bite, or even two children in the same family experiencing divorce, will be perceived differently by different individuals who experience the same event.

A non-traumatic event is not remembered in the same way or in the same place in the brain as a traumatic event.

To be trauma informed means to recognize that someone else may have experienced trauma.  In a residential setting, those who work there learn and work toward being informed about the trauma residents have experienced prior to living there.

In the work setting, being trauma informed means recognizing that we all have childhoods and different experiences in them, as well as all of the experiences we have had leading up to and including while employees are working, and that those experience could have included trauma.  We need to recognize that others have trauma, we have trauma, and that our brains are affected by it.  It helps us to give each other grace for frustrations we may be experiencing with others’ performance, or actions, or behaviors.

In therapy, being trauma informed is a little more straightforward.  Trauma Focused Cog. Behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) focuses on looking at the patterns that have been affected by the trauma someone has experienced.  Being trauma informed means recognizing that the trauma has affected those participating in therapy, as well as those who are related to or interacting with the person participating in therapy.  It is being kind and aware that an angry person may well be angry about something that triggered a strong anger response, and less about anything that happened today.  Their loud voice, strong looks, or even their lack of verbalization may all be related to that trauma.

There is some pretty interesting evidence out there about trauma and its affects on the brain. I encourage all of us to learn more about trauma and try to be more understanding of those who have experienced it.

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