Implicit memories are often positive and work in our favor, like when we fully expect to be loved by those around us simply because we’ve always been loved. If we count on our parents to comfort us when we’re hurting, since they’ve always done so before, that’s because a host of positive implicit memories have been stored up within us. But implicit memories can be negative as well, like when we’ve repeatedly had the opposite experience of our parents being irritated by or uninterested in our times of distress.
The problem with an implicit memory, especially of a painful or negative experience, is that when we aren’t aware of it, it becomes a buried land mine that can limit us in significant and sometimes debilitating ways. The brain remembers many events whether we’re aware of them or not, so when we have difficult experiences—anything from a twisted ankle to the death of someone we love—these painful moments get embedded in the brain and begin to affect us. Even though we’re not aware of their origins in the past, implicit memories can still create fear, avoidance, sadness, and other painful emotions and bodily sensations. That helps explain why children (as well as adults) often react strongly to situations without being aware of why they are so upset. Unless kids can make sense of their painful memories, they may experience sleep disturbances, debilitating phobias, and other problems.
So how do we help our children when they’re suffering from the effects of past negative experiences? We shine the light of awareness on those implicit memories, making them explicit so that our child can become aware of them and deal with them in an intentional way. Sometimes parents hope that their children will “just forget about” painful experiences they’ve undergone, but what kids really need is for parents to teach them healthy ways to integrate implicit and explicit memories, turning even painful experiences into sources of power and self-understanding.
There’s a part of our brain whose very job is to do just that: to integrate our implicit and explicit memories, so that we can more fully understand the world and ourselves. It’s called the hippocampus, and it can be considered the “search engine” of memory retrieval. The hippocampus works with different parts of our brain to take all of the images, emotions, and sensations of implicit memory and draw them together so that they can become the assembled “pictures” that make up our explicit understanding of our past experiences.
Think of the hippocampus as a master puzzle assembler that links together the jigsaw pieces of implicit memory. When the images and sensations of experience remain in implicit-only form, when they haven’t been integrated by the hippocampus, they exist in isolation from one another as a jumbled mess in our brain. Instead of having a clear and whole picture, a completed jigsaw puzzle, our implicit memories remain scattered puzzle pieces. We therefore lack clarity about our own unfolding narrative, which explicitly defines who we are. What’s worse, these implicit-only memories continue to shape the way we look at and interact with our here-and-now reality. They affect the sense of who we are from moment to moment—all without our even being aware that they are affecting the way we interact with our world.
It’s crucial, therefore, that we assemble these implicit puzzle pieces into explicit form in order to be able to reflect on their impact on our lives. That’s where the hippocampus comes in. By performing the important function of integrating implicit and explicit memories, it allows us to become the active authors of our own life stories. When Tina talked to her son about his fearful associations with swim lessons, she was simply helping his hippocampus do its job. It didn’t take much for his implicit memories to become explicit, so that he could handle his fear and make sense of both his painful experience in the past and how it was still affecting him in the present.
When we don’t offer a place for children to express their feelings and recall what happened after an overwhelming event, their implicit-only memories remain in dis-integrated form, leaving the children with no way to make sense of their experience. But when we help our kids integrate their past into their present, they can then make sense of what’s going on inside them and gain control over how they think and behave. The more you promote this type of memory integration in your child, the less often you will see irrational responses to what’s happening now that are really leftover reactions from the past.
We’re not saying that memory integration is a parental cure-all that will prevent all outbursts and irrational reactions. But it is a powerful tool for dealing with difficult experiences from the past, and you’ll be grateful to know about it the next time your child is struggling for some unknown reason. Granted, when your five-year-old can’t find the taillight to complete Luke Skywalker’s land cruiser and launches into an out-of-control yelling fit about “the stupid Lego store,” that may have nothing to do with some sort of George Lucas–inspired implicit memory. In fact, before you over-analyze the situation, HALT and check the basics: is your little Jedi simply hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? If so, these problems can be fixed pretty easily. Get him an apple. Listen to his feelings of frustration. Spend a few minutes being with him, helping him locate the missing piece. Put him to bed earlier so he can catch up on his rest and handle himself better tomorrow. Often kids are doing their best; they just need us to attend to their basic needs. As you learn about the brain and consider all of the information we’re offering here, don’t forget about the simple and the obvious, the little things you already know. Common sense can take you a long way.
If, though, you determine that something bigger is going on, then it’s a good idea to think back to experiences in the past that might be affecting the present situation. You may not always be able to tie your child’s reactivity to a specific event in the past, so don’t force a connection that’s not there. But if you feel that a previous event may be influencing your child’s actions, here are some practical ways you can arm him with tools that will help integrate his implicit and explicit memories and achieve more control in the way he responds to his present circumstances.