Dan’s newborn children recognized his voice and the Russian song because that information had been encoded in their brain as implicit memories. We encode implicit memory throughout our lives, and in the first eighteen months we encode only implicitly. An infant encodes the smells and tastes and sounds of home and parents, the sensations in her belly when she’s hungry, the bliss of warm milk, the way her mother’s body stiffens in response to a certain relative’s arrival. Implicit memory encodes our perceptions, our emotions, our bodily sensations, and, as we get older, behaviors like learning to crawl and walk and ride a bike and eventually change a diaper.
What’s crucial to understand about implicit memory—especially when it comes to our kids and their fears and frustrations—is that implicit memories cause us to form expectations about the way the world works, based on our previous experiences. Remember the connection between ballet and bubble gum? Because neurons that fire together wire together, we create certain mental models based on what’s gone on in the past. If you hug your toddler every evening when you come home from work, he’ll have a model in his mind that your return will be filled with affection and connection. This is because implicit memory creates something called “priming” in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain way. When you get home, your son anticipates a hug. Not only is his internal world primed for receiving that loving gesture, he’ll even move his arms in anticipation when he hears your car in the driveway. As he gets older, priming will continue to operate with more complex behaviors. A few years later, if a piano teacher frequently criticizes his playing, he may create a mental model that he doesn’t like piano, or even that he’s not musical. A more extreme version of this process occurs in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, where an implicit memory of a disturbing experience becomes encoded in a person’s brain, and a sound or image triggers that memory without the person even realizing it’s a memory. Implicit memory is essentially an evolutionary process that keeps us safe and out of danger. It frees us to be able to react quickly, or even automate our responses in moments of danger without having to actively or intentionally recall previous similar experiences.
What all this means for us as parents is that when our kids seem to be reacting in unusually unreasonable ways, we need to consider whether an implicit memory has created a mental model that we need to help them explore. This is what Tina did for her son when she tucked him into bed and talked with him about the swimming lessons. Their conversation went something like this:
TINA: Can you tell me anything about what’s going on with the swimming?
SON: I don’t know, Mom. I just don’t want to do it.
TINA: Are you afraid of something?
SON: I guess. I’ve just got all of these butterflies in my stomach.
TINA: So let’s talk about those butterflies. Did you know that your brain remembers things even when you don’t know you’re remembering?
SON: I don’t get it.
TINA: OK. Let me say it a different way. Do you remember you had a bad experience with swim lessons before?
SON: Oh yeah.
TINA: Do you remember that place we went?
SON: They were so hard on us there.
TINA: Those were some pretty strict teachers.
SON: They made me go off the diving board. And they dunked my head and made me hold my breath for a long time.
TINA: It was a long time, wasn’t it? And you know what? I think that has a lot to do with why you don’t want to go to swim lessons now.
SON: You do?
TINA: Yes. Do you know that lots of times when you do things, whether they are good or bad, your brain and body remember them? So when I say “Dodger Stadium” … You’re smiling! Do you feel what’s going on inside you now? What are your brain and body saying? How do you feel?
TINA: Yes. I can see that on your face. And do you feel butterflies in your stomach?
SON: No way.
TINA: And what about when I say “swimming lessons”? Does that change how you feel?
TINA: And the butterflies are back?
SON: Right. I don’t want to go.
TINA: But here’s what I think is going on. Your brain is amazing. And one of its important jobs is to keep you safe. See, your brain is always checking things out and saying, “This is good” or “This is bad.” So when I say “Dodger Stadium,” your brain says, “Good! Let’s go! That’s a fun place.” But when I say “Swimming lessons,” your brain says, “Bad idea. Don’t go!”
TINA: And the reason your brain gets so excited when I say “Dodger Stadium” is because you’ve had good experiences there. You probably don’t remember every detail of every game, but still, you just have a good overall feeling about it.
You can see how Tina introduced this issue, just setting up the concept that certain memories can affect us without our awareness that something is coming from the past. You can also probably see why her son was nervous about swimming lessons. And one of the biggest problems was that he had no idea why he was nervous. He knew only that he didn’t want to go. But when Tina explained where his feelings were coming from, he began to develop some awareness that let him take control over what was happening in his brain, so he could begin to reframe his experiences and his feelings.
They talked some more, then Tina introduced him to some practical tools he could use when he started feeling nervous about swimming lessons—some of the very tools we’ll discuss with you in a few pages. Here’s how the end of the conversation went.
TINA: OK, so now you know that the reason for your fear is that you had bad experiences before.
SON: Yeah, I guess.
TINA: But you’re older and wiser now, and you can think about swimming in whole new ways. So let’s do a couple of things to help you feel better. One is to start thinking about all the memories you have of swimming that have been really fun and good. Can you think of a good swimming experience?
SON: Sure, when I was swimming with Henry last week.
TINA: Right. Good. And you can also talk to your brain.
TINA: Seriously. In fact, this is one of the best things you can do. You can say, “Brain, thanks for trying to keep me safe and protect me, but I don’t need to be afraid of swimming anymore. These are new lessons with a new teacher, a new pool, and I’m a new kid who already knows how to swim. So, brain, I’m just going to blow out the butterflies from my stomach with some big, slow breaths, like this. And I’m going to focus on the good stuff about swimming.” Does that seem weird, to talk to your brain like that?
SON: Kind of.
TINA: I know, it’s funny and kind of strange. But do you see how it could work? What’s something you could tell your brain to make your body calm down and make you feel safer and feel good about going to swimming lessons? What could you say in your mind?
SON: Those bad swimming lessons were just in the past. Now this is a new swim lesson, and I already like swimming.
TINA: Exactly. Because how do you feel about swimming in general?
TINA: Great. And now let’s do one more thing. What’s something you could do or say to your brain if you start feeling nervous again when we first get to swimming lessons? Like a code to help remind yourself that these feelings are from the past?
SON: I don’t know. Kill the butterflies?
TINA: Because the butterflies are from a long time ago and you don’t need them in your stomach anymore, right?
TINA: I love it. And I’m glad you’re laughing about it now. But could we come up with a less violent code? How about “Liberate the butterflies” or “Free the butterflies”?
SON: I kind of like “kill.”
TINA: OK. “Kill the butterflies” it is.
Notice that the main thing Tina did here was to tell the story of where her son’s fears came from. She used narrative to help his implicit memories become explicit and full of meaning, so they wouldn’t act on him with such hidden power. Once his implicit memories about the unpleasant swimming lessons were brought into the light of awareness, he could pretty easily deal with his present-day fears. It’s in this transformation—from implicit to explicit—that the real power of integrating memory brings insight, understanding, and even healing.