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"That did not happen"

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

I have recently been thinking alot about the brain, and how it forms early in life. I have been influenced by my medical school years of sitting in neurology lectures, anatomy and physiology labs, and later, patients I have know over the years, books I have read by other doctors and scientists, and by conversations with my husband. My husband works in child and youth mental health, and he brings home musings about trauma, about children whose lives are too hard, and about the struggle of trying to help families make the hard changes needed to support a mentally unwell child. We sit with our gin and tonics as the light softens, and we postulate about brain development, symptomatology and childhood adversity, and the latest scientific evidence about trauma. What medicine now knows, and what it used to believe was true about brain development and adversity. I am a doctor myself, and I am a survivor of childhood trauma. I am fascinated by how our brains bend and shift, and how our relationships do, or don't, survive when there are unspeakably awful experiences to accomodate.

I think of those early years of childhood, from zero to four or five years of age. The time during which very few of us have any pictorial memories. I think of the first five years of the lives of my own children, knowing they will 'remember' almost nothing of their early years. They do remember though - they just don't remember as a linear narrative, because in those early years their brain was yet to fully form those parts that hold story. This is when the cerebral cortex is still very immature and not yet fully developed. Memories are not forming in this part of the brain yet, but instead of pictorial memory, connections are forming in more primitive locations like the limbic system (housing emotion) and the diencephalon (where biological instincts live). In the first five years the cerebral cortex is not yet fully wired for those narrative-type memories - the formation of pictures which we can later recall - but despite this brain immaturity, other connections are being made that are still memories of a kind.

Memory is forming in these early years, and these more primitive deep brain memories are recalled later when we hear a sound or smell an odour or see a facial expression, and then inexplicably we feel something powerful and unsettling which we can’t make sense of because it doesn't make sense. We don't have a pictorial memory to explain the emotion, but we most certainly have remembered something. Yet when we go searching for answers to make sense of these primitive memory experiences, we realise we do not have the information to make sense of it all, and we discover that we must look externally for the answers. We must trust the history-keepers to tell us why we feel something so powerfully. We must trust that they know what happened and they can recall the context for us. We must trust that they will impart to us a truth which accomodates and honours our own deep knowing. But what if the history-keepers cannot be trusted?

Thirty years ago it was commonly believed in Aotearoa New Zealand that children were resilient and if they were very young and went through awful things like neglect, sexual abuse and domestic violence, they wouldn’t remember any of it, and they would simply bounce back none-the-wiser. This is now no longer accepted as true. Ground-breaking research in recent years has highlighted that adversity in childhood - even in the pre-verbal years - results in biological changes in the brain and body biochemistry which lead to higher risks of severe health outcomes such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, inflammatory or auto-immune conditions, mental illness and addiction, and can lead to a shorter life span. The younger the child, the worse the consequences. The truth is that those earliest years are the most vulnerable years because what children do to survive if they experience trauma then sinks deep within the nervous system as it is developing and changes its biological trajectory. The foundation of the very young brain is altered irrevocably by traumatic experiences, and there is no recollection of what happened to later soften and explain the dysfunction that the adult may be left to make sense of.

Those early years are of fundamental importance to brain development. Memories that form in those years don't sit within a narrative storyline, they sit in the emotions and the instincts. Other people - such as parents, or siblings, or the people who later become our friends or spouse - may find these "memories" easy to discount - because you cannot say “I remember" this or that. This information from those pre-narrative memory forming years is data from the brain and should be respected. Data that you can use to make sense of the past. Data that says "I felt afraid" or "I felt yuck" or "everything within me wanted to stay away from that person and I'm not sure why". Data that should be listened to in the same way that pilots take notice of flashing lights on their dashboards.

Without a narrative memory there are no answers to the why - because the why sits in the story-line. Without the story-line it is convenient for others to discount these crude versions of memory. The history-keepers may in fact be highly motivated to discount the validity of these deepest of memories, which present as a patchy, instinctual, feeling-embued knowing. The details may be shaky and uncertain, but the adult survivor of trauma can listen to the wisdom of their primitive memories and know for sure that stuff went down that wasn’t ok, and that their child-self was caught up in it.

These primitive memories tell us something. They tell us if we were loved or not, if we were getting our needs met or not, if we were safe or unsafe. They may tell us who can be trusted and who cannot. These primitive memories should not discounted away by other people simply because they lack coherent storyline and pictorial images. They contain truth and these are valuable truths. Anyone who seeks to shut down the inquiry, or silence the questioning that comes from exploring these primitive memories may well be trying to hide something they themselves are unable to face. Anyone who says "that did not happen" should be questioned about what they are not willing to see.

I have found it extremely valuable to write down what I can recall of such memories, and explore them through writing. In doing so I have been amazed to discover that more details fall into place. The process of lingering over the details of such memories actually provokes more. That might feel like a risky thing to do, but if you felt safe enough, and supported enough, to explore such an idea at some point, you could discover a real depth of knowledge that sits within your own memories. I have been told many things didn’t happen - usually by people who are responsible for those things and are more concerned about protecting their own fragile identities, than they are in exploring the consequences of those choices and actions for me and other vulnerable children in their care. I am very wary when I hear anyone being told that "that did not happen". I would ask, what is more trust-worthy - your gut sense of what happened to you, or the testimony of the person who tells you it did not happen?

Primitive memories are truth without pictures, truth without story. These memories which assert themselves as nightmares, flashbacks, snippets of picture without context, or strong unsettling feelings of deja vu, are messages from our primitive brains which still remember, even though our developed cerebral cortex has tried and often succeeded in squashing them and pushing them away. They did not fit with the narrative that we had been given, and so it seemed easier to ignore them.

When the light starts flashing on your dashboard, what will you do? Will you disconnect the light, and push it from your mind, because you don't know what the light means and someone else - or you, yourself - has told you that it doesn't matter? Or will you trust that the light means something important, and that your alarm system should be trusted? Follow the light back, hunt out the malfunction, find a fix for what is not working. Trust that what you have remembered is real, and trusting it is necessary for making sense of the past, and living with more freedom in the future.



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