May 27, 2002
There is an unfortunate controversy over the nature of memory. Some say that the nervous system faithfully records the nuances of all events while others say that memory is incomplete and unreliable. Whenever polarized arguments like this occur, the solution is usually found in both sides and the grey area between them.
From the material standpoint, humans are organic beings composed of cells that are themselves composed of apparently smaller elements of an atomic and sub-atomic nature. All organic material, like wood, fibre, and flesh, is impermanent and subject to change and decay.
When waves of matter and energy impact on something, they leave an impression. If a dinosaur, as a wave of matter and energy, steps in sand, the impression of that step may last only minutes. On the other hand, if the same dinosaur steps in material that fossilizes, the accurate impression of that step can last for millions of years. In all cases, however, the impression will eventually erode.
When waves of matter and energy impact on a living, organic system, the material that makes up that system also registers an impression. Since organic systems pass sensations through them, the impression is therefore registered as a cellular pathway or pattern rather than an overt stamp. In humans, if an imprinted pathway is "reactivated," we experience what we call a memory or mental/sensory image. If musical sounds enter my system, for instance, I can "recall" them by focusing energy along the same pathways, thus hearing in my mind similar sounds - the song that I heard.
Depending on various factors, the song I recall may be a very "high fidelity" version of the original or it may be quite different. Not only that, but due to the organic nature of my being, I can alter the replay in many ways, making changes and adjustments. Beethoven, being deaf, composed entire symphonies using accurate memories of the sounds of the instruments. He "heard" the music (manipulated various imprints), changed what he didn't like, and kept replaying and adjusting until he was satisfied.
Such mental adventures are the activities of organic cells sending electrochemical signals in extraordinarily intricate ways. In spite of this tremendous accuracy, since the medium for this activity is a living system, it is malleable and subject to limitations. And if the medium is altered, so is the message. If an organic system is ill or under the influence of substances that alter its function, incoming sensation, as well as memory imprints and their recall, will be distorted.
In any case, every reproduction of an event is slightly different than the original. There is no such thing as "pristine" memory, as some would have us believe. The accuracy of the memory will also be affected by an infinite number of circumstances present at the time of the imprinting event. In other words, the initial memory imprint might not be recorded that well, and carry a certain degree of inaccuracy right from the start.
In addition to this, the retrieval of the imprint can be impeded, blocked, or fragmented. No system is capable of total recall at every moment. There are mechanisms at work that block certain items and select others. In the case of certain traumas it is clear that the organism blocks recall or memory for reasons of safety and integrity. This is evident during minor accidents, and so is completely reasonable in cases of more severe abuse or injury.
Stating that memory is not always reliable does not, on the other hand, prove that memory is always unreliable. Supporters of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation try to use this argument in order to defend adults accused of sexual abuse. They cite cases of eyewitnesses giving inaccurate reports of public events and conclude that memory is unreliable. This is no more logical than saying that because some people are liars, all people are. The fact is, that while some memories are foggy and incomplete, other memories are very clear and precise. Without memory, we would be immobilized without a clue of who we were or what was happening around us. Every single thing we encounter would have no prior point of reference. We would be totally confused by people, food, water, sun, rain, cars, clothes, and our very own bodies. Access to prior experience in the form of fairly reliable memories is as necessary and constant as breathing.
The False Memory people also argue that like Beethoven, we are capable of creating detailed imagery that appears to us as "false" historical memory. But although imagination can mimic memory, it doesn't follow that all memory is imagination. We all have very distinct memories that can be corroborated by many other people.
In the final analysis, because memory is the function of an organic system, it is malleable but can also be very accurate. While some memories are lost in the sand, others remain like stone footprints. Memory isn't infallible, but is not totally fallible either.
Upon entering the primal process, we are often caught in a storm of dysfunctional patterns and unbalanced emotions. When we express those feelings, traumatic cellular patterns are activated and associated memories are evoked like birds bursting from a thicket. These memories simply arise and are part of the emotional clearing. Healing is not a matter of memory accuracy, but the reconnection of painful present feelings to their repressed counterparts, and whatever memories were imprinted at the time - accurate or not. Primal Integration is not about the gathering of memories, but the return of greater balance and the disappearance of painful symptoms and patterns. Follow the feelings, and the memories take care of themselves.