On a day-to-day basis we are constantly being influenced by information from the environment, or external world, which influences our internal thoughts, emotions, and physical operations. We have incoming information that is collected through our senses: touch, see, hear, taste, smell. We then use a 3-prong approach to acclimate to the current situation so our brain may determine the next “best” move at any moment. This incoming information informs our perception of the present moment (prong 1), is considered in relation to experiences from the past (prong 2), and this combination informs our brain’s expectations of the future (prong 3). Information is then categorized and stored into our long-term memory, but there is a specific process that occurs for this to happen correctly, and trauma disrupts this process. We are going to use an analogy of a computer to better understand this. Directly below is a key that you may refer to if the analogy gets a little confusing: Computer: The brain Desktop screen: Explicit, active, or short-term memory Hard drive: Implicit or long-term memory Scan and clean: REM sleep Virus/Corrupt File: Trauma memory
When information is coming in from the external world it is stored immediately in our active (explicit) memory. The brain will eventually review, sort, and move relevant information into our long-term (implicit) memory. We are going to think of our brain as our computer, our explicit, active memory as our computer’s desktop screen, and our implicit, long-term memory as our computer’s hard drive. You can refer to the key at any time.
When information comes in through our senses it is immediately stored on our desktop and this continues throughout the day. When we lay down to sleep at the end of the day, we have various cycles of sleep that occur, one being a deep sleep cycle known as REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement. During this time our brain is sorting through all the files collected on our desktop throughout the day and filing what is important into categorized folders while discarding or “deleting” the useless information. These categorized folders are stored on our computer’s hard drive so we can search and find them easily and as needed given they are all filed in categories. For example, we think “I’m hungry” and our computer (brain) finds the folder labeled “food”, we then think fruit sounds good so our computer finds the “fruit” folder within the “food” folder and all the fruits we know are labeled and in that file ready for us to choose. After we choose, we close that file and send it back to the hard drive (long-term memory).
This process allows all the past information to be stored on the hard drive (long-term memory) and ready to retrieve, but not cluttering up our desktop (active memory). The information stored is useful in helping understand present situations and helping us predict what to expect in the future so we can make better informed decisions. We do not want all of our files on the desktop (active memory) because then we will have too much information available at one time that is not necessary and does not apply to a particular moment or situation. So quick re-cap, information comes in and is on our desktop (active or explicit memory), during REM sleep this information is sorted, filed, and sent to our hard drive (long-term or implicit memory), and our brain does a scan and deletes or discards any unnecessary information or details along the way.
This changes when we have past trauma, because trauma memories are viruses or corrupt files that are stuck on the desktop. They are unable to be moved onto the hard drive that stores long-term memory, and remain on the desktop constantly in our awareness. Because trauma remains so visible our brain easily finds people, places, things, or anything coming in through our sensory input to connect to the memory of the trauma. The brain and body then react as though the trauma is happening in the present moment due to it still remaining in our active memory (desktop). When someone experiences a trigger or flash back, these are the corrupt trauma files being “opened” or activated.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an excellent tool to help re-format these corrupt files. EMDR has been shown to be effective more than 80% of the time, which is incredibly high for a treatment intervention. Other approaches can help on a longer term basis, but we will discuss EMDR in relation to our computer analogy. EMDR essentially re-formats the trauma memory by helping the brain finally discard the negative energy that was never completed and the negative belief that emerged at the time of the trauma. For example, if someone experiences assault the body will begin the fight or flight response and the person’s brain will develop a negative belief, such as “I’m not safe”. Since the trauma memory is never moved into long term memory from the desktop to the hard drive, the scanning process during REM sleep never occurs so the negative energy is not completed and the negative thought is not deleted, remaining in active memory and influencing the present moment.
The brain will discard, or “delete”, negative beliefs due to self-preservation and our core drive to survive and evolve. But trauma memories never make it through the scanning and delete process of REM sleep. Therefore, they remain in the active memory with the negative belief attached, and when activated by stimuli in the environment the body experiences a return of the fight or flight response. EMDR essentially mimics the process of REM sleep with bilateral eye movements (BLS); the client follows the clinician’s finger back and forth. During BLS the client holds the image of the trauma that is on their desktop in awareness and any sensations that arise due to this memory. The brain is essentially assisted in another attempt t processing this corrupt file and with the help of EMDR the trauma memory can be reformatted, the negative belief and energy deleted, and moved into the long-term memory out of constant awareness. This is essentially the process of EMDR in resolving trauma, and the charge of the memory then fades and disappears as the memory is finally categorized and filed onto the hard drive.