Dan Siegel (Part 2): Memory Reorganization & Consolidation (“The Malleability of Memory”)


I begin Part 2 with the same introduction I began Part 1:

In working with clients, I probably utilize, refer to, and even quote the research of Dan Siegel more than any other source; especially his book The Developing Mind; How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, 2nd ed (2012); what one reviewer has called “a tour de force.” The bio on the back book cover reads: “Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is an internationally acclaimed author, award-winning educator, and renowned child psychiatrist. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he serves as Co-Investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, and Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

Taking some time off in the last month, I took The Developing Mind with me for rereading. I was so re-inspired by its contents that I decided to devote the next two or three blogs to select themes.

From the chapter on “Memory,” this second blog addresses “memory reorganization and consolidation”; basically, the malleability of memory. While the first half of the blog might seem tedious (though necessary), the last half will illustrate with more pleasurable reading. Siegel writes:

“In memory research, the initial impact of an experience on the brain has been called an ‘engram.’ If you visited the Eiffel Tower with a friend and were talking about existential philosophy and impressionist paintings as you were having your picnic , your engram might include various levels of experience: semantic (factual – something about philosophy or art or knowledge about the Tower), autobiographical (your sense of yourself at that time in your life), somatic (what your body felt like at the time), perceptual (what things looked like,  how they smelled), emotional (your mood at the time), and behavioral (what you were doing with your body)….Scientists have named the first two types of consciously accessible memory ‘explicit’ or ‘declarative’ memory. The other forms of memory are quite distinct and are grouped together as ‘implicit’ or ‘nondeclarative’ memory….

When we try to retrieve an ‘original memory,’ in fact, we may be calling up the gist at first (‘I was at the Eiffel Tower when I was in my early twenties’) and then later trying to reconstruct the details. This reconstruction process may be profoundly influenced by the present environment, the questioning context itself, and other factors, such as current emotions and our perception of the expectations of those listening to the response. Memory is not a static thing, but an active set of processes….Remembering is not merely the activation of an old engram; it is the construction of a new neural net profile with features of the old engram and elements of memory from other experiences, as well as influences from the present state of mind.” (italics mine)

To paraphrase Siegel thus far: Memory is both conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit), – and changeable. “Brain plasticity” is apropos. Siegel continues:

“(Memory) consolidation appears to involve the reorganization of existing memory traces, not the laying down of new engrams. In this manner, consolidation may make new associational linkages, condense elements of memory into new clusters of representations, and incorporate previously unintegrated elements into a functional whole….(This) consolidation process appears to depend on the rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep stage, which is thought to be attempting to make sense of the day’s activities. Though filled with a combination of seemingly random activations, aspects of the day’s experiences, and elements from the more distant past, dreams may be a fundamental way in which the mind consolidates the myriad of explicit recollections into a coherent set of representations for permanent, consolidated memory….

Unresolved traumatic experiences from this perspective may involve an impairment in the cortical consolidation process, which leaves the memories of these events out of permanent memory. But the person may be prone to experiencing continually intrusive implicit images of past horrors. Nightmares, occurring during the dream stage of sleep and involving active REM sleep disturbances, may reveal futile attempts of the brain to resolve and consolidate such blocked memory configurations. Dream stages of sleep are thought to play a central role in reorganizing memory and in reinforcing the connections between memory and emotion….

During the normal dreaming state, the left and right hemispheres are activated in an alternating, rhythmic, and synchronous fashion….REM sleep is crucial for memory consolidation….Memory may be ‘reorganized’ during dreaming via the simultaneous retrieval of (right brain/hemisphere) of information that is then encoded into new consolidated forms (left brain/hemisphere) via the dream process….

Various studies of trauma patients reveal a significant asymmetry in hemispheric activity, with unresolved traumatic memories being associated with an excessively right dominant activation patterns….These findings, combined with the clinical observation of REM sleep disturbances in those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), support the proposal that bilateral cooperation of the hemispheres may be necessary for the consolidation of memory in general – and that failure to consolidate memories of traumatic events may be at the core of unresolved trauma. Such a view also points to the generalization that impairment in bilateral integration of information (the flow of energy and representations across the hemispheres) may be proposed as a marker of psychological impairment.”

The reader is urged to peruse the information about EMDR Therapy in this website, vis-a-vis the effects of REM sleep on memory reorganization. I often think of EMDR Therapy as getting the potential benefits of REM (dream) sleep on distressing memories – while awake!

To illustrate the malleability of memory, Pepperdine University professor Louis Cozolino tells the story of “The Magic Tricycle” (2010):

“Sheldon was a man in his late 60s who came to therapy for help with his many anxieties and fears. As a child, his parents had hidden him from the Nazis in a storage room behind the home of family friends. One day, after finding out that she and Sheldon’s father would be taken to the concentration camps, Sheldon’s mother told him to be a good boy, said goodbye, and left….Describing these days, Sheldon recalled alternating states of terror and boredom, during which he would either sit and rock or ride his tricycle around in slow tight circles. The slightest noise would startle him and he feared that each passing siren might be the police coming for him. Each day, exhausted by fear, he would eventually fall asleep.

The intervening decades had not diminished the impact of his experiences during the war; 60 years later, he still found himself reflexively rocking or walking in small slow circles when he became frightened….In repeatedly recalling these experiences in treatment, he sometimes mentioned how he wished he could have left the house where he was hidden and traveled down the narrow streets to his grandmother’s house….

One day, I asked him for permission to change his memories just a bit. After a few quizzical looks he agreed to close his eyes and tell me the entire story again, at which point I would interrupt him and make some suggestions. As he came to the part of the story where he rode around in circles, I asked him, ‘What would you do if this was a magic tricycle and it could take you through walls without getting hurt?’ I felt Sheldon had sufficient ego strength to allow him to simultaneously engage in the role-play while staying fully in touch with present reality.

After some hesitation, Sheldon said, ‘I would ride right through the house and out onto the sidewalk.’ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Let’s go!’ Sheldon had been primed for our imaginary therapy play because he had spent many enjoyable hours of storytelling, cuddling, and laughing with his grandchildren….

After some mild hesitation, he pedaled though the house. As he got close to the door, however, he said, ‘They’ll see me and kill me.’

‘What if the magic tricycle has the power to make you invisible?’ I asked.

‘I think that’ll do,’ said Sheldon, and he pedaled through the front of the house and out on the sidewalk. Once he got out of the house, he knew what to do….(W)hen he finally got to his grandmother’s house she was home and, as always, happy to see him. He told his grandmother about his invisible tricycle and how scared he was in his hiding place. He went on to tell her of the end of the war, his travels, and raising his family. Finally, almost like a prayer, Sheldon told her how, many years from now, she would have the most beautiful great-great-grandchildren living in freedom, redeeming her suffering.

Over the next few months, whenever Sheldon experienced his childhood fears and anxieties, we would revisit his story and modify different details. These changes seemed to grow more detailed and more vivid in his mind. His imagination gave him the power to master many of his past fears. Because memory is modified each time it is remembered, Sheldon’s brain was able to gradually contaminate his painful childhood with his present safety and joy….He even began to tell his grandchildren stories about a little boy with a magic tricycle who accomplished great things with his courage and wit….Nothing had changed about his childhood except that now, when he remembered his hiding place, he also remembered his magic tricycle.

An important part of restructuring memory is…the ability to re-conceptualize a memory based on evolving maturity. This process requires being able to hold the memory in mind without being emotionally overwhelmed and simultaneously bringing it into the present, picturing it as it would look from the perspective of who we are and what we know today.” (italics mine)

Next: Dan Siegel (Part 3): Attachment Styles & Parenting Approaches

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO


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