“And I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell kind of a homeland this was, what exactly were we fighting for. It may sound strange, but talking to the other soldiers, I realized that we were fighting for our childhood memories.”
– Andres Neuman, The traveller of the century.
We investigate the role of childhood sensations in memory. We will review the narrative character of memory, and how only a small selection of sense-data ends in our conscious memory. After discussing how the brain selects the data for conscious memory we highlight the role of the preverbal childhood sensations in this selection process. Then we give a birds-eye-view for the therapist what to keep in mind when evaluating memory functioning. Finally, we have chosen a movie where the role of memory in therapy is shown in an intriguing way.
The functioning of the memory in adults
Memories are stored as a coherent story. And that’s why everything we see and hear (and smell, taste and touch), will be remembered as elements of a story. The lived past, which will not take part in this story, remains unconscious.
The narrative of adult memory is formed on the basis of pre-established patterns of knowledge and social-cultural factors.
Moreover, throughout life, we adapt past memories so that they are in harmony with our ever-changing views on life.
But in the way an adult remembers events, there is also a matrix of childhood that plays a role.
The effect of childhood sensations in memory functioning
In a young child, there are no preset knowledge or social-cultural factors. There are only sensations.
In the behaviour of the small child, we call his (preverbal) tendency, characterised by a mixture of wonder, curiosity and questioning: pre-thinking. (José Carlos Ruiz Sánchez, El Arte de Pensar )
The structure of pre-thought will play a special role in what we unconsciously choose to include or exclude from our memory in our adult lives.
The role of memory in therapy
A delicate and essential part of therapy is asking someone to tell us what they remember about their childhood. Family, friends, school, everything plays a crucial role; it forms a context around which new impressions are organised.
The therapist will need to be aware that the further back in time our childhood is, the more the memories are altered.
Objective knowledge of the role of childhood will only be useful to the therapist when the patient remembers real situations from his or her childhood. This is often more difficult than we think, precisely because the environment of childhood is overshadowed by many changes in our memories.
The reason for delving deeper into this issue is to understand the structure of the pre-thinking matrix that precisely this specific person has created around his or her parents.
This may shed sudden light on more recent relationships in which, for example, a certain pattern, through the subconscious, seems to be repeating itself.
A complex investigation
In order to study the patient’s memory as part of therapy, the therapist needs several levels of general knowledge :
– The biology of the body, in particular the different functions of the organs.
– In-depth knowledge of the brain; brain function and development.
– Understanding the influence of other organs on the brain.
– Understanding the influence of substances, especially drugs and stimulants, on the brain, especially on memory.
– Have an orientation in the different theories of consciousness.
– Developmental psychology.
– The objective role that social conditions, education, and the professional field can play.
– The subjective role of social conditions, education and the professional domain
– General theories on memory and what pathological memory involves.
– Factors are known to science that influence memory.
All this forms the basis of therapy, lege artis. Once the therapist has a good impression of all these variables, the therapy unfolds in a healing context.
A cinematic example
In the film “Pain and Glory” by Pedro Almodóvar (2019), we see a good example in which the investigation of childhood memories (proto-thinking) has a liberating role, and the complexity of factors such as physical problems, drugs and social aspects.
This film is a powerful reminder of the difficult processes that patients go through in therapy, but it illustrates that although many elements are provided by the social, medical and psychological sciences, each therapy is a unique adventure in which intuition, coincidence and artistic aspects also play a role in a very individual way.
*Child’s drawing, Waldorf Schule