Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past

By White, Kate | Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past


White, Kate, Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health


Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past by Peter Levine, PhD, 2015, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, ISBN: 978-1-58394-994-8

Finally, the published resources on working with trauma are catching up with the prenatal and perinatal somatic psychology (PPN) world. I relished reading Trauma and Memory by Peter Levine, PhD. When I started teaching about PPN in 2000, implicit memory as related to prenatal and birth experience was not widely known nor discussed. Those of us in the PPN field had to work hard to support our claim that the early lived human experience - from preconception through the first year of life - had implications across the life span. We were marginalized. Now, books like this one nourish our paradigm like a puzzle piece we knew was there but could not find. How wonderful to feel the satisfaction of fitting that piece into place.

In his usual clear, concise manner, Levine lays out the patterns for explicit and implicit memory. Chapter two, The Fabric of Memory, details each of these kinds of memory, with their subcategories: explicit memory splits into declarative and episodic, implicit memory into emotional and procedural. These categories fit into a diagram of basic memory systems on a continuum, with explicit patterns being more conscious, and implicit, less conscious. The neat, orderly, declarative memory calls on "just the facts ma'am." The episodic memory is warmer and textured, a "dynamic interface between rational and irrational" (p. 16). These two systems function to help with coherent narrative. As we descend into the less conscious memory, the implicit memories are "hot" and powerfully compelling. ...They arise as a collage of sensations, emotions, and behaviors" (p. 21). Further details of implicit memory show how it is coupled with procedural memory:

Implicit memories appear and disappear surreptitiously, usually far outside the bounds of our conscious awareness. They are primarily organized around emotions and/or skills, or "procedures" - things that the body does automatically (sometimes called "action patterns"). ...While emotional memories most certainly have a powerful effect on our behaviors, procedural memories frequently have an even deeper influence - for better or worse - in shaping the trajectory of our lives. (p. 21-22)

A procedural memory is an "impulse, movement, or internal body sensation that guides us through the how to of various actions, skills, attractions, and repulsions," (p. 25). Certainly, being born fits into this category.

Levine devotes a whole chapter to procedural memory (chapter three). In a short subsection called "Emotional Rudders," Levine succinctly lays out the importance of how this implicit/procedural memory plays a role in PPN because it is linked with survival states, and how present day experience can trigger these memories if they are similar in type and intensity. He delivers three case studies that illustrate the power of these implicit/procedural places, one of which is a birth sequence with a mother-baby pair. I paused to savor Levine's case study about a birth sequence, unpacking it with his definitions of memory, and the baby's story, defending and completing sequences in the birth and right afterwards, ending with a re-patterning of bonding with his mother. It is done with precision, flow and clarity.

For the longtime PPN enthusiast, this book is a delicious experience. Levine lays out a road map to memory of how the various types of memory interplay and interweave: procedural memory interrelates with emotional memory to form the implicit, which impacts the explicit memory where declarative and episodic weave together coherent memory. If something implicit lurks in the background, it affects the explicit. This is how early trauma affects the present time.

Levine continues to refine memory in the remaining two-thirds of the book. I so enjoyed his exact descriptions and the thoroughness of the model. …

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