Have you ever gone to collect your car keys and been completely clueless as to where you put them? Or spent ages searching for your sunglasses only to find them perched on your head?
These are lapses of our “explicit” memory: the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences and concepts. So that we can eat, ride bikes and get dressed every day without having to consciously remember how to do so, our brain also conveniently provides us with “implicit” (or unconscious) memory.
When a person is threatened, physically or emotionally, their caveman brain often defaults to flight, fight or freeze. And in that state, the part of our brain which usually stores explicit memory is overwhelmed and struggles to function. However, implicit memory receptors are stimulated so that unconscious memory is intensified.
In other words, during periods of intense trauma, explicit memory is blocked and implicit memory is enhanced. This means that a person may not consciously be able to remember a traumatic incident, but their subconscious can. According to research cited by Blue Knot Foundation, this means the incident will be experienced in the body.
People who are subjected to trauma through family violence, whether physical, emotional or psychological, may experience flashbacks, where the body re-experiences a past event in which there is little or no explicit memory of the incident or the abuse. This is often called “triggering”.
So why does this matter? Because it highlights why survivors of family violence struggle to explain their experience. While their conscious brain has mercifully protected them from remembering the derogatory taunts or gaslighting behaviour, their body reacts as if the trauma were still happening.
This makes life difficult in a legal system which is based purely on the narration of truth as recounted from explicit memory. From lawyers collecting witness statements to a family court hearing evidence, a better understanding of the impact of family violence on memory may go some way to helping survivors tell their stories.
Solo Legal practices trauma-informed family law in Queensland, Australia www.solo-legal.com
Blue Knot Foundation is the Australian National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma https://www.blueknot.org.au