A documentary discussing an interesting issue was recently brought to my attention. It's about the plasticity of the brain, and talks about the potential for scientists to either place false memories or remove traumatic memories from individual's minds as a way to "heal" from trauma. Pretty science fictiony right?
It got me to thinking about traumatic memories, particularly those of NICU parents. NICU parents have a unique situation: one in which the trauma that they've been exposed to had to do with witnessing their baby or babies fight for their lives in the hospital-- horrific-- but not necessarily in the same way that witnessing a car accident or physical abuse might be, as our trauma is intertwined with our babies' entrance into the world. On this topic I was quick to realize that there's no way I would prefer to forget my traumatic memories; not only do they contain critically important details of my sweet boys' lives (and William's passing), but at the same time, the experiences gave me a completely different sense of the world around me. It wasn't necessarily a positive sense, but it felt powerful and important. It most definitely changed the way I perceived things; the way I think.
Trauma is essentially the experience of something terrible-- it can be either through our own experience of crisis or through watching someone we care about struggle with something extraordinary. Our brains work hard to make a discrete memory of traumatic circumstances for the evolutionary purpose of being prepared if something along the same lines should happen again. For example, one of my earliest memories is that of grabbing a metal railing to pull myself out of the pool at a swimming lesson-- it was burning hot-- I let go and sunk back into the pool. My mind stored that memory as an extremely important thing as my fear of drowning and the reality of it took over at that moment-- I believe I was only two years old.
Our experience of trauma becomes "disordered" (I hate that descriptor) when elements of our reaction to it continue to affect our lives in a negative way long after the trauma has ended. Many NICU parents have experienced this in ways like hearing a beeping noise that brings you back to the constant alarm of the apnea and other monitors in the NICU and becoming anxious, perhaps even sweating or developing insomnia in response to it. Many times it is our bodies that respond to these triggers; I remember once smelling hand sanitizer that had a similar fragrance to the one at our NICU and becoming physically ill. In fact, many newer theories about the experience of trauma posit that we hold much of these experiences in our physical bodies. It makes sense, as traumatic memories are often stored in a different part of the brain than our autobiographical memories; it is nonverbal, and has much to do with the sensory perception associated with specific memories: the limbic system.
The neuroscientist Dan Siegel writes much about the notion that the attachment a parent has with their child can be gauged by that parent's own narrative memory and whether it is coherent or not. Additionally most trauma literature within the field of psychology puts forth the notion that in the treatment of trauma, the goal is for the client to develop a cohesive memory that incorporates the traumatic event within it. Siegel talks about how when a parent has gone through a traumatic circumstance, it's essential for them to integrate the memory into their own personal narrative in order to have an optimal attachment with their baby (Siegel, 2001). It reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend when she was pregnant with her son. I told her that I hoped he would "always be happy". Her response surprised me at the time; she said that "I think it's also important for him to learn about sadness too". The conversation shifted the way that I perceived parenting significantly, and in actually becoming a parent, I realized that her words held even more power and honesty than I had previously thought. To imagine human beings as ideally being two-dimensional super-happy people leaves out a huge piece of the human experience. Without sadness or pain, what would happiness look like?
So, what of it when we are confronted with the idea that we could forget the NICU and everything that happened there? Everything that at once deconstructed our lives but at the same time brought our children into the world? What would it mean for our attachment with our children that we wouldn't have any information about our most painful experiences, that were innately intertwined with their lives, to share with them? What of the gaps in our narratives? What if instead of "removing" traumatic memories from our conscious/unconscious mind, we instead worked to figure out how to perceive them differently-- perhaps in ways that serve us, our children, our families and friends in moving forward?
What if, instead of holding on to the end goal of "forgetting" trauma, we chose to carry it with us, perhaps in the hope that in communicating what we have been through, we could help others to understand it?
Siegel, D. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: attachment relationships, "mindsight," and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94.
If your interest is piqued by this subject, the documentary I referenced here is called "Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain" and on Sunday, November 15, at 9 pm ET it will air on the National Geographic Channel.