You’ve probably had this experience: you decide there’s something you want to change about yourself and resolve to do so. You commit to acting, feeling or interacting differently, but no matter how hard you discipline yourself, nothing changes.
This is because most of your memories are unconscious memories. These memories define you, but you have no conscious access to them.
The very phrase “unconscious memories” may sound like an oxymoron, so what are unconscious memories? Well, we have four types of memory, and only one of the four types is conscious. It turns out that unconscious memories are the most influential.
Four Types Of Memory
We have four types of memory:
- Conscious mental memories
- Emotional memories
- Movement memories
- Gut memories
When we say we remember something we are talking about conscious mental memories of events. A description of this type of memory often starts something like “I remember one time, at band camp…”
The other three kinds of memory are unconscious. Moreover, they’re not just passive memories; they also drive your behaviors.
Let’s take a look at how each of these types of memory works and how they drive your emotions and behaviors.
1. Conscious Mental Memories
Our conscious memories are formed by the hippocampus taking a snapshot of short-term working memory and committing it to a long-term memory stored in the temporal lobes.
Such memories are generally composites – pictures, sounds, feelings and beliefs drawn from different parts of the brain into a bundle that’s stored together.
We can re-access these memories by consciously directing our attention to them or by having something ‘jog’ our memory. For example the particular scent of the peach-colored roses I walked past in a flower stall in Warsaw today reminded me of the scented rose garden in my childhood home. Happy memories of picking rose petals for my elder brother to make rose petal wine came flooding back into my conscious awareness.
These are conscious mental memories.
2. Emotional Memories
Our emotional memories are created and stored in our amygdalae – two small but highly influential brain structures beneath our temples. Sometimes memories in the amygdalae can be accessed consciously (like my memory of picking rose petals), but often they are not.
Importantly, the amygdalae are all about creating emotional associations. Research has shown that a bad smell administered at the same time as displaying a picture of a person will instill a negative feeling about the person. The feeling of the bad smell has become associated with, or attached to, the image of the person.
As Dr. Elizabeth Phelps puts it:
The amygdala is necessary for the acquisition and expression of a conditioned response. However, the amygdala is not necessary for a cognitive awareness and understanding of the episode of fear conditioning. This dissociation between automatic emotional response and conscious recollection and awareness indicates that the amygdala and some emotional responses can operate independently of cognitive awareness.
– Elizabeth Phelps, Lab Director at the Department of Psychology, New York University
In evolutionary terms, the amygdalae are incredibly well adapted for forming strong approach or avoidance feelings, such as being drawn to a loved one’s scent or scared away by the sight of an alley where you were once attacked. They are essential are for making snap decisions about important things.
As I mentioned, the amygdalae are all about associations: a person you fell in love with had a distinctive hairstyle, and forever after you will be drawn to people with the same hair; you’re hit by a bright red Mercedes and forever after you will have a twinge of fear when a similar car drives by.
This is an unconscious form of memory that is typical of the amygdalae.
The amygdalae have more connections to the rest of the brain than any other brain structure. Thus, although they are physically small, they can exert enormous influence over our thoughts, feelings and reactions. They assert this influence almost instantaneously and without conscious thought.
The amygdalae are essential for the acquisition of conditioned responses as I describe in The Super-Power Of Pavlov’s Dogs. As I discuss in that article, conditioned responses can cause problems, but can also be leveraged as a powerful tool for personal development. Just as the amygdalae can create strong associations unconsciously, they can also be directed by conscious awareness to create new and equally strong positive associations. For example, the Freedom From Allergies course leverages this capability to replace a negative, allergic response to an allergen with a positive response to the same chemical stimulus, thus ‘curing’ the allergy. The Self-Confidence Made Easier and Easier course uses the same re-conditioning process to give you positive responses to formerly ‘scary’ situations, for example evoking self-confidence instead of fear when you walk into your boss’ office.
3. Movement Patterns
If you’ve watched a newborn baby, you will have noticed that their movements are random and uncoordinated. It takes a lot of work to learn sophisticated adult behaviors like walking, driving, talking and playing the piano.
Some of our movement patterns are learned by conscious intention, and others are driven by unconscious processes.
Conscious Movement Patterns
My friend Alexa is an internationally renowned pianist. She practices a minimum four hours a day, every day of the year. Watching her practice Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 for a concert in Berlin provided a great illustration of how we learn movement patterns through conscious intention.
First, her decision to practice the piece was made by her conscious mind, housed in her frontal lobe. As she practiced, her mind directed her primary motor cortex – the movement function that is within our conscious control – to play the notes. With repeated conscious practice, she programmed the movements from her primary motor cortex down into her cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control. Notably, the functioning of the cerebellum is always outside of conscious control, but it can be influenced by conscious control via the primary motor cortex.
After hundreds of hours of playing the piece it became an unconscious process. Her fingers flew across the keyboard with speed and ease – a passionate musical expression that the consciously controlled primary motor cortex could never achieve.
So here we have an example of a consciously directed learning process programming new memories into an unconscious part of the brain.
It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you will always be able to do it. You just do it without thinking.
Unconscious Movement Patterns
Our movement patterns are also influenced by unconscious processes, particularly in the amygdalae and the rest of the limbic system – the emotional part of our brains.
If you feel sad, your posture will slump. If you feel happy you’ll lift your head and smile. If you feel afraid your muscles will contract and you’ll shrink.
These postural changes are driven by the amygdalae, outside of conscious awareness and control.
Such postures can be fleeting body expressions, but with repetition they become engrained habits. Just like Alexa’s repeated piano practice programming her cerebellum, repeated unconscious movement patterns driven by the limbic system will also become programmed into the cerebellum.
If you are sad for a long time, you will develop a permanent habit of dropping your head and slumping down. If you are generally happy, you will develop a habit of walking around with a relaxed gait and happy smile. If you are afraid for a long time, you’ll develop a permanent habit of making yourself as small as possible.
The subtle elements of those postural and movement patterns will become so engrained that you are no longer aware of them. They are unconscious body memories. I delve into this more in the article, How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body in this Neuroscience Of Body-Psyche series. For now the important thing to know is that most of our subtle body language – our postures and movements – are outside of our conscious awareness and control.
There’s an important subtlety in this, which is negative experiences are more influential in programming our unconscious behaviors than positive ones. I’ll explain the reasons in the upcoming article “Why The Negative Dominates.”
4. Gut Memories
The last form of unconscious memories is the programming of our gut. When we talk about “gut sense” we are literally, not figuratively, talking about unconscious memories stored in our digestive system. I know that might sound crazy, but stay with me here. This is backed up by neuroscience.
There is a large chunk of the brain, the insula, devoted to monitoring and controlling the gut. There is also an entire ‘gut brain’ – the enteric nervous system – which is a network of neurons in the belly that operates somewhat independently of the brain. Interestingly, there are more nerves going from the enteric nervous system to the brain than the other way around; the gut sends a lot of information to the brain, mostly to the insula.
Rather surprisingly, the insula contains a viscerotopic map of the internal organs. That’s a fancy way of saying that every point of every internal organ has a corresponding location in the insula that monitors that body location and can send instructions to that location. For example, one part of your insula monitors your small intestine and can send instructions to it to influence its digestive processes. Another part of your insula monitors your heart and can send instructions to open or close your heart – both literally in the physical muscle and figuratively in how open or closed you are to feeling love. (To experience this for yourself, follow the guided meditation, How To Open Your Heart.)
The development of visceral patterns can be consciously directed by the mind very early in life. If you’ve ever seen a young baby squirming as it tries to make a poop, with its forehead scrunched in concentration, you’ve probably seen a human consciously controlling its gut. But beyond the first months of life, what goes on in our gut is almost entirely outside of conscious control. Most of our gut memories are unconscious memories.
As adults, our conscious mind cannot control our gut.
In contrast, our unconscious emotional memories and gut memories have a rich interplay and influence each other heavily.
I was horribly under qualified for the first job I took out of college. Every day I was emotionally anxious about how I was going to avoid failure. And every day I had diarrhea. My emotions and gut were talking to each other, and my mind had absolutely no say in the matter.
That’s an extreme example, but there are more subtle interplays between our emotions and gut on a continual basis. In our Body-Psyche Guide to Inner Wisdom, the gut is home to the physical embodiment of several emotional patterns including anxiety, shame, hiding and self-identity.
The Problem With Unconscious Memories
Most of our unconscious memories serve us well. If you’ve gotten your life together enough to be reading this, you’re already an over-achiever by evolutionary survival standards.
But there are two problems.
One is many of our unconscious memories got put in place without us ever noticing that we did so. Your parent of the opposite gender was a mess and now you keep dating people with exactly the same screw ups. Oops. You have an unconscious association between the mess that was your parent and your unconscious image of romantic love.
The other problem is that even if we actively chose to adopt a behavior at some time in the past, it may no longer serve us well. You learned to be self effacing to fit in with your family, but now at work you find you can’t stand up for yourself in the ways you want. You had to be dominant to get a word in at the family dinner table, and now your boss tells you that you won’t get a promotion until you learn to be more inclusive on teams.
In either case, as the memories are now programmed in as unconscious memories and behavior patterns, it means that we cannot change them just by conscious will alone.
This is one of the reasons that personal development is so hard. We try to direct it with our conscious minds, but most of the important memories and behavior patterns are out of our conscious awareness.
There Is Hope
It’s not all bad news. There are two reasons for hope. First, it is possible to increase our general self-awareness, bringing unconscious memories into conscious awareness, so that the mind can work with them more effectively. The second is that under special circumstances, the conscious mind can re-connect with unconscious memories and guide their re-patterning.
I mentioned earlier that the insula contains a map of all our internal organs. Interestingly enough, brain imaging studies have shown that people with larger insulae are more self aware of their bodily sensations than people with smaller insulae. Even more surprisingly, the same goes for awareness of internal emotional state.
It turns out that we can practice and develop this kind of body and emotional self-awareness just like any other skill. Yoga and Tai Chi practitioners do this on a regular basis. Simply making a practice of paying attention to what is going in on in your body, for example, monitoring your own heart rate, will over time increase the size of your insula and increase your self awareness.
Other practices of self-awareness, such as the guided meditations on this blog, will have an even greater effect.
Connecting The Conscious Mind To Unconscious Memories
While the conscious mind is unaware of most of what is going on in the brain and body, it is uniquely well equipped for placing focused attention on a particular topic. In fact, it seems that the conscious mind may have evolved specifically for this purpose.
There are several ways in which this focusing power of the mind can be harnessed to connect the conscious mind to unconscious memories and make lasting changes at an unconscious level. The characteristics that they all have in common is that they first invite the mind into a deeply-focused state of self-awareness, and then invite the mind to guide changes at the unconscious level.
I’m aware of three specific ways of achieving this:
- Pavlovian conditioning, as used in the Freedom From Allergies and Self-Confidence Made Easier and Easier courses
- Body-centered guided meditations, like the ones found in the Guided Meditations section of this site
- Guided hypnosis, like the six guided journeys in the Abandonment To Abundance program.
I’ll go into more detail about the neuroscience of how the conscious mind can achieve lasting changes like these in the upcoming article, “The Power Of The Mind.” For now, suffice it to say that the conscious mind can be used in a way that is highly effective for personal development. If you’d like to be notified when I publish that article, make sure you give me your name and email address in the box below to receive regular updates.
Although your most important memories are all unconscious, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them. Real change is possible, in fact fairly easy, when you have the right tools.