Subconscious Emotional Memories

Oct, 17 2020
2 Minutes

I'm currently in the process of writing a book summary for Rewire Your Anxious Brain and want to share a few thoughts on the Amygdala - the two almond like structures in the brain which are responsible for triggering anxiety and fear.

When it comes to consciousness, I previously thought we had a conscious brain and a subconscious brain. To me, the subconscious was a single, black box. But what this book helped me realize is that within this black box, there are many components - and the Amygdala is one.

The most startling fact about the Amygdala is that not only does it trigger the physiological response of “fight or flight”, it also stores emotional memories. These emotional memories are entirely inaccessible to our conscious, thinking mind.

An Experiment

The existence of emotional memories has been known for a long time. In 1911, Édouard Claparède conducted an experiment on one of his patients who had lost her ability to form new memories.

As the book says:

One day her physician performed a little experiment (one that wouldn’t be ethical by today’s standards). When he reached out to shake her hand, he stuck her hand with a pin he’d hidden in his palm. The next day, when the woman saw the doctor extend his hand, she quickly withdrew her hand in fear. When asked why she refused to shake his hand, she couldn’t offer an explanation. In addition, she reported that she had no memory of seeing the doctor before. She had no cortex-based memory of an event that would cause her to fear the doctor; but her amygdala had created an emotional memory, and her fear was the evidence of it. (p. 33)

Even though the patient couldn't form new memories, she could form new emotional memories.

Why this matters

Our brains are complex and when it comes to our psychology, it may not be useful to tell someone that their problems are just “in their heads” (even though that is technically true). That’s because the head is made up of multiple systems, and each must be trained via different practices. Meditation is wonderful, but it cannot dislodge a highly negative emotional memory. You do not meditate your way out of trauma (although it will probably help).

I’ll discuss anxiety much more when I finish the review of the book (along with a survey of the suggested treatments in the book), but for now - I thought it was worth admiring how complex our brains really are - and respecting the importance of emotional memories that exist beyond our consciousness.