Humans have long tried to understand what memory is and how it works. It’s an important part of what makes us truly human, and yet it’s one of the most elusive and misunderstood of human attributes.

The popular image of memory is as a kind of tiny filing cabinets full of individual memory folders in which information is stored away and can be accessed on demand. In the light of modern biological and psychological knowledge, we now understand that memory isn’t an exact reproduction of events from your past. Whenever you retrieve a memory, your alter it. What you recall may be close to exactly what happened, but the very act of recalling an experience changes it, sometimes in significant ways. To put it scientifically, memory retrieval activates a neural cluster similar to, but not identical with, the one created at the time of encoding*. It seems that our memory is located not in one particular place in the brain, but is instead a brain-wide process. Memory is powerful because it shapes our current perception by causing us to anticipate what will happen next based on our past experiences.

There are two types of memory because the brain processes and stores information about the world in two fundamentally different ways. Implicit memory influences your behavior in the present without any realization that your memory has even been triggered. When you ride a bike, you don’t have to think through step by step how to do it. You just do it and in this case your implicit memory is triggered. If, on the other hand, you think about the first time you got on a bike, trying frantically to balance yourself and not fall off, and eventually lost control and ended up sitting on the sidewalk crying with a scraped knee. When you actively think about these images and emotions, then you are aware that you are recalling something from the past and that means your explicit memory is at work. Implicit memory is essentially an evolutionary process that keeps us safe and out of danger. It frees us to be able to react quickly, or even automate our responses in moments of danger without having to actively or intentionally recall previous similar experiences*.

As I wrote in my Memoir LET GO, I was brought up by my grandmother in Shanghai while my parents worked in another remote part of China thousands of miles away. I got to see my mother once every four years when my parents came back to Shanghai for a visit that usually lasted for about a month. My mother’s eagerness to connect with me always turned into a highly visible disheartenment since I didn’t respond with the same enthusiasm. As the days went by, her frustration and anger would escalate to a point of explosion and she would resort to physical punishment for my refusing to call her “mom.” The sad thing was she wasn’t around nearly enough to show the tender and loving side of a mother. So to me at a young age, my mother was a terrifying and violent woman who was prone to flip her lid. My parents retired to Shanghai before I entered college. I had to spend my first summer break living with them. Even though I had buried the painful memory deep down in my skull so that I didn’t have to deal with it, I was inevitably controlled by the implicit memory. Having to be in a small space with my mother on a daily basis made me sick, literally. My heartbeat became irregular and I began to have trouble breathing and sleeping. One day I collapsed in the bathroom, unconscious. Of course my mother’s reaction was yelling at me for not taking care of myself and prophesized that I’d die before reaching the age of fifty.

Over the years I tried many ways to deal with the pain. Through prayer and sharing with spiritually mature Christian sisters, I did manage to arrive at a place of forgiveness and peace. But I could never stand being alone with my mother. Just like your implicit memory tells you never to put your hand on a hot stove after getting burned, mine warned me to stay away from her because I had been burned too many times.

Describing and processing those awful childhood experiences turned the implicit memories explicit and eventually freed me from the pain that had kept me a prisoner for so long. It’s in this transformation that the real power of integrating memory brings insight, understanding and healing. There’s a part of our brain whose exact job is to integrate our implicit and explicit memories and it’s called the hippocampus. The hippocampus works with different parts of our brain to take all of the images, emotions and sensations of implicit memory and draw them together so that they can become the assembled “pictures” that make up our explicit understanding of our past experiences*.

So as parents we’ll be giving our children a precious gift if we teach them healthy ways to integrate the two types of memories instead of hoping that they’d “just forget about” painful or frightening experiences they’ve undergone. And because memory isn’t a carbon copy of past events, by encouraging them to talk about their various experiences, we’ll also help them get better and more accurate in the memory retrieval process.

When we become the active author of our life story and not merely the passive scribe of history as it unfolds, we can create a life we love and cherish with meaning, purpose and fuller understanding.

*The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel