When dealing with unresolved traumatic content coming forward as invisible implicit memory, there are two intriguing, subtle, and ubiquitous phenomena that make the situation even more difficult. The first of these “particular phenomena” is the part of our brain/mind/spirit that I call our Verbal Logical Explainer, or VLE. The VLE’s job is to come up with explanations that help us organize and make sense out of our experiences and the world around us. Most of the time this is a good thing. Our VLEs are constantly coming up with explanations that help us make sense out of our lives, and they usually work so quickly and smoothly that we don’t even notice them. In fact, your VLE is busily working at this very moment, making sense out of your experience as you read this paragraph. For example, your VLE is explaining to you that you are on the Outsmarting Yourself website, reading about psychological trauma and the Verbal Logical Explainer (as opposed to other things you might be doing, such as watching a soap opera, hang gliding in Hawaii, or driving to work in rush hour traffic).
Our VLEs also usually start with basically adequate and accurate data, and come up with basically valid explanations. However, if our VLEs start with distorted and/or inadequate data, they can come up with profoundly flawed explanations. For example, if my VLE starts with thoughts and emotions that are actually from childhood memories of bullies cutting in front of me during playground activities, but these thoughts and emotions are coming forward as “invisible” implicit memory so that they feel true in the present and I have no awareness of their real origin, my VLE will make up explanations for how these thoughts and emotions are being caused by circumstances in the present, such as people using the merge lane to go to the front of the line in a construction zone.
The second of these “particular phenomena” is confabulation. Confabulation is a special kind of fabrication, in which the person makes something up based on her best guess regarding what might be the answer, but with no conscious awareness that she is just guessing and with no deliberate intent to deceive. Confabulation is most dramatically seen in people who have severely damaged explicit memory combined with minimal conscious awareness of their explicit memory deficit; however, we all engage in much more subtle forms of confabulation when our VLEs are unknowingly working with raw material that includes “invisible” implicit memory content.
Children have Verbal Logical Explainers that are still quite primitive, and therefore provide a place where it’s easy to recognize that the VLE often makes things up (confabulates). For example, a number of years ago Charlotte and I spent a week with my sister, Emily, and her family, and after we left, our four-year-old niece, Miranda, was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Throughout the day she became increasingly fussy, irritable, whiny, and frustrated with everything and everybody. Finally, as Miranda was brushing her teeth in preparation for going to bed, Emily asked her, “What’s the matter, honey? Why are you so unhappy?” And Miranda, looking at the toothbrush she was holding in her hand at that moment, responded with, “Because the toothbrush is orange!!!”
When asked to come up with an explanation for why she was so unhappy, her four-year-old Verbal Logical Explainer, seeing the toothbrush in front of her face and having no insight regarding the attachment pain caused by Charlotte and me leaving, came up with an explanation that had nothing to do with the real reason for her emotional distress: “I’m upset because the toothbrush is orange!!” And we know the problem really was attachment pain because after Miranda’s angry accusation blaming the terrible orange toothbrush, Emily gently suggested, “I wonder if you miss Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Karl?” There was a long pause as Miranda’s face slowly crumpled, and then she burst into tears: “Yeee-ee-ee-ee-ss.” Emily held her, comforted her, and talked with her about how much fun it had been to spend time with Charlotte and me, about how it was okay to be sad that we had left, and about how we would come back again next year. After having a good cry and receiving the comfort Emily was offering, Miranda’s usual pleasant disposition promptly returned.
With respect to unresolved trauma and implicit memory, the relevant point is that your VLE will quickly and smoothly come up with an explanation for why and how your current circumstances are causing you to experience any triggered thoughts and emotions (thoughts and emotions that are actually content from unresolved trauma coming forward as implicit memory). And, unfortunately, the confabulated, flawed VLE explanations feel very much like valid VLE explanations. Without a lot of deliberate practice, most of us don’t seem to perceive any difference between valid explanations and flawed, confabulated explanations.
Having an explanation that accounts for the triggered thoughts and emotions as being reasonable responses to events in the present makes it even more difficult to recognize the implicit memory content for what it is. When unresolved trauma, implicit memory, and VLE confabulated explanations come together in this way, you will try to resolve your painful thoughts and emotions by focusing your energy and attention on the triggers in the present, as if they are the true source of the implicit memory traumatic content; and if the trigger happens to be another person’s behavior, you will try to resolve your painful thoughts and emotions by attempting to make her change this terrible behavior that is causing all your problems.
See chapter 3 for additional explanation, true story illustrations, engaging case study examples, and fascinating supporting research.