It’s an old adage from neurolinguistic programming (NLP), and it was Richard Bandler, the co-founder of NLP, who said it: “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” It was controversial at the time; and of course we are entering the realms of magical thinking if we think we can change the past…
The past happened. Fact. And our past is immortalised in our memory. But our memories are far from factual, and far from fixed. Think about how unreliable witness statements are seen to be in the eyes of the law. And have you ever experienced talking to a friend or family member about a childhood memory and the both of you seem to remember the same thing in a very differently?
Memory is coded in each of us in a very subjective way, based on the emotions the interactions and the meanings that we each, individually, make at the time. Then, every time we recall a memory, there is the potential to change the memory, and that memory is put back into your ‘memory banks’ changed. Our memory can, literally, play tricks on us, as with each recall we change it put it back, change it put it back…
The Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had to say of the discovery:
“Most neuroscientists, myself included, believed that a new memory, once consolidated into long-term storage, is stable. It’s as if every long-term memory had its own connections in the brain. Each time you retrieve the memory, or remembered, you retrieved that original memory, and then returned it. Reconsolidation theory proposed a radically different idea — that the very act of remembering could change the memory. Therefore, every time you remembered, you’d recall the memory as it was the very last time you remembered it, rather than the memory that was created the first time. And it would be replaced as a new representation. This theory suggested that the very act of remembering might render memories fragile, subject to change or perhaps erasure.”
But it’s not that we can change what happened to us in the past. Instead we change its emotional charge – the meaning that we wrap up in the memory – and if we can do that we can successfully file away negative memories so that difficult events in our past become events that happened, but we are no longer have to get disturbed or caught up in them. This is done in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which gets ‘damaged’ by trauma but we can reinforce healthy activity of this region of the brain in psychotherapy or yoga therapy.
It kind of works like this:
- Limbic pathway (in childhood memories)
Get angry at 4 when sister takes toy (emotional energy) > hit sister (action) > get punished by parents (interaction) > feel like a very bad boy (meaning encoded in feeling)
- Reversal of limbic pathway, by re-presenting old memory to higher cortex as an adult (cortical pathway for remeaning)
Little boy got mad and parents didn’t handle it well, therefore I am not bad (feeling of relief and memory is resolved)
This is the basis of neurolinguistic psychotherapy (NLPt) – it frees us of the past. This is important because memory runs the show; in every moment of our lives we are, moment by moment, subtly and subconsciously influenced by the memory of our past experiences. For example anxiety is often due to underlying and repressed anger – we are consciously repressing our anger (defence mechanism) yet part of our mind knows, and gets anxious because anger means we are ‘bad’ (see above childhood example) because the subconscious mind is simplistic and childlike (and incredibly potent) and makes powerful links between events and meaning.
However what is even more remarkable about memory is that we can consciously create new nurturing memories that run parallel to the old unsupportive ones, so that we can get a deeply embodied sense of what it could have been like to have had a very different childhood experience. This is quite amazing.
Remember what Einstein (I think!) said, “The brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality.” Actually I think the brain does; it’s the body that doesn’t. We can use our imagination to create an embodied ‘felt sense’ of what a certain (positive, nurturing) memory would feel like, and when we get that ‘feeling of what happens’ it changes our very consciousness (see Damasio).
In a Pesso Boyden psychomotor (PBSP) session today, a client nicely sums up the experience: “I’ve just had a realisation that if I can live this in my mind, the perfect family situation, and create a memory out of that, then it shows how much power the old memory has got to hold me down. I’ve been buried in them, I am letting them have power only I can give them. Only I decide to give them that power and invest in those old memories. Now I realise I can place my power of thought where I want to, and not invest in the old [negative] memories, but put my energy into the new experience I have just created. It gives me a fizzing feeling all over my body and I feel connected and whole. I feel at one.”
We don’t change reality – that would be (at best) magical thinking or (at worst) hallunication. But we change the meaning that we make of reality, and in doing that we change its hold over us. And simultaneously we can create, through our imagination, in body psychotherapies such as PBSP, new parallel memories that give us an embodied sense of ‘what it could have been like’.
The two together are a powerful partnership.
Memory runs the show: present consciousness is woven from the threads of memory. The present moment by moment experience therefore is ‘loaded’ with the felt sense and meaning of the negative memories from our past. Change this and you change everything.