Using Brain Science to Accelerate Healing: Part 1 — Integrating Implicit and Explicit Memory
How hopeful are you about your health? Before answering that question, we need to reveal that there are at least two different definitions of hope as it relates to your health. The first comes from Charles “Rick” Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in positive psychology and was the editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. According to Snyder, hope is defined as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself to use those pathways.
Another health-related definition of hope that we’re aware of comes from researchers in the Department of Health Behavior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who tell us hope is a future expectancy characterized by an individual’s perception that a desirable future outcome can be achieved.
So, how hopeful are you about your own positive health outcomes, and what does emotional well being have to do with physical health in the first place? An upbeat attitude about the state of your own health goes a long way, according to brain scientists in several recent studies.
For example, a 2013 study conducted by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
Another study in 2013 conducted by Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who collaborated with a team from the UCLA, found that people who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being (the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning) showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.
In contrast, people with relatively high levels of hedonic well-being (happiness that comes from merely pleasurable activities) had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.
Here at Restoration Healthcare, we see many patients who have experienced trauma — both physical and emotional — and continue to suffer as a result of not fully understanding and being able to move on from their past trauma. They’re angry at the tick that caused their Lyme disease, the mold that contributed to their environmentally acquired illness, or the caregiver who neglected or abused them as a child. And along the way, these patients have lost the ability to regulate and trust their own body to recover and heal. They require not only physical treatment but also treatments to help them fully integrate their mind, body, and relationships — to flip the switch on their gene expression in a way that restores health and fitness.
In this three-part series, we explore the brain-body connection, focusing on the limbic system and the impact it has on our ability to trust our own bodies to heal. (The limbic system consists of nerves and networks in the brain associated with basic emotions including fear, pleasure, and anger, and with instinctual drives, such as hunger, sex, and care of offspring.) Here, in Part 1, we focus on the difference between implicit and explicitmemory and the importance of integrating the two to more effectively process trauma and move past it. In Part 2, we focus on the important role the vagus nerve plays in overall well-being, and in Part 3, we look at various tools and therapies to help address limbic system issues that may be inhibiting the body’s ability to heal itself.
Understanding Implicit and Explicit Memory
As the brain encodes and stores information, it forms explicit and implicit memories. Explicit memories are facts and information, such as a topic you studied or a place you visited. Implicit memories are automatic or unconscious records of perceptions, sensations, and emotions. Think of it this way — when you’re taking a test, you’re drawing on explicit memory, but when you’re riding a bike, you’re being guided by implicit memory. In non-stressful situations, the brain processes both implicit and explicit memories and integrates the two to form coherent unified memories.
However, a traumatic event triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, and your brain’s primary purpose is to protect your safety — not to encode or integrate memories. This is why people who experience trauma commonly have memory gaps.
Both implicit and explicit memories are encoded, but they are not integrated. Someone who experiences trauma may have implicit memories of fear, racing heart, tense muscles, increased sweating, an urge to escape, and an adrenaline rush, along with explicit memories of certain sights, sounds, and sensations. But they’re all jumbled — they’re not organized and stored in a way that enables them to fully process what happened. As a result, they may get stuck in a state of chronic stress or anxiety and/or experience flashbacks. These are intrusive implicit memories triggered by sensory stimuli that have become associated with the implicit memories that trigger physical reactions. Note that these are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, and this is really important, the trauma impairs the integrative growth and functioning of the brain.
According to Dr. Dan Siegel — a Harvard-trained clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine — with extreme trauma, the lack of integration can even lead to psychiatric conditions, such as dissociative-identity disorder (formerly referred to as multiple-personality disorder). For example, if a child is abused by a caregiver, the child may be both terrified of the person and drawn to her at the same time, causing the brain to become fragmented — memories that should be integrated no longer are.
According to Dr. Siegel, although dissociation is one of the most debilitating of psychiatric conditions, it can be cured because “the brain is incredibly plastic,” meaning it can grow new neurons and form new neural networks. Psychotherapy, loving, supportive relationships, and positive emotional experiences can help the brain develop its integrative fibers.
Dr. Siegel believes that the need for integration extends beyond the brain to encompass the body and human relationships. Unlike the vast majority of brain scientists who believe that “the mind is what the brain does,” he believes “the mind is both fully embodied and a relational process.”
By “fully embodied,” he means that the mind permeates the body — “heart, lungs, intestines, endocrine and immune systems,” and so on. By “relational process,” he means that mind energy information flows “both within the whole body, including the brain, and also between us and the whole world.” Viewing the mind as existing “within us and between us,” is important “because impaired integration in the whole body, including the brain and in our relationships is a source of unhealth.”
Taking an Integrative and Functional Medicine Approach to Healing
Here at Restoration Healthcare, we share Dr. Siegel’s belief that restoring hope and health requires more than merely treating dysfunction in the body, which is why we have made hope a key component of our very reason for being (i.e., our mission statement): “To restore hope and optimize the body’s innate ability to heal from within through the compassionate delivery of functional medicine.”
We take an integrative and functional medicine approach to diagnosing and treating our patients. Integrative medicine is an approach to healthcare that puts the patient at the center and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, relational, spiritual, and environmental influences that affect the patient’s health. Functional medicine examines how and why an illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease.
We understand and appreciate the brain-body connection, which is why we include cognitive and neurological testing and treatments when evaluating and treating patients. These include the RightEye’s Brain Health EyeQ Diagnostic and EyeQ Trainer and Cambridge Brain Sciences (CBS) brain health assessment service. We want to know not only what’s going on in the body, but also what’s going on in the brain and central nervous system so we can develop a personalized and comprehensive treatment plan and work closely with each patient to restore whole health. These diagnostics and others enable us to develop a more informed plan of care than other medical practices may be able to prepare, and offer treatment options that go far deeper than other treatment providers ever consider — all of which has the potential to restore hope and trust in the body’s ability to heal.
If you lack hope and trust in your body’s ability to heal, an implicit versus explicit memory issue may be at play, which often impairs your ability to recover and restore your optimal level of health. Our diagnostics and treatments may be able to help address such issues and restore the integration of brain, body, and relationships. This all begins with a close, trusting, and collaborative patient-physician relationship, which is something we excel at creating.
One important way we work toward brain-body integration is by supporting healthy function of the vagus nerves — cranial nerves that link the brain to the lungs, heart, spleen, liver, kidneys, and digestive system. To find out more about the vagus nerve, check out our previous post Vagus Nerve Stimulation May Improve Well Being and tune in next week for a discussion of Polyvagal Theory.
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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about implicit and explicit memory, is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at Restoration Healthcare, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.