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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Locating the Trouble

Of the 50,000 or so waking hours that we have before our tenth birthdays, we’ll tend to remember only a handful. Nothing much at all stays in the mind before we’re three, and thereafter only a few snapshots are retrievable. Lengthy hours of playing, idling, sitting on the sofa, messing about in the garden, experimenting in the kitchen, drawing fish, flowers and submarines on the living room floor – all will vanish, as though an archivist were systematically ripping out pages in the story of our lives and dumping them in the ocean or setting fire to them at night. We’ll hold on – at best – to the memory of a few smells, the textures of carpets, the colour of the earth after rain, the taste of lemon juice and mint, the heat on the first day of the holidays… It isn’t much to have made it from an entire era.

Photo of two young children lying on a chaise longue.
All those hours have gone. Julie Blackmon, Chaise, 2013. 

But we should not be discouraged by the monstrous scale of our forgetting. There is much that we can do – as skilled emotional archaeologists – to infer crucial things from the past. We can make use of the two different memory systems that our minds possess, an explicit and an implicit one. Contained in the explicit memory system are all our conscious recollections of events: the holidays in the mountains, a telling-off at school or the guinea-pig we looked after at home. However vivid some of these might be, relative to what we actually experienced, the explicit system is a very empty storage mechanism indeed. 

But fortunately, we can lean on the second implicit memory system, which happens to be dense with information from which highly relevant deductions can be made. An implicit memory is any idea, fact, emotional response or character trait that we acquired from the world outside of us in circumstances which we have forgotten. To take an obvious example, we remember the two times table but nothing at all of the context in which we learnt it. We know how to ride a bike, but not how we came to do so. Something entered our minds – the data or skill we possess proves as much – but the setting in which it did so has evaporated.

When it comes to how we operate emotionally, most of our proclivities exist at the implicit rather than the explicit level. We can’t remember exactly what a parent told us about how valuable we were to them. But what we do know is that we feel like worthless people now and that nothing we do is ever good enough in our eyes. Or: we have no explicit memory of how we learnt about trust, but we do know that we find it very hard indeed to believe that someone we love will ever be loyal to us.

This form of implicit memory opens up vast avenues for self-exploration. We don’t need to scour our minds in increasing panic for explicit scenes. We won’t ever remember what exactly a parent might have told us when we were two and a half. But we don’t need to either. We can start with the here and now, with the implicit memories we have open access to and ask ourselves a range of questions:

How do we feel about ourselves?

How do we feel about men? 

And about women?

What are our attitudes to authority?

What do we think we need to do in order to be loved?

Can people be believed? Are they loyal and kind – or something darker?

Do we deserve generosity – or contempt?

All our answers will be based on implicit memories – and they will differ markedly from person to person. One individual will have learnt that men are strong and capable and like to be relied upon. Another will have learnt that men are furious, vengeful and should not be approached without caution. In both cases, the explicit circumstances in which these thoughts entered the mind will have vanished; the implicit memories will stand as proof that they did so. 

Understanding ourselves therapeutically means studying our characters in the present and growing sensitive to a range of implicit memories that underpin our ways of thinking. Why are we afraid of being disgraced? Why does status matter so much to us? Why are we worried about being called ‘stupid’? Why do we believe that we can’t lay down boundaries in relationships?

Our minds are littered with stubborn implicit peculiarities. We won’t ever be able to remember the day these entered our vulnerable young minds – but we can, to our great benefit and eventual liberation, actively question whether many of them still deserve a place there.

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