Although the term “imprint” has been used with a different meaning and context by students of animal behavior (to describe how ducks become imprinted to humans for example), it is uniquely descriptive of how pain is impressed in the nervous system. As I use the term, imprints are a special category of memory: experiences that are repressed because they are too painful to integrate, in a sense “put on hold” below the level of conscious awareness. They are put on hold in terms of our whole physiology and not just as a brain event. An imprint is a memory that unlike cerebral recall, which is a cortical event, can be “remembered” by every system of the organism because it is fixed in these systems exactly as the event was laid down originally—the same blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate. If there were a rapidly beating heart of 160 beats per minute during the experience when the memory or imprint was created, then when the memory of that event is provoked, there will again be the same heart rate. The imprint means that part of the traumatic event was experienced while another large part was not; it is yet to be felt. It is not an inert force but something continually active. Aspects of the imprint are, by definition, unconscious. They will become conscious when they are felt fully and connected to higher brain centers.
We need to understand the imprint—and memory itself—in order to understand how unconscious memory affects our behavior later in life, and what happens to our sex life.
Pioneering research by neurologist Wilder Penfield showed that memories are physiologically imprinted in the brain (the temporal lobe) and leave traces that can be elicited (by using an electronic probe) exactly as they occurred, capturing the sensory inputs (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) and feelings of the original event intact. Brain research by E. Roy John, a pioneer in the field of memory, showed that when someone recalls an experience, their brain waves are identical to what they were in the original experience. More recently, a team of American and Israeli researchers showed that the firing activity of individual neurons was the same in recall as in the original experience (Gelbard-Sagiv et al., 2008). In short, the brain acts as though it is reliving the old experience once again. And if we simply observed the brainwaves, we would not be able to tell the difference between the present situation and the past one. The system acts as though that past were present. We then believe that our current reactions are rational and in accord with reality when indeed, they are responses to the past. Here is the essence of neurosis: treating the present as if it were the past. Not being able to distinguish the two, and thus being driven by history.
Because the past is infused into the present, we have no objectivity about this reality and our responses. So the neurotic, when someone says to him, “Can I help you?’ may overreact and respond, “Do I look helpless?!” The present event triggers the memory of parents who would not tolerate any weakness in their child, and ridiculed him for his seeming helplessness even as a young boy. His past became present. It warps perception and our interpretation of events in life.
Others have discussed the biological mechanisms involved in imprints and the continuing existence of traumatic memories from early in life and their impact on the body. Daniel Alkon of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. (Alkon, 1992), notes that memories in childhood are doubly imprinted in the brain. They not only are stored in networks already present in the child, they are actually stored in the network designs they help to create and structure. Thus, early memory can change the patterns of brain circuits. The memory lies in those changes as well as throughout the physical system. Imprints can change not only the function but also the structure of the brain. The new structure is memory made solid. There are changes in the synapses (the connecting gaps between nerve cells), in the dendrites (the receiving end of information between neurons), and in the epigenome (the biochemical modifications that change the way our genes behave—see Levenson and Sweatt, 2005). In sexual abuse cases, it has been found that the hippocampus of the limbic system, important in forming memory, is smaller and functionally deficit (Bremner, et al., 2003). It has also been found in other kinds of emotional abuse, as well. The different brain structure is evidence of past trauma. Fewer frontal cortex neurons are also evidence of the imprint. Allan Schore cites a number of studies demonstrating how very early trauma impairs the development of frontal brain neurons (Schore, 1994). It is much broader than the way we usually think about memory.
The brain not only remembers, but also is a form of memory itself. Bruises that arise during a reliving can be memories of the doctor’s hands during delivery. These events have been photographed and reported in my other books. Memory is not confined to the brain. An attack of heart palpitations, for example, is a brain/body memory, a fragment of an old event that lingers on due to the imprint. We need to reorient our thinking so that we see the body as participating in memory. Then when we see palpitations we don’t take it as some isolated symptom. When the penis droops and cannot get hard, it is speaking a language, eloquent and precise. We need to understand that language and not consider the problem as some isolated mechanical event that needs readjusting.
The imprint is a memory held on all levels of consciousness, each aspect recalled by each level of the brain in its own way. It is in the end a single system inextricably bound together. We recall by words, by feelings and by sensations. A limp penis is a memory, the lower brain’s way of expressing it. If we can get at the memory, we can often solve the problem because it is but a manifestation of an historical event or events. It says, “I was crushed and defeated at birth, and then crushed and rendered impotent by my mother.” It may have all happened so early that it is not to be recalled in words. Indeed, words are the enemy. We need to descend down the right side of the brain to key imprinted feelings that may have no words but do their dirty work nevertheless. The inability to get erect is no different from palpitations, a fragment of a total memory. We are too tempted to treat the fragments without regard to the whole person. The deep level of memory only gives up its history in its own language. The more we use words in our search the less effective we will be, and the more the patient will suffer. We cannot solve a sex problem on the level of insights; it is not neurologically possible.
Imprints can be lodged in the lower brain (brainstem), controlling vital functions such as feeling. Still further, the cerebral cortex gives it awareness, making it a conscious memory. We see this in our therapy when patients cry. First, they cry as an adult “about their childhood,” then slip back in history and cry like a child. Finally, they return to infancy where the cry is distinctly different; they may do all of this in the same two-hour session. Three different brain systems are involved; three different representations of the same memory. After a session they will not be able to willfully duplicate that early cry which emanated from a different brain system. It is asking the cortex to do the work of the brainstem and limbic system. It is another way we know that different levels of consciousness are active, and that different memories lay on these distinct levels.
Imprints can be created even while we are in the womb, engraved into our neurophysiologic system by some trauma that happens at that time. Imprint implies an overload, something that could not be integrated at the time because of the force of pain. It is repressed or inhibited by our inhibitory hormones, coded, put aside and held in storage. It must be felt. By “felt,” I mean experienced exactly in the way the memory originally occurred. Again, memory is laid down as total biologic experience. To recall that memory it must again be experienced as a total event. Otherwise, it is not the experience of the imprint; it is the experience only of the mental aspect of it. We can never become conscious in that way. We become aware, and that will never solve a deep sex problem. So long as the imprint is not experienced in its entirety, there is no cure. There is palliation but no more than that.
Others have charted the biochemical mechanisms involved in imprints. For example: James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine, describes how “intense feelings triggered by a stressful or emotional event help preserve memories of that experience, in large part by activating stress hormones responsible for storing emotionally charged information.” (Bower, 1994).
McGaugh further states that the stronger the emotional experience, the more reliable the memory. This is important when we want to understand incest and the recovered memory syndrome. Actually, the stronger the emotional component of the original trauma, such as early neglect, the more deeply embedded it will be in the nervous system.
Brain research is now confirming the point I am making about the provoking of old memories (Kensinger, 2007; Mather, 2007; McGaugh, 2003). McGaugh and his colleagues have what is called a “mind-congruity” model that indicates that memories are more easily retrieved when the emotional state at the time of the memory’s formation matches that of the state at the time of the retrieval, which is precisely what we have observed over the decades in our therapy. The more emotional the event, the more alerting hormones are secreted, which then more deeply seals the imprint. The memory then becomes fixed. If we access it, it will never lie. That is the wonderful thing about the imprint—it is a fountain of truth. Which is exactly why we can count on its veracity when we see a patient with access reliving incest. We can believe it when we see loss of erection. It is telling the truth despite our willpower, which is why we cannot will an orgasm, man or woman, without good deep access. The inability to become erect in a man speaks the truth of the system. We too often are trying to correct this so-called problem, when it is actually in accord with internal reality; we are trying to tear it away from reality with our newly found psychological techniques and pharmacological tools. We can also count on its truth through measurement: when the body temperature rises or drops some three degrees during a session, we know the patient is re-experiencing a major trauma, either a major second-line (limbic system) trauma, or a significant first-line. Or more likely, both.
We have found that such memories are quite accessible through the use of proper techniques. Without those techniques, memories seem inaccessible. Nature is a good protector—such memories shouldn’t be easily accessed, as the lower centers of the brain hold survival functions and adaptation strategies that must not be tampered with.
Though a trauma may be long past, it remains within the body, imbued with the full force of the original event. It continually creates havoc. So long as the body is young and strong, there may be an absence of symptoms. But as it ages and weakens, symptoms will manifest.
Once the imprint is blocked away from conscious-awareness, it is always a danger, a “foreign element” to be reckoned with. The danger is that it will intrude upon awareness and send the vital signs skyrocketing. The alien intrusion, such as being abused or abandoned by one's father, for example, makes the child feel unwanted, unloved, and unsafe. Under the experience created during the child's early years, the child becomes terrorized and repressed. Trauma then creates a splitting of the self—it drives a wedge between the real pained self and the unreal, or unfeeling, repressed self, the self presented to the public. Because of the split or disconnection, we can no longer will our bodies to do our bidding. In sex, that means the body is out of our control. Our “will” remains on the top cortical level and cannot reach down to tell the penis what it should do, so it cannot stop it from ejaculating too quickly, for example. Very early trauma has compromised the development of the controlling orbitofrontal cortex, which could slow ejaculation. Being disconnected means losing a bond with many of the processes that are mediated by lower levels. Thus, we have no way to control heart palpitations or lower our blood pressure, or deliberately will an orgasm. No willpower on our part can make a difference. We are trying to harness forces with which we have lost contact years ago. They are sending out orders in their peculiar silent language, shifting resources from one place to another and trying to warn us of danger. To illustrate, the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, may be raised to a high level, but all we will feel is the vague sense of impending doom, and we do not know from what. “Doom” was in the offing during perhaps a birth experience with too little oxygen. Or worse, we do not feel anything at all. This is a problem, and the essence of what I call the “Janovian Gap”. The wider the distance or disconnection between a deep imprint and the conscious/awareness of it, the more susceptible we will become to illness. The space between feeling/sensation and the cortical “thinking” acknowledgment of it is a precise measure, and in my opinion a gauge of our longevity. One can say, “Yes, but the man developed lung cancer because he smoked 2 packs a day.” I would say that the man smoked because of the gap between what he was experiencing physiologically and his conscious awareness of it; that gap compromised his system and his health.
Because of this disconnection between feeling/sensation and the thinking mind, the penis has a mind of its own, a sense of urgency to release pent-up tension. We need to experience the imprint, the level of consciousness where the disconnection took place, which may have nothing to do with sex. To feel the disconnect is to reconnect. To suddenly feel what we previously couldn’t ends the disconnection and our vital signs return to normal—not only our vital signs, but also our vital functions, of which sex is most certainly one.
Without connection, we are victims rather than masters of our emotions and sensations. Without connection we can will an erection, but the body won't respond because it is already responding to a feeling of impotence, or of helplessness and powerlessness lodged in the primitive, reptilian brain.
Profound impotence or helplessness can occur to a newborn when he is trying to be born, only to have his whole system shut down by a massive anesthetic given to the mother. The anesthetic enters the newborn’s system and renders him helpless. It is an unalterable and enduring systemic experience! It will be represented on all levels of consciousness throughout his life. When it is represented on the cortical level and the person is filled with obsessions, we imagine that the problem is obsessive thoughts. The problem is the imprint lower down that is represented higher up and is driving thoughts. It also can be represented or manifest on the very deep levels of the nervous system and affect sex. If because of the nature of the birth trauma the child was rendered helpless and passive, the system will be skewed to parasympathetic nervous system dominance and it will affect sex by diminishing libido. If, on the other hand, the child was able to struggle and succeed in his birth, the system may be skewed to sympathetic nervous system dominance and libido will be enhanced. To be more precise, the system will be overactivated and when the child becomes sexual, he also will be sexually overactivated.
The feeling or sensation of powerlessness/impotence is registered physiologically. It will only be given a name later on, usually in adolescence, when we have the capacity to develop concepts to describe our feelings, and when impotence becomes a literal physiologic event, something we can finally point to as the problem. Alas, we are pointing to the ostensible problem, not the real one. We are pointing to how the real problem becomes manifest.
The idea of impotence must not be confused with the feeling or sensation itself. The traumatic imprint that gives rise to it lives on a different level of the brain, reverberating in loops below the level of conscious awareness. These feelings do their damage whether they have words to name them or not. They liberate free radicals, for example, which may damage neurons. And they will go on doing their damage even after a therapist proffers a name for it. That name on the third-line will not touch its force on the first-line. That is why using words or insights to understand the feelings do practically nothing at all to change them or improve them. A person can say to themselves a thousand times, “I am strong. I am capable. I have power,” and it will have no affect on the sex problem. Those words live on a high level of brain function.
Different levels of the brain speak different languages. If we want to speak “sex”, we have to communicate in its own language. We must allow awareness to arise out of lower-level feeling, rather than reaching down from the top of the brain. If we want to understand a sex problem, we need to plunge into the murky depths of the unconscious and speak in a language that is bereft of words. That is the meaning of conscious-awareness—integrating that which has been blocked and repressed. It means visiting the areas and times when the imprint occurred, reliving it literally with the brain operating as it did at the time, and connecting it. Now the body and brain are integrated and can function properly. In terms of human evolution, concepts such as impotence or helplessness developed millions of years later in the evolution of our species. This notion of the brain functioning at the time of the imprint is critical to our understanding of memory. A memory may be set in the brainstem, which was the highest level of neurologic organization at the time. A pre-birth imprint, such as that which comes from a mother who smokes or suffers from severe depression, is imprinted largely in the brainstem and ancient parts of the limbic system. This very early memory is going to impact instinctual processes, not the least of which is sex. They will form a mélange, intertwined so tightly that it will be difficult later to disentangle them. Luckily, we don’t have to; reliving first line imprints separates the pain from sex automatically.
Now about hijacking sex. Remember that the early imprints are set down with a force, a force the equal of the trauma inflicted on the system. When a current level of excitement or stimulation is high enough, it will set off through resonance related feelings and sensations going all the way back to womb-life. Sexual stimulation fills that bill. And when the level of sexual excitement reaches a critical level it triggers off both the birth trauma and gestational life (where equal levels of excitation occurred); moreover, it triggers off the exact reaction that occurred with those earlier traumas. At this point the imprint, the primordial imprint, takes over and runs the show; that is, sex will be run off in terms of the imprint, how it was run off and how it ended. If the original event ended in defeat, the baby could not exit the womb due to massive anesthesia to the mother (and therefore to the baby), it could be that the male loses his erection and “fails.” This sequence is preordained; it ended that way originally and directs the sequence now, once the original imprint has been set off. It looks like sex but it is not. And, I might add, sex often looks like sex but it is something else; look at Tiger Woods. It is excruciating early force made manifest through sex…run off through sex. And it was never satisfying nor relieving for him, so he was forced to do it over and over again. Was he a sex addict? He was in the grips of a constant pain that until felt would drive him inexorably, and until connection it will always drive him. The penis becomes simply the relief valve; first it begins with bedwetting, and then sex as we become sexual. Woods was running off a sequence, first of very early imprints and then compounded with being driven night and day to succeed in golf. He had the beginning of a primal without connection, and it became obsessive and compulsive, like most unconnected behaviors.
You see, the imprint is not just a cerebral memory but a systemic one. And that system encompasses the basic system set in place at the time, passive or active, defeatist or successful. The hormones and neurotransmitters accommodate to this reality. Are we going to find out about this addiction, as the head of NIMH’s drug addiction section recently exclaimed, by examining the molecules of the brain deeper and deeper? They know dopamine is involved so now their task is to get even more miniscule at the molecular level to discover something about addiction that seems to have nothing to do with humans and their interactions, nor history and its impact. The Emperor….
Biologic law dictates that history rules, that imprinted memory governs. The memory of what we had to do to survive during the original trauma dictates now. It is all about evolution and survival. Think about it: the current level of excitation sets off the same or similar event with the same emotional force and that must be run off because survival is (and was originally) involved.
Basically there are two ways we respond to original life-threatening events; either we give up, parasympathetically dominant, or we fight on, sympathetically dominant. We fight on if there is the slightest possibility of us succeeding. Otherwise, say with massive anesthesia, we are forced to succumb and give up. That becomes the dominant leitmotif of our lives and forms the matrix of our personality. We feel weak and helpless in the original sequence, and in sex that translates into defeat and giving up, reinforcing the basic feeling—loss of erection. If this unfortunate man had a tyrannical father who beat him down, the feeling is heavily reinforced, compounded.
For women the family configuration can be different; if there were a seductive father, she becomes afraid of sex and avoids it. There are literally dozens of different permutations of this in sex. But the parasympathetic nervous system, the one dominated by conservation of energy, lies within the imprint. (As does the sympathetic nervous system with its “drive to get ahead”, its ambition and the inability to recognize obstacles when they exist.) But let me add this: during the critical period when there is a desperate need for love and it goes missing from the hopelessly non-nurturing mother, that need becomes an imprint; the need goes into latency, remains sequestered until the whole system becomes sexual and is then thrown into turmoil. Choice is now driven by the early imprint, the need for a woman and her love, something deprived when it was essential during the critical period. It may become overt lesbianism if there were a mother who never gave love during the girl’s childhood, never touched her or cuddled her. The need is compounded and becomes desperate. Now at eighteen years of age, she meets a girl who is interested in her; the old sequence is again run off and she finally gets female love, now in sex and in love. It becomes locked in, usually never felt or understood. The imprint dominates.
Memory is always the overriding factor in these situations and runs our lives. It has to because it is the first major threats to survival that dictate how we react to adversity later on. It is not just a memory to be recalled; it is a system that is (or has to be) reawakened. Once there is a certain level of inner stimulation, the body does not distinguish what exactly it is; it is run off with its sister memory, and they run along together. It looks like sex or eating or drug addiction but it is history showing its face. It is circumstance that “chooses” the target but once in place becomes ineluctable; a denouement as predictable as the sunrise. And what do we do? We rush in to treat the selection instead of the cause; and that is why it is infinite…the origin is, until connection is made. There is no way to avoid this. So long as history lies in waiting, rummaging around the nervous system, we are its victim. It is like a latent virus, enough impact against the immune system and there it is. Understanding it, or the sex compulsion, changes nothing…except we can say, “Oh yes, I understand it now perfectly.” The task before us, ladies and gentlemen, is to change it.
Alkon, D.L. (1992). Memory's Voice: Deciphering the Brain-Mind Code. Harper Collins, New York.
Bower, B. (1994). Stress hormones hike emotional memories - beta-adrenergic stress hormones enhance memories of stressful events. Science News Oct 22 1994.
Bremner, J.D., Vythilingam, M., Vermetten, E., Southwick, S.M., McGlashan, T., Nazeer, A., Khan, S., Vaccarino, L.V., Soufer, R., Garg, P.K., Ng, C.K., Staib, L.H., Duncan, J.S., and Charney, D.S. (2003). MRI and PET Study of Deficits in Hippocampal Structure and Function in Women With Childhood Sexual Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Am J Psychiatry 160(5):924-932.
Gelbard-Sagiv, H., Mukamel, R., Harel, M., Malach, R., and Fried, I. (2008). Internally Generated Reactivation of Single Neurons in Human Hippocampus During Free Recall. Science 322(5898):96-101.
Kensinger, E.A. (2007). Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy: Behavioral and Neuroimaging Evidence. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16:213-218.
Levenson, J.M. and Sweatt, J.D. (2005). Epigenetic Mechanisms in Memory Formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6:108:118.
Mather, M. (2007). Emotional Arousal and Memory Binding. Perspectives in Psychological Science 2(1):33-52.
McGaugh, J.L. (2003). Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories. Columbia University Press, New York.
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On the DSK (Head of IMF) case (initially published on this blog on May 22, 2011)
So the head of the IMF is alleged to have sexually attacked a maid. His friend, the philosopher Bernard Henry Levi wrote a piece in France saying, “I am a close friend of Strauss Kahn for 25 years and I know he would not do anything like that. He is not that kind of man.” So you say. But does he really think he knows anyone? Does he know what goes on in private in a man’s home? Can he tell a man’s sexual proclivity through a friendship? I doubt it. Why? Because nearly all of us have secrets and a secret life. It is the nature of neurosis that we hide part of us; that we have fantasies no one would even dream of. I treated a famous athlete who needed to wave his penis at women. He was at that moment out of control. Do you think his friends would know about that? How about another well known athlete who was addicted to porno magazines. And addicted to have to dress up in women’s clothes. Do you think his friends knew about that? We got to the basis of all that: his mother left him when he was five to go to work. He was left with a cold nanny who never touched him. The only way he could feel close to his mother was to hold her clothes and later rub them on while he masturbated; a way of getting relief from his terrible tension and unfulfilled need. He was close to his mother. It was his way of feeling loved; something we will need and something we nearly all act out in different ways to feel some warmth. It can be stuffing ourselves with food, to feel fulfilled, acting out sexually in order to feel held and touched; you name your poison.
So let us get back to Mr. Kahn. He comes out of the shower and he sees a maid. He is supposed to have jumped her. If I tell you that at that moment he was psychotic would you believe me? So let us define it. He gets sexually aroused; now on top of that there is triggered many other imprinted impulses lying deep in the brain/nervous system. And for that moment it is all bursting through his neocortical control apparatus.
There is any number of current studies indicating that our memories are imprinted dating back to just after conception. Those memories are imprinted low in the brain, beginning with the newly developing brain stem and limbic/feeling brain. They are imprinted into the reptilian/alligator brain. There is indeed a snake running around in our heads and it contains the memories engraved why back before birth that have a life-or-death urgency to them. Under current emotional/physiologic stimulation those memories/impulses are dredged up with the current situation through a process called resonance. They join together and become a dangerous ensemble threatening our control apparatus. In everyday life there is not enough stimulation to cause that dredging; but when sexually aroused it can be all triggered off. It can happen when we are extremely frustrated or furious about something. We really don’t know anyone until we see her or him under stress or some kind of excitement. So Mr. Levy you really don’t know. You are not going to see it at a dinner party. But you will see it in our therapy when we lift the lid of repression and a patient becomes immersed in all of those early memories. That is how we really get to know someone. Otherwise, in the absence of great emotional stimulation the shrink knows very little about his patient. He only sees the surface; so even the doctor cannot see what the patient is really like. We help put the patient under stress; not by threatening to hurt her, but by simply finding a way to allow emotions to rise; emotions that are a serious threat to the integrity of the organism. In one patient every time he got close to his deep-lying pain he had an erection. There we saw the connection…between emotional arousal and sexual behavior.
So at a certain moment deep-lying pain resonates with sexual arousal; critical judgment is gone and one is in control by unconscious pain. That is, his thought/judgment is waylaid by all of his impulses at once. In psychosis it is a permanent affair; all of one’s very early pain takes control of mental processes and the person is delusional and paranoid. He is psychotic. The difference is that in sexual assault it is momentary, set off by high level sexual arousal which then triggers off other deep-lying pain.
Sexual arousal raises the stakes, as it were. If she were an older person it may not have been a problem. But otherwise he was out of control; in control by deep forces. His possible lack of early love or trauma while being carried by a (just an example) highly depressed mother lowers the bar of acting-out. His gating system cannot hold back the tide. Others who do not have those early imprints can have a functioning repressive/gating system that can keep control. So it is the nature and strength of the gates that determines who will act out (out of control) and who won’t. And those gates depend on the nature and strength of early trauma for their strength. Gestational trauma, followed by an early lack of love in the home, plus traumas in school can all bind together to produce leaky gates and a subsequent act-out.
So who gets pushed over the boundary and who doesn’t?
We are meant to be controlled by our reptilian brain because it involves basic survival mechanisms. To get of the way fast, to hide when in danger, and to attack when necessary, etc. Some of us had traumatic gestation and some only had major traumas after birth. The earlier the trauma the more powerful it is. That last point: to attack when necessary gets mixed up with current sexual stimulation. His snake brain took control and he (allegedly) attacked. When the neocortex can safely put the snake back in his hold there is no more danger.