by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on August 29, 2011


Memory is one of those concepts that has been studied for centuries and has spawned multiple theories about what it is and how it operates. In psychology we think about memory functionally: in terms of how it operates and what it does. Hence, there are various types of memory whose name describe its function. I will be outlining these below for the purpose of elucidating the theme of today’s blog – the re-living and sharing of memories in order to arrive at a shared understanding of their impact and begin a process of integration.

As a psychoanalyst, I often accompany patients down their personal memory lane, stopping along the way to re-consider something, gather more information, or simply because we are stumped and we need to stop and be still. I am talking mostly of autobiographical memory here, a subset of explicit/declarative/semantic memory (see what I mean? many concepts all based on function). Autobiographical  memory is based on our personal, experience-based narratives. Autobiographical memory is what most of us revert to when we speak about our lived experience. It contains snapshots of our lives, our history and our past-  happy events, stories that were told to us, family myths, even traumatic situations if they are available to us. Autobiographical memory relies on language, on words that we have put together into a story, our story. Then there is implicit memory (also known as procedural memory), which speaks to us from the unconscious, as in the memories that we just know even though we do not know how we know. Implicit memory has to do with sensori-motor based information, information that is not language based but operates instead in the language of our senses, (body memories are part of this). Implicit memory resides outside our immediate awareness yet it is capable of directing many of our activities and thoughts. Think for example about riding a bike, where previous experience helps you perform the task. Or of one of those situations when you recognize something, a facial expression, a movement, or sense something that is meaningful to you, that informs your opinion or action even though you do not know why. Implicit memory is part of autobiographical memory, out of awareness but there and making its appearance and presence known nonetheless. In psychotherapy we work with both. In fact, the clinical hour often involves and ongoing interweaving of the implicitly known with the explicitly stated for both patient and analyst. The re-living of our remembered history with another person (the therapist) gives us the opportunity to put words to what has been implicitly registered and known so that it can fill in the narrative that we have constructed over time.

A more ingenious and whimsical way of describing memory and its functional use, is to my mind, J.K. Rowling’s pensieve, as introduced in the Harry Potter books. Here is the official definition as per Potter/Wiki:

The penseive is a bowl filled with a silvery white gaseous liquid (or viscous gas). The user extracts a memory from himself or someone else with a wand, then drops it in the pensieve for examination.

Dumbledore explains that it helps keep his mind from becoming too crowded with old memories, and to experience a particular memory again when needed. Memories are stored in vials and poured into the pernsieve for Harry or whoever to experience.

The name is ingenious too. Clearly a wordplay on pensive, and in the spirit with which J.K. Rowling creates a lot of her names, the pensieve also includes the word sieve, a device often resembling a screen that can be used to sift through something. The pensieve seems to be a way to prevent people’s often sieve-like memories from losing important information.

Interestingly, the penseive not only lets its user see a memory from a third-person perspective, but it also seems to add information the user could not have known. But Rowling has explained, in an interview, that the memories in a pensieve include what the person did not notice or remark upon originally.”

So, the memories in a pensieve include autobiographical and implicit memory. As such they are complete. Think of it, a pensieve as an instrument to hold and sift through our memories, add important information that has not previously been addressed despite the fact that it was known and registered, and  something that gives us the ability to not only store intact memories for later recall and use, but also allow us to share them as they happened (i.e. experientially) with another so that their meaning(s) can be understood, recognized and integrated intra-psychically (between one’s own states of being) and interpersonally (within a relationship). Boy do I wish I had one of those.

People are often haunted by memories, particularly if they are traumatic in nature.  We revisit these memories in an effort to understand them, solve them, repair them, get over them. Often such memories are also shrouded in shame, making them even more potentially traumatic to our sense of being, so that they can alter our sense of ourselves and shut us down. Shame can often keep important information from us, serving instead as a cloud of confusion so as to numb the feelings or actions involved in the memory or to highlight a particular feeling (shame) that allows nothing else. Shame immediately triggers a feeling of what psychoanalysts call “not me”. Shame makes us want to diss-associate ourselves from the part of ourselves which was emotionally involved. Thus, shame complicates remembering and re-living memories because it calls forth extremely painful affect, the kind that fractures our experience of self and self-unity, the kind that makes us not want to be.

For me, much of the magic in J.K. Rowling’s writing is the way that she addresses how trauma impacts us as people and what we do to survive it and work through it. Look at how she treats memory: she includes what happens when we are ashamed of something, or afraid, or traumatized. Those memories are not so clear, even in a penseive. They are clouded with a blackness which makes it difficult to see, hear or experience them fully. A clouding of the senses that happens as the result of  emotional pain. She was definitely onto the experience of trauma and how it impacts remembered experience and lived experience thereafter. She also knew that alongside the clouded memory lies the clarity of the lived event, with all its feelings and emotions, just like as psychoanalysts we know to look beyond confusion, and beyond what appears obvious, we know to believe the trail that we travel with our patients, and believe that often it has to be travelled many times, over and over, before things begin to make sense – before we can sense things and then put words to them. In doing so we co-create a language, through the patient-analyst relationship, which includes what has been implicitly known and needing a relationship to be re-experienced and formulated, to be told as part of our narrative history.

Or as Dumbledore, the wise wizard, says to Harry: “Magic, particularly dark magic, leaves traces”. Psychoanalysts and their patients travel precisely through those traces that have etched themselves painfully in memory, and remain shrouded with emotion and no language to describe it. Even in the Potter books, the penseive is but an instrument for memory. Meaning, understanding and a grounded sense of who one is (including the not me’s) is achieved through relationship and connection, and the opportunity to share who we are, how we got to be this way, and who we want to be.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen August 30, 2011 at 11:13 AM

This made me think of EMDR, a “magic” tool that a therapist can use like a wand to extract buried memories of trauma. The magic works when the patient feels safe with and connected to the analyst.


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. August 30, 2011 at 7:49 PM

You hit the nail on the head. EMDR can indeed be very powerful, and its “magic” as you say, is about the relationship between analyst and patient. The safety and connection makes it possible!


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