To fix firmly on the mind, memory, etc.
A distinguishing influence or effect.
A mark or pattern produced by imprinting.
To bestow a kiss.
Many healing modalities include models of how memory works. Being able to access not just what is remembered but our experience of how we remember can have important implications for our healing processes. In healing modalities where there is a primary focus on tracking the nervous system and body sensations in the exploration of memory, the concept of “imprint” can be useful to consider. Imprints, in this context, are an integral part of memory and learning. They are the physiological psycho-emotional charges generated by a particular experience that are subsequently, retained in our systems in the constellation of psyche, nervous system, and body. When an event is recalled, consciously or subconsciously, any associated imprint can be activated and re-experienced. In this way Imprints “flavor” memory.
Dr. Ray Castellino offers the following example of an imprint formed as a result of a traumatic event:
“When (in a traumatizing situation) a person’s body responds with catecholamine production, this charge will be stored as a trauma imprint or memory.When the person recalls the stressful event, his or her psyche, nervous system and body will to some degree reproduce the charge that he or she experienced in the original event.”
Imprints can form at any point in our lives. Early (pre and peri-natal) imprints are especially important because they set the tone for experiences that will get repeated/recapitulated later on. This happens because at these early stages of our forming we are primed for a special kind of learning; it happens quickly and is intended to support our survival. The imprints acquired in these moments contribute to our frame of reference for future interactions with the outside world. For example, they can help us distinguish “safe” from “unsafe”. In essence, we are acquiring the basics of our personal survival guide. Ray Castellino refers to these early stages when discussing prenatal experience:
“Prenatal experience provides the matrix for a fundamental level of imprinting that will affect the baby for the rest of her life. The prenate’s body and nervous system are in development and her body is genetically, cellularly and somatically already adapting to this prenatal experience as it is growing.”
These early imprints can form in-utero, during birth and post-natally. They will inform both perception of self and of the outside world. For example, the infant who has an unhurried birth process and remains with his or her mother in the hours and days after birth will be imprinted with the qualities of this intense and positive experience. In contrast, the infant who is met with hurried or rough handling will likely carry imprints of this negative experience. For this second infant, any future contact could trigger these imprints. Potentially, this makes it more difficult for this little one to self-regulate and feel safe as development continues. It is important to note that both examples refer to the qualities of the interaction, as experienced by the infant.
To have a deeper understanding of what an imprint is, it is helpful to look at the terms “explicit” and “implicit” memory.
Explicit memory is memory that has the quality of allowing us to know that what we are remembering took place in the past, and that we are in the present remembering it. For example, yesterday’s breakfast or last year’s summer vacation. Neuro-biologically speaking, the capacity for explicit memory starts when the hippocampus is developed, at around 18 months. Without the participation of the hippocampus it is not possible to form explicit memory. Memories prior to 18 months, therefore, will form at what is called the implicit level.
Implicit memory is active pre and post-natally and it depends on structures intact at birth (the amygdala, the basal ganglia and motor cortex, and the perceptual cortices). Some of the characteristics of implicit memory include:
- No recall of time or sequence ( feels like a present moment experience as opposed to memory of the past )
- No recall of self
- Operates unconsciously
Put another way, when we are experiencing an implicit memory there is no sense of a “then” or a “me” or even of a “memory”. Without a perceived “past me” to attach to and no perception of being in the act of remembering, these memories come to us as feeling and sensation, directly and in present-time. For example, one could have a feeling of diziness and not realize that the feeling is actually a memory of a past experience of diziness, and that it has been triggered by something in the present. It is important to note that implicit memories have a strong influence on us. They affect how we interpret our relationships and the world around us. Dr Tara Blasco describes implicit memories as being:
“…the kind of memories recorded by our senses, they have a powerful effect on us, and are responsible for many of our unconscious habits and preferences.”
The two most common situations in which memory remains at the implicit level are:
- When the brain structures that are necessary for explicit memory are not yet developed, as is the case during the first 18 months of life.
- As a result of the hippocampus being suppressed by stress hormones, for example in instances of trauma.
How does this relate to imprints?
Imprints are by nature implicit. When an imprint is activated it will be experienced at the implicit level. The feelings and sensations it holds will be perceived to be unfolding in present time, not as past experience. An imprint can be activated by anything that triggers the memory of the event in which the imprint was first formed.
For example, I once ate a whole box of marzipan candies, and got sick. I know this happened in the past (explicit memory) but every time I smell marzipan, or even recall the experience, a mild wave of nausea passes through my system (imprint/implicit memory). My body is reproducing some of the charge from the original experience of the event (marzipan overdose). Although I don’t have any marzipan in my digestive system my body produces a wave of nausea that I experience in present time. I have a marzipan-overdose imprint.
What about pre and perinatal imprints?
In the case of pre and perinatal experiences not only the imprints but the entire memory may be held at the implicit level. Remember, the capacity to form explicit memory depends on the hippocampus which isn’t formed until 18 months. Contrary to the above example, when implicit memory from this early time emerges there will be no explicit aspect in the recalling to make it recognizable as a memory. Not only is there no recall of time, often there will be no clear sense of where the emotions and sensations are coming from, or why they are there (no recall of sequence or self). Additionally, these memories form pre-verbally and so when experiencing them we can have a sense of not being able to verbalize what we are experiencing. Interestingly, as we mature and become adults capable of forming explicit memories, these early memories will continue to be held at the implicit level.
What is the role of biodynamic craniosacral therapy in relation to perinatal imprints?
It is possible to bridge implicit and explicit memory. This would be desirable in cases where implicit memory of a distressing event is impacting negatively on our daily lives. This bridging can happen as sensations and feelings are woven into an explicit memory, and then framed as part of a past experience, a process sometimes referred to as integration. The aim being to reduce intrusions of implicitly-held memory and to increase the capacity for differentiating past experience from the present moment reality. The result often being an increased sense of open possibility to our lives.
Many therapies are interested in fostering such a process of integration. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy supports this process by employing a state of deep-listening while facilitating a gentle shift from verbal narrative to body-sensing. In this shift, from a mode of awareness mediated by higher brain functions to one that more directly accesses mid-brain structures, implicitly held (subconscious) material can emerge. The deep listening skills of the practitioner while in resonance with a client creates an opportunity for this implicit material to follow a progression toward integration. This can occur when:
- The environment is safe and the client can perceive this safety.
- Experiences and perceptions that emerge for the client are reflected back by the practitioner, verbally and/or through physical contact and deep listening.
- Particular emphasis is put on tempo so that the reflection can be taken in by the client and integrated.
- The practitioner maintains a deeply-grounded presence and comes into resonance with the client, in such a way that supports the client’s own body/mind to self-regulate.
The benefits of bridging implicit and explicit memory are particularly obvious where there is a trauma imprint that continues to affect a person’s life in a detrimental way. If a feeling can be consciously experienced as a memory, given a time and a self (explicit memory) then it ceases to indistinguishably merge with present-day experience. Through this bridging, the feelings of overwhelm, dread etc. can become recognizable as part of a past. Then, the imprints associated to this past experience can be integrated into a coherent somatic narrative. A coherent narrative* is one in which the sequence of events is clear. This as opposed to a cohesive narrative where there is constriction and a non-sequential jumping around in the story or fragmentation. Where there is unresolved trauma imprinting there is likely to be a cohesive narrative.
In summary, pre and perinatal imprints are an important category of imprints and influence our choices and preferences. They are an essential part of the infant’s learning and survival. They begin to form in-utero and are held at the level of implicit memory. Throughout life, imprints effect perception of self, of safety in relationship, and of the larger contextual world. Pre and peri-natal imprints associated to traumatic experiences can effect our ability to thrive over the course of a lifetime. Through a therapeutic process that offers an opportunity to bridge explicit and implicit memory, such as biodynamic craniosacral therapy, it is possible to integrate the imprints associated to traumatic or negative experiences so that they no longer operate in a potentially destructive way. When imprints can be integrated into explicit memory, they are given an accurate place in the past. This process contributes to the evolution of a clear non-fragmented narrative and enhances a sense of open possibility.
* Coherent vs. Cohesive Narrative is a concept developed by researcher Mary Main
Other definitions for “imprint” and “imprinting” include:
- To impart a strong or vivid impression
- To modify (a gene) by chemical means
In the mental health world definitions for imprinting include:
- A particular kind of learning characterised by occurrence in very early life, rapidity of acquisition, and relative insusceptibility to forgetting or extinction.www.medconditions.net
- Any kind of learning that occurs at a particular age or stage of development. A phase-sensitive type of learning, it involves an organism recognising the characteristics of certain stimuli that are subsequently “imprinted” onto the subject. www.newworldencyclopedia.org
Blasco, Tara, “Prenatal an Perinatal Memories in Preverbal Children”, 2006, Final Dissertation SBGI
Castellino, Ray, “The Stress Matrix: Implications for Prenatal and Birth Therapy”, 2005, Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, Vol. 15, Number 1, Vol. !5,
Schore, Allan,”The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health”, 2001, Infant Journal of Mental Health, 2001, 22, 7-66.
Porges, Stephen, “Orienting in a Defensive World: Mammalian Modifications of our Evolutionary Heritage. A Polyvagal Theory”, 1995, Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318.
Siegel, Daniel, “The Neurobiology of We”, Sounds True Audio; The Whole-Brain Child, Bantam Books 2012
Levine, Peter, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, North Atlantic Books, 2007
Cassidy, Jude, and Shaver, Phillip R., Handbook of Attachment, 2nd ed., Part I, II, III