In the first of this two-part series on memory, we consider what body memory is and how we can use it to create positive memories to aid us in our daily wellbeing. In part two, we will be exploring the impact of technology on our memories.
How do we remember? Where do memories reside within the body?
Memory is an integral part of life. Not only do memories allow us to recall past events, but the ability to form memories is also crucial for our development as human beings. Without the ability to form memories, we would not be able to learn new skills. Instead, each experience would be isolated and we would lead lives that were completely unconnected.
Of course, there are different types of memory. Depending on what we are learning, a different type of memory model and structure will be formed. Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory. By repeating a specific motor task multiple times, a long-term muscle memory is created which allows the task to eventually be performed with little (if any) conscious effort. This results in specific actions or tasks becoming automatic and decreases the need for attention when doing them. It is this which allows us to perform numerous everyday tasks and activities without needing to consciously think about them, including walking, riding a bicycle, driving a car, or typing on a keyboard.
Kinaesthetic memory is similar, occurring through hands-on learning and experience. It is this that allows for habits to form and for processes to become implicit and unconscious. Kinaesthetic memories are generally formed during activities which involve whole bodily movements, such as dance or sports. The more we perform the skill in question, the more embedded it becomes in our very muscles.
But memories are not only limited to the physical body. Often, they are also associated with emotions. Adopting a particular physical posture or facial expression can trigger an associated emotion. In 2002, a study by Bloch et al, found that by performing specific facial expressions, actors were able to elicit associated emotions. The physical body memory could thus be used to trigger emotional responses.
Body Memory in Daily Life
Whilst specific kinaesthetic and muscle memories offer a wide range of benefits to our daily lives, we also have numerous unconsciously acquired physical habits. Consider your posture. How do you sit or stand when you are in a good mood compared to a bad one? Think back to your childhood. How did you use to sit? Did you tuck your legs beneath you in your seat, or swing your legs carelessly off the edge? How do you sit now?
Think about your walk. Do you put more weight on one side than the other? Do you hold one shoulder slightly lower than the other as a result of years of wearing a handbag, even if you aren’t wearing one?
Whilst we may not consciously think about all the physical habits that we acquire over our lifetime, our body remembers nonetheless. Luckily, we can use this same body memory to our advantage to create new memories, which are hopefully more positive and which can be used to support our wellbeing.
Through ongoing practice, we can slowly learn to develop and remember a new posture, a new way of sitting or walking. We can learn to perform a specific set of movements to help us unwind and relax. If we learn to attach positive associations to specific actions, then when we perform them, we can trigger these same positive feelings.
For example, if performing a sun salutation helps you to feel calmer and more grounded, you can then use this movement to trigger this same emotion during a period of stress. We can learn to use specific physical triggers to help improve our mood and wellbeing and in so doing, develop a flexible toolkit that we can deploy as and when we need it.
Similarly, there may be specific physical actions that help you to recall particular memories. Perhaps sitting on the floor with your legs crossed brings back memories of your time at school. Maybe walking barefoot on lose soil reminds you of a childhood experience? Or maybe there was a pose you always adopted as a teenager that when you do it now, takes you back to a different time? Adopting these physical postures can help you to recall past events and allow you to momentarily feel a memory.
Memory is a process which ultimately takes place in the brain. Yet, our bodies have the capacity to recall and retrieve memories that we unconsciously hold. Whilst these may not all be positive, we have the opportunity to use our body memory to create new habits and form new, positive body memories that we can use in the future. Similarly, we can use our body memory to help transport us to our past and help us connect with a past version of ourselves and retrieve other memories in the process.
Think week, we invite you to consider what physical postures bring you happiness an