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Memory, emotion and the body

In Health and Healing, Health and Nutrition by Emma Michelle DixonLeave a Comment

Memories are not stored in a particular part of the brain, but in the body or psyche as a whole; and memories are not fixed, objective realities, but selective, creative and linked to emotion. What does this mean for healing?

Many bodyworkers would agree that healing occurs when the body releases a particular emotion that it has been storing in a particular body part. Yet the concept is rarely explained, and often goes entirely unquestioned. I think that it is very useful to understand what is happening at a physiological and emotional level, not just for the sake of comprehension, but also because knowing the mechanism is reassuring when one is embarking on a healing journey.

Memory is a slippery thing because it is so tied into emotion. The quintessential psychological truth about ‘remembering’ is that memories are stories we tell ourselves.Freud was perhaps the first to state this, but it has since been reconfirmed many times over by neuroscientists. Most relevant to me and other practitioners is that how we remember and how we re-experience our memories (emotionally, physiologically) bodes much for the healing journey.

Science tells us that memories are not even stored in a particular part of the brain. You cannot, therefore, identify them as physiological events akin to lightning occurring in a particular location. We know this from the grisly experiments of experimental psychologist Karl Lashley who taught rats to find their way through a maze, then systematically removed various bits of their brains and re-tested them. They could find their way through the maze even after their cerebral cortices were nearly destroyed, until the rats had too little left of their brains to function at all.

Not only is memory not stored in a specific part of the brain, it is entirely relative. Memories which we recall are always recalled for their meaning or relevance to us at the moment in time when we remember. The mind selects images, experiences, colours, and so on, in various combinations, to form a memory. It is a type of perception, which creates a gestalt—a functional unit, a set of beliefs.Not only that, research has also shown that some element of emotion is necessary for the experience of remembering! Without a linked emotion, there is no memory.

So, memories are not stored in a particular part of the brain, but, it seems, in the body or psyche as a whole (as in the case of the rats); and memories are not fixed, objective realities, but selective, creative and linked to emotion.

What does this mean for healing?

Certainly many esoteric systems correlate the heart to the place where grief is stored literally as a thing, as energy; or the gut to where shock is stored, for example. To add complexity, we know from organ transplants that recipients often awaken from surgery with preferences and memories of the donor. In one case(1) a girl receiving a heart from a murder victim suddenly had memories of the murder, and her recall was detailed enough that she was able to assist detectives in the case…all from the heart of the murdered girl being in her body. (2) A liver recipient entirely changed her immune system, including blood type. The study of organ transplant-induced memories is not entirely understood from a science point of view, but those of us who do bodywork understand it well from an experiential point of view.

In any case, what is clear from observation is that the body as a whole remembers. It doesnseem to be the case that people with heart transplants only have memories of the donor’s grief, for example. Recipients seem to have a fairly random selection of memories, emotions, and tastes, which implies more aptly that each body part contains knowledge of the whole…that memories are diffused throughout the entire body, and if you take out any part, it will contain memories of the whole. Back to Karl Lashley and his rats.

I find it useful to explain it thus: rather than say that an emotion we can identify as x is stored in the body part we identify as y, it’s more apt to say that a memory has a particular consequence for a body part. So a person stores grief, for example, throughout the body. But grief has a particular effect on the heart and lungs, whereas trauma or fear have a particular effect on the abdominal/psoas area.

This is why, when a practitioner is focused on a specific body part (whether with acupuncture, massage, de-armouring, or any other body-based modality), there is often an emotional release that is linked to a memory. It is also why a release associated even with just one area of the body, can have such overall healing effects!  Hopefully this explanation will give you a little more confidence when exploring somatic modalities, as well as some insight into our bodies’ amazing capacity for healing.



(1)   NaturalNews.com, organ transplants

(2)   medicaldaily.com, organ transplant


Emma Michelle Dixon, PhD, is a sexuality and relationship coach, bodyworker, and workshop facilitator based in Sydney. She regularly presents workshops and talks on matters of sexuality as well as facilitates retreats on sexual healing.

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