Saturday, 06 May 2017 01:17

What Happens In The Brain When You Have A Memory Flashback


What is the science behind flashbacks? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Natalie Engelbrecht, Registered psychotherapist, on Quora:

What is the science behind flashbacks?

“PTSD is not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.” ~

“There are wounds that never show on the body, they are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” ~ Laurel K. Hamilton


Trauma results in the amygdala increasing the fear response, but being less accurate in remembering items in the memory, while the hippocampus was down-regulated decreasing associations in the memory. Basically the amygdala encode certain items in the memory as triggers and the hippocampus does not integrate the various items in the memory.


When trauma happens, the way the mind remembers an event is altered. These memory disturbances can create vidid involuntary memories that enter consciousness causing the person to re-experience the event. These are known as flashbacks, and they happen in PTSD and Complex PTSD.

Research has identified that a distressing experience has different effects on two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. When traumatic events occur, the amygdala (involved in emotions) strongly encodes the traumatic memory while the hippocampus (involved in storing new memories) is only weakly activated.

Normal memories integrate via moving from the limbic system thalamus and amygdala to the frontal lobe, as well as from the right hemisphere across to the left hemisphere. This allows for the processing and integration of memories. In trauma this process is disrupted and the integration of what happened does not occur causing the memory to be frozen in time and unable to be logically understood.

The hippocampus is important for forming associations so that the different parts of a memory can be later retrieved as a single event. While the amygdala is involved in processing emotional information and making basic responses to things associated with fear, such as recoiling from a snake.

Trauma causes the opposite to happen. The amygdala instead up-regulates increasing fear while the hippocampal processing is decreased, disrupting its ability to bind and distort memories into a single memory.

Brain imaging revealed that negative memories showed an increased activity in the amygdala; however, how the items in the memory fit together was not remembered. Also, the activity in the hippocampus was reduced, thus reducing associations. This results in strong memories for the negative content of an event without the context of the event being encoded. This causes the trigger to activate the same response in different situations as the brain is unable to know that the same thing is not happening.

Basically if there was a blue towel when the memory happened, the brain will activate the same sequence of events (as if the person is back in time) when a blue towel is seen. Let me expand on this by an example from my past.

One of my traumatic memories took place in a VW Baby Blue Beetle when I was five. When I recall the memory I see items as seperate. The beige leather of the seats, the baby blue car, the Little Red Riding Hood doll on the seat, the long drive way, the garage, the dark, me running. I do not see the memory as a whole. Each item is independent. Before I had done significant work on my CPTSD any of those items could activate a flashback independently. Seeing a Red Riding story could have me back in the past, activating the same sequence of events, as if it was there now running in the dark. Because my left brain has not had access to the information, it could not understand the memory as something that was in the past. The memory remained in the right brain which said that the event was happening now. And because the memory did not have access to my right frontal lobe it could not be processed into a whole that was a memory rather than a series of independent items that could activate the memory in the brain.

Opposing effects of negative emotion on amygdalar and hippocampal memory for items and associations

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