Physical Memory Definition

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated July 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Researchers have come to understand that memories are formed and stored in the brain, but precisely how it all works and what other body systems may play a role is still being examined in many ways. In this post, we’ll look at an interesting hypothesis about one specific aspect of this topic: physical memory, more commonly known as body memory. Let’s take a brief overview of key theories related to this concept and examine how it may be connected to mental health.

What is body memory?

In general, the concept of body memory refers to the belief that the brain isn't the only place where memories are stored—that different parts of the body may store them too.

According to the broader theory, the body can “remember” things automatically and unconsciously. While this may seem logical to anyone who has ever experienced the effects “muscle memory” or the emotional pain of a traumatic injury, for instance, the particulars of the topic are unclear and far from unanimously agreed upon. This is mainly because the manner in which the body might store such memories remains a mystery.

The six forms of body memory

According to The Phenomenology of Body Memory, the forms in which the body may store memories can be classified into six key types. They are:

  1. Procedural memory, which refers to certain skills or actions that become second nature to your body over time after significant repetition. Examples include riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, or driving a car.

  2. Situational memory, which is based on the belief that our bodily actions change automatically depending on the situation. For instance, your body may instinctively behave differently in a work setting than it would in the comfort of your own home.

  3. Intercorporeal memory, which is based on the belief that your bodily actions can affect the actions of others and vice versa. A classic example of intercorporeal memory is yawning, which seems to be “contagious” among people in close proximity.

  4. Incorporative memory, which refers to the idea that our body can adjust to certain cultures or customs. This type of memory, then, can be determined by where you were raised or what country you live in and can change depending on where you go. Examples might include automatically smiling or bowing in certain, specific types of social situations.

  5. Pain memory, which refers to ways in which your body may automatically react to avoid experiencing additional pain from a source that created pain in the past, like flinching when a person raises their hand suddenly near one’s face.

  6. Traumatic memory, which is when you experience a physical memory and an accompanying response based on some trauma from your past. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an example of traumatic physical memory.

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Are you storing memories of past trauma?

Is body memory real?

The idea that the body can store memories is quite controversial. As far as science currently understands, the brain is the only part of us that’s capable of storing memories. You may believe that bodily actions you’ve experienced in different situations in the past prove that physical memory is real, but remember that your brain is what controls your body. That’s why the concept of physical memory in general is hard to prove. 

Cellular memory is one hypothesis for how physical memory might work. It’s the idea that all cells in the body can store memories—not just brain cells. Supporters point to the stories of those who have received organ transplants and claim to have experienced the memories of the people they received the organ from. However, these claims have not been scientifically verified.

How a negative physical memory can influence mental health

As a 2022 study puts it, if you have a negative experience that directly involves danger or trauma to your physical body, that memory may be “encoded, stored and may reappear as somatic manifestations of mental health problems”. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most well-known examples of how a negative memory that may be related to the body can cause clinical mental health issues that can affect both mind and body. 

PTSD is triggered by an event that caused feelings of terror and/or mortal danger in a person. Someone experiencing this disorder may suffer from physical and/or mental symptoms when triggered after the event, including flashbacks, nightmares, sweating, trembling, anxiety, and depression. While the effects of PTSD have been linked to changes in the brain, anecdotal evidence from those who experience this condition make the possibility of physical memory seem convincing. However, again, scientific evidence has yet to materialize to support how the mechanism of physical memory might be possible.

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Getting help for traumatic body memories

If you’ve experienced trauma in the past—especially if it involved danger or harm to your physical body—you may experience negative mental health effects afterwards, such as a physical memory. Whether these effects amount to a diagnosable mental health disorder like PTSD, anxiety, or depression or not, seeking professional help can be beneficial. Talk therapy is a common treatment for conditions like these, and it can also be helpful for those who don’t have a mental health disorder but need support and guidance in sorting through difficult emotions around a past experience. 

Some people feel most comfortable speaking with a therapist in person. Others prefer to speak with someone virtually, whether it’s because they like to be in their own space during a session or because attending sessions online may be more cost-effective for them. If you’re interested in seeking treatment online, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed mental health professional who can help you work through the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective a treatment for PTSD and other mental health conditions as in-person therapy, which means that anyone seeking this type of support can choose the format that feels right for them.

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Are you storing memories of past trauma?

Takeaway

The concept of physical memory is fairly amorphous since there’s no clear scientific evidence yet to prove how it might work physiologically. That said, traumatic experiences involving the body can affect a person’s mental health in the future. In cases like these, it’s important to know that effective treatment is available.
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