Procedural Memory & The Voice

Affective neuroscience is now helping us find a hidden source of our internal struggles. 

We call it procedural memory.

It might be called the neuroscience of learned presence and learned absence. 

Some are fortunate to experience an abundance of presence in their formative years. But, for many, presence didn't always show up in the way it was most needed. This was the absence we likely still can't comprehend.

Here's a quick summary of procedural memory. Procedural memory is memory outside of words, because it began before we had words. All infants and young children are building memory based on patterns of micro-interactions with their caregivers. Every moment of experience informs every child's expanding procedural memory: 

  • I like it when you smile so comfortably. It feels good to settle more fully into your arms.
  • When you frown so intensely, I feel uneasy and look away. Why don't you notice my discomfort and return to being gentle?
  • When I cry, you pull back. Your body tightens. Am I too much for you?
  • I get so frightened when you're angry like that. I'm shutting down. Why don't you stop?

What's so important about this is the understanding that so much of our learning about "the nature of relationship" is well established through countless interactions (hundreds per hour), before we ever have access to language.

Of course, procedural memory continues to be formed as we get older. Early patterns merely become more firmly established:

  • I come home with something less than an "A" and there it is, that critical tone in your voice.
  • I begin to feel sad and you tell me it's not that bad. Why do I have to look on the bright side of everything?
  • I tell you something even vaguely personal and suddenly you're way too interested. I need you to back off. You never do.
  • When I disagree with you I feel guilty. It always hurts your feelings for me to want my own life.
  • I try not to care about you. I care too much. Why are you so distracted?
  • Busy, busy, busy. Would someone please just sit down at this kitchen table and tell me my life will be OK?

As infants and children monitor minute cues from those upon whom they most depend (facial gestures, tone of voice, posture, rhythm of bodily movements, intensity of gestures, dilation of pupils, level of comfort versus discomfort, etc.), they are paying exquisite, moment-to-moment attention to the procedures of how to be and how not to be in relationship. ("When I do this, she smiles. When I do this, she pulls back.") And so, before we have language and after, each of us come to know moments-as-patterns-of-presence and moments-as-patterns-of-absence in our primary relationships. 

The seemingly small is so much bigger than we typically imagine.

These memories of presence and absence make up the hidden, unrecognized narrative of our worldview. For some of us this is good news. For others, not so much. Because, when repeated negative micro-interactions lead us to a sense that those we most need are easily distracted or demanding or intrusive or afraid of who we actually are, we become stuck with an ongoing experience of absence.

Here is the problem. For those of us who grew up with unresolved experiences of absence, our ongoing belief system becomes the certainty that absence is the definition of reality itself. When we are vulnerable or in need (as we were as children), we expect absence. We accept this learned pattern as simply the way things are. We ask ourselves, why would anyone think life could be different?

Side bar: At this point a lot of readers start deciding it's time to, well, stop being readers. "What hope is there if parents with the best of intentions make tiny 'mistakes' that end up causing ongoing loneliness in their children? Either this isn't accurate or it's right, but too despairing." Such a response is fully understandable. But there is another way to look at early procedural struggles that persist into adulthood.

  1. We can, quite suddenly, realize how our persistent, internal pain actually makes sense (rather than being inexplicable and always confusing). 
  2. We can realize that our parents (and their parents and their parents) had no clue they were passing on a difficult, unconscious legacy. The issue of blame immediately disappears. No parent intentionally wakes up in the morning and says, "Today is a good day to give absence to my child." Parents simply have no clue these procedural patterns of absence were handed on to them and no clue they are now handing them on to the next generation. (By the way, offering parents systematic access to these unconscious miscues is precisely the cutting edge work now going on the field of early intervention. The results are remarkably positive for all concerned.)
  3. Thus, the issue is neither blame or despair. The issue is coherence and clarity. "Of course! This makes sense. I had these moments (lots of them) when my dad just pulled away whenever I cried (or got angry or was asking for support). I always thought it was something about me. Now I see that he never knew presence in those moments either. He, too, learned that pattern from a parent who also wasn't offered presence in those moments. This has to go back countless generations."
  4. Once recognized, we begin to have choice that was not available before. We see patterns of absence and recognize them as core beliefs learned early rather than a definition of ultimate reality. In attachment research, a new found capacity to reflect on our (procedural) history highly correlates with an increase in security for adults.
  5. It's never too late. Our identity is deeper than our history. New options abound once we begin to recognize them. Discovering how this is true is precisely why this site was created.
We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.
— The Talmud

Donald Winnicott once said that we aren't afraid of what will happen to us in the future, we're afraid of what has already happened to us that we don't want to remember or can't yet make sense of.

Our history of absence tends to define our current experience of presence. For many of us, this begins to explain why we find it so difficult to trust - others, ourselves, "God," life itself.

Our unresolved past, just outside of consciousness, continually shows up, masquerading as the present.


What is going on that would keep so many of us incredibly, agonizingly stuck in negative certainty about ourselves, others, and our future? Why would we hold tightly to our experience of absence, rather than just walking away from it?

A young boy lies in a hospital bed. He is frightened and in pain. Burns cover 40 percent of his small body. Someone has doused him with alcohol and then, unimaginably, has set him on fire.

He cries for his mother.

His mother has set him on fire.

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of mother a child has lost, or how perilous it may be to dwell in her presence.

It doesn’t matter whether she hurts or hugs. Separation from mother is worse than being in her arms when the bombs are exploding.

Separation from mother is sometimes worse than being with her when she is the bomb.

- Judith Viorst



Developmentally speaking, we can now recognize a direct link between the story of the young boy clinging to the arms of a mother who has set him on fire and the predictable (and all too common) message revealed by the self-loathing of Hannah (from the HBO series, Girls).

Let's start with current developmental research to explore that link.

We were each born with approximately 100 billion brain cells. By the time we were three years old, those cells had migrated into 1,000 trillion neural pathways. Building at a rate of millions of neural pathways per second, infants and young children are creating the structure of their brains based upon what they experience with their caregivers. This is the basis of procedural memory: our experience is literally built into the architecture of our brains.

Infants are far more sensitive than most of us would imagine possible.

To summarize:  What's central is how infants track their caregivers regarding presence and absence. "Are you (consistently and predictably) with me or are you (consistently and predictably) elsewhere?"



Here's the part many of us aren't sure we really want to know: Infants need presence. Infants are exquisitely sensitive, in a moment-to-moment way, to the presence or absence of their caregivers. Like the air we breathe, presence isn't a luxury, it's an absolute requirement. All current infant research agrees that our emotional stability and sense of security depend upon trusting in the consistent and caring availability of another.

All infants inevitably experience absence, moments when their needed caregiver is unavailable. As it turns out, absence does not have to be a problem. The life of any growing child on planet earth will include thousands of moments of emotional absence, moments that clearly bring distress and can be experienced as frightening and lonely.

Rupture & Repair

Absence sucks, but learning to deal with some absence in our lives is actually essential. It is only useful, however, when a caregiver's inevitable absence is recognized by the caregiver and repaired. As we just saw in the above video, "the [inevitable] bad" is allowed to return to "the [essential] good." 

Known as "rupture and repair," when a child experiences a rupture and also experiences a caregiver willing to repair that rupture, the research shows that such a child builds a deepening sense of trust.

"Bad things happen to me, but they are followed by good things. My caregiver cares enough to recognize her (or his) mistake and work it out with me."

So ultimately, absence, in and of itself, isn't the issue.

The issue is absence that is repeated in ways that fit a pattern, a consistent kind of absence that goes unrecognized by the caregiver. ("When I reach for you, you look away and start talking fast. Why don't you like my reaching? Is there something wrong with me?)

The issue is ruptures that go without repair on a regular basis; ruptures where the caregiver is blind to a specific pattern of rupture and thus does not repair the relationship back toward shared presence.

After working with parents for so long - upper class, middle class, and street dependent - I’ve learned that all parents bring some degree of patterned, consistently un-repaired absence to their children. Unconscious, unintentional, never on purpose, the fact remains that almost all parents block being-with their children concerning certain emotions. For some, it’s that we cannot be-with our child’s fear.  For others it’s that we can’t tolerate our child’s anger or sadness or joy or curiosity. We can allow some of these emotional states, but it’s very rare to find a parent who can genuinely support all of them.

For example, when a child is crying a parent may subtly attempt to cheer him up, thinking that making him happy will "solve the problem" of his sadness. What this parent doesn't currently know is that some version of “Don’t cry” (from “be a happy baby!” to “big boys don’t cry”) leaves the residue of being-without, an absence that lingers. To the child, this is subtle evidence that “No one can join me here in my sadness.” In some way this translates into "Don't have this feeling" and "Don't be you in this particular way."

Over time, the experience for the child is, "I require connection but I'm un-meetable here…  Whenever I get sad, absence trumps presence."

Winnicott said that this point of unconscious realization is precisely where our innate "true self" begins to build the facade of a "false self" or protective self:  "Be cute, be charming, stay hidden, etc., because they don't want to see how you really feel."

Ordinary Heartbreak

She climbs easily on the box
That seats her above the swivel chair
At adult height, crosses her legs, left ankle over right,
Smooths the plastic apron over her lap
While the beautician lifts her ponytail and laughs,
"This is coarse as a horse's tail."
And then as if that's all there is to say,
The woman at once whacks off and tosses
its foot and a half into the trash.
And the little girl who didn't want her hair cut,
But long ago learned successfully how not to say
What it is she wants,
Who, even at this minute cannot quite grasp
her shock and grief,
Is getting her hair cut. "For convenience," her mother put it.
The long waves gone that had been evidence at night,
When loosened from their clasp,
She might secretly be a princess.
Rather than cry out, she grips her own wrist
And looks to her mother in the mirror.
But her mother is too polite, or too reserved,
So the girl herself takes up indifference,
While pain follows a hidden channel to a deep place
Almost unknown in her,
Convinced as she is, that her own emotions are not the ones
her life depends on,
She shifts her gaze from her mother's face
Back to the haircut now,
So steadily as if this short-haired child were someone else.

-David Levine

From this point forward – the point captured in Levine’s poem and the ones we all experience – people carry, in a place deeper than conscious awareness, underlying assumptions and an eventual certainty about "life" which includes an ever-present, albeit unconscious experience of the black hole.

Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls this learned experience, especially when it happens at a phase of life before we have language, our unthought known:  that which we always know but may never actually think. "We learn the grammar of our lives before we have the words." This early programming continues to convince us that the way we see ourselves and others from this point forward is unquestionably the way things are.

Ruptures without repair become the ongoing risk of falling forever.


The Voice

It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another—it’s one damn thing over and over.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay

Attempting to cross a wide abyss on a tight rope, who among us wouldn't cling to something, anything that might keep us from tumbling?

The operative word here is thing. Some-thing. Any-thing. No-thing.

So many of us are haunted by absence ("nothingness" and "forever empty"). It is of clinical interest that this absence is always accompanied by a phantom sense of psuedo-presence, usually in the form of an internal voice that can seem utterly convincing and absolutely real.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, our experience of absence always manifests within the context of this convincing presence; the ghost of a "not really here, but always here" companion following us through each day. This companion is almost always negative. (When it's positive, it is merely an idealization crafted to cover over something negative, with the hope of happiness, success or perfection.)

Some people call this negative internal commentary, "the Voice."

  • Life sucks. I suck. That's all there is to it.
  • There may be an answer, but I'll never find it.
  •  If only I tried harder, did more, were better or more perfect, then . . .
  • What's wrong with me?
  • What's wrong with you?
  • You're perfect (because I can't risk feeling you have any flaws).
  • I'm hopeless (or unlovable or destined for failure).

The Voice has (at least) eight common themes: 

  1. You're not worthy.
  2. You're unwanted.
  3. You're too different.
  4. You're not enough or you're too much.
  5. Everyone will leave you.
  6. No one will ever understand.
  7. Your future will only get worse.
  8. You have no right. (Who do you think you are?)

We don't typically see these messages as strategies to stay out of the void and yet they always are. At their core they follow one simple principle: Something is never quite right or always wrong. And someone (often us) is to blame.

There is always something negative accompanied by a harsh companion that promises to keep us company.

Think about it. Your depression or anxiety or chronic disappointment or self-criticism (whatever form your negative certainty shows up in) always has a subject; something bad or not so good is currently the focus of your attention. Something is always wrong or about to go wrong; missing or about to go missing. The focus is on something, either outside of you or inside of you. ("My future." "My badness." "This loneliness." "This unworkable relationship.") 

Unable to stand absence, we're continually finding a form of psuedo-presence, something (a problem) to cling to. This thing/problem will inevitably be accompanied by a Voice, a negative commentary that remains ever at our side.

For example, the person with an eating disorder is always seeing images of herself as "too fat" with a corresponding Voice reminding her that she will never be thin. Or the person with chronic anxiety will see images of malignant cells accompanied by a Voice that tells him the current pain in his stomach is most likely cancer. Or the perfectionist is always recognizing mistakes and the Voice is either devaluing her for being a failure or someone else for not meeting expectations.

Just like the little boy set ablaze by his mother, we can't not be connected. As we just saw with the baby in the above video, being in relationship is, from the point of view of emotional survival, as important as air is for physical survival.  In the absence of true presence, we listen for and cling to the nagging internal Voice-as-companion (negative presence). 

As Judith Viorst so poignantly tells us, no child can withstand complete absence. Somethingness, even if continually devastating, is experienced as safer than absolute nothingness.

There’s a boy in you about three
years old who hasn’t learned a thing for thirty
thousand years. Sometimes it’s a girl.

This child had to make up its mind
how to save you from death. He said things like:
“Stay home. Avoid elevators. Eat only elk.”

You live with this child, but you don’t know it.
You’re in the office, yes, but live with this boy
at night. He’s uninformed, but he does want

to save your life. And he has. Because of this boy
you survived a lot. He’s got six big ideas.
Five don’t work. Right now he’s repeating them to 

-Robert Bly

This child had to find a way to save us from moments of absence ("When I get sad, she gets upbeat," "When I'm upset, he gets more upset," "When I'm confused, she changes the subject"). This child-now-Voice doesn't have a clue, but does want to protect us. Her (or his) message was learned in a void. We keep thinking it's the way out.

State of Mind

Hell is a state of mind . . . And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind - is, in the end, Hell.
— C.S. Lewis


A state of mind is a lens through which we filter our perception of reality. For many of us, this lens is a distortion that keeps our focus on absence and the strategies we use to avoid absence.

As beings hardwired for presence, we recreate our painful past again and again throughout each day (without knowing it) in order to avoid absence. 

The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even the past.
— William Faulkner

We do not treat our patients to cure them of something done to them in the past; rather we are trying to cure them of what they still do to themselves and to others in order to cope with what was done to them in the past.
— Phillip Bromberg

Suffering is clinging to our past while doing everything we can to desperately avoid it.

Once we become aware of the presence/absence paradigm, we begin to have choice. Said simply:  We are either strengthening our procedural mind, or finding ways to build a new one.  But to build a new mind, we must recognize how the old mind has us currently stuck.

Two-level world

I am deeply grateful to psychoanalyst James Masterson for the following insight, one that has revolutionized my capacity to understand human defenses. Given two options, the second being the black hole, all of us find a way to immediately exit such a dismal possibility. "All alone" vs. defense is never a jump ball. As infants and as adults, we inevitably choose to sidestep utter aloneness.

Attachment research adds a new wrinkle. Our chosen defense inevitably includes some form of relatedness.  It's always about finding connection (" . . . grab that cell phone and text someone") instead of plummeting into lonely darkness.  Our lives become an endless pursuit of "essential" yet meaningless "stuff," just to stay out of falling into "endless empty."

Two options, and only two options.

Think of it as living in a two-level world. Level Two is the promise of endless absence. Level One is our continual return to negative certainty, a harsh Voice (companion) telling us bad things about ourselves or our future, while also making sure we return to whatever "protective self" game plan seems to keep the terror at bay ("perform better," "keep quiet," "be smart," "give in," "try harder," "don't stand out").

We dip into Level Two and instantly jump out to our Level One strategy. Continually. Literally thousands of times each day. 

The journey into Level Two is usually so brief, we don't notice it consciously. For example, an important person in your life seems bored during a conversation (glancing at her phone) and you have a millisecond of free fall (again at an unconscious level) into memories of feeling insignificant to your father or mother years before. Utter blackness enters for a micro-second, and then the Voice:  "You idiot, say something funny or smart or interesting. Don't be boring! Why are you such a loser?"

Or, you are feeling down and begin to say something about it to a friend. He listens for a minute, then takes over the conversation by describing how this exact same thing recently happened to him. Inside, you fall deeper into a feeling of being alone, then quickly the Voice steps in: "You aren't someone people will ever understand. You're so freaking weird. You'll never belong. Quit trying."

Utterly critical, yet absolutely here with you. Distorted yes; mean, yes. But with you  . . . for sure.

Psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn called this an obstinate attachment:  clinging to a negative pattern in our history that we unconsciously choose to keep repeating, all in the service of staying (or feeling somewhat) connected. When Buddhists speak of giving up "attachments," this is what they're addressing. A connection is a connection is a connection.

What Fairbairn was getting at is that many of us form an attachment or a bond between Level One and Level Two. The Voice may be a distorted bond, but it is a relational bond. It joins our innate need for connection and our procedurally learned sense of futility. This bond shows up as a relationship, a harsh companion that is trying, as Robert Bly describes, to do its best to save us.

Having learned that it can't count on another in moments of vulnerability, the Voice is continually speaking a four-word mantra that will follow us around the rest of our life:  "It's up to me."

Formed in childhood when we lack perspective, the Voice has no idea how to really be of help. Born within a context of confusion and pain, its attempts to take charge were desperate, flailing stabs in the dark:  misguided strategies that sought to give meaning to what felt utterly meaningless. ("If you were just prettier, more intelligent, always upbeat people would like you.") Formed in emptiness, it continually reinforces emptiness.

Let's not forget that our Voice has actually saved us:  we actually have something to focus on and a constant companion, relentless yet predictable. Something is better   than nothing(ness). 

And yet, it hasn't saved us. Learned in darkness, this Voice speaks only darkness.  So many of us continue to suffer mightily because of this dark bond.


Here is the hope: 

We need to realize that a reconfiguration of our brains, one that supports an updated awareness of holding and accepts that new possibility is actually available, requires repeated and genuine experiences of the presence we've been waiting for.  Just as importantly, it necessitates our conscious, active participation in no longer dismissing the possibility of a reality (currently unseen) more loving, simple, direct, and generous than the one our procedural certainty tells us is the only option.

Here is where we're about to go: What if the presence we're all seeking is, well, always present . . . hidden-in-plain-sight? 

Mike Peters/Mother Goose & Grimm

Mike Peters/Mother Goose & Grimm


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