There are two important times when we’re unable to use words to describe our experience. The first is before the age of two or three, when the language centers of our brain have not yet reached full maturity. The second occurs during a traumatic episode, when our memory functions become suppressed and we can’t accurately process information.
When memory function is inhibited, emotionally significant information bypasses the frontal lobes and cannot be name or ordered through words or language, as Bessel van Kolk describes. Without language, our experiences often go “undeclared,” and are more likely to be stored as fragments of memory, bodily sensation, images, and emotions. Language allows us to corral our experiences into story form. Once we have the story, we’re more able to revisit an experience- even a trauma- without reliving all the turmoil attached to it.
Even though language may be one of the first things to go when we’re overwhelmed, this language is never lost. It sifts back in our unconscious and surfaces unexpectedly, refusing to be ignored. As psychologist Annie Rogers says, “The unconscious insists, repeats, and practically breaks down the door, to be heard. The only way to hear it, to invite it into the room, is to stop imposing something over it- mostly in the form of your own ideas- and listen instead for the unsayable, which is everywhere, in speech, in enactment, in drams, and in the body.”