Right Hemisphere and Long Lost, Unconscious Childhood Memories

Right Hemisphere and Long Lost, Unconscious Childhood Memories
Rhawn Gabriel Joseph, Ph.D.


The left cerebral hemisphere is associated with organizing and categorizing information into discrete temporal units. It also controls the sequencing of finger, hand, arm and articulatory movements, and the perception and verbal labeling of material that can be coded linguistically or within a linear and sequential time frame.

It is dominant in regard to most aspects of expressive and receptive linguistic functioning, including grammar, syntax, reading, writing, speaking, spelling, naming, verbal comprehension, and verbal memory. The left brain thinks in words and is very attentive to details and temporal sequential organization such as in determining if something is first, second, or last.

Indeed, as already noted, within the left hemisphere there is one area that largely controls the capacity to speak, and another region that mediates the ability to understand speech and which imposes temporal-sequential order on everything that is heard and said. These regions are referred to as Broca's speech area (located along the lateral convexity of the left frontal lobe), the angular gyrus (in the left parietal lobe), and Wernicke's receptive language area (within the left temporal lobe). Together these are referred to as the Language Axis 1.

Nevertheless, the left brain has not always been dominant for language. Indeed, even written language was originally pictorial and in this regard may have been right hemisphere in origin as well.


Language was originally a system of emotive and imitative sounds --sounds which expressed terror, fear, anger, love, etc., and sounds which imitated the noises of the elements: the rushing of water, the rolling of thunder, the roaring of the wind, the cries of the animals world and so on; and lastly those which represent a combination of the sound perceived and the emotional reaction to it. C.G. Jung


Over the course of our evolutionary development, prior to the acquisition of complex speaking patterns, communication was no doubt subserved via body language, gesture, facial expression, and in particular via emotional sounds and mimicry. Language has not always been temporal sequential or the dominant domain of the left half of the brain.

In an infant, the right hemisphere and limbic system (a series of structures found in the depths of the brain) are initially dominant in regard to vocal communication 2. An infant coos, gurgles, laughs, and expresses moods and needs by altering the amplitude, prosody and melodic qualities of his little voice. Although he also babbles, this initial form of babbling is mostly reflex and self stimulation and has no more communicative intent than an eye blink.

This first form of emotional language has been referred to as limbic language for it is mediated by the limbic system and then only later via the right hemisphere as well 3. Nevertheless, this first form of language, that is, in the infant, can only communicate diffuse feeling states.

By about 3-4 month of age a purposeful form of babbling appears. This second form of babbling heralds the first real shift from emotional, melodic, prosodic speech to temporal-sequential language. As the left half of the brain develops it begins to separate, stamp and impose temporal sequences on the stress, pitch, and melodic intonational contours being produced by the right hemisphere. That is, syllabication is imposed on the intonational contours of the child's speech by the left brain such that the melodic features being produced by the right hemisphere come to be punctuated, sequenced, and segmented, and vowel and consonantal elements begin to be produced. Left hemisphere speech comes to be superimposed over the right hemisphere melodic language output 4.


Although left brain speech eventually becomes preeminent in the expression of verbal thoughts and ideas, the right hemisphere is dominant for melodic and emotional speech, perception, and expression . The right hemisphere remains dominant in the ability to discern and impart meaning, context, sincerity, and emotional intent to all that is communicated.

In fact, as demonstrated by Eliot Ross, Kenneth Heilman, Don Tucker, B.E. Shapiro , M. Danly and others, there is one area within the right hemisphere which mediates the ability to vocally express melody and emotion, which is located in the right frontal region; there is yet another region in the right temporal and temporal-parietal area which subserves the capacity to hear these as well as environmental sounds.


If you damaged the right frontal region (opposite from Broca's area), rather than speech arrest or aphasia you might get speech release (or "motor mouth"). Such patient's will talk at a very rapid pace and may jump from idea to idea in a haphazard fashion and become delusional 5. Moreover, the tone and melody of their voice might become abnormal 6. They certainly would have much difficulty holding a tune and would not be able to sing very well if at all.

If the damage were in the right temporal area their ability to comprehend or recognize emotional speech, music, and environmental sounds (e.g., birds singing, a knock at the door, thunder) would be compromised. These patients may lose their sense of humor and would have great difficulty understanding or inferring what others were implying when engaged in a conversation. Unfortunately, when this occurs, patients are likely to behave in an emotionally abnormal manner since emotional comprehension has become distorted.

Together, the expressive emotional and melodic area in the right frontal and right temporal areas make up a unit which provide emotional color to everything we say and hear, and which enables us to determine what others mean or are implying when talking to us 7.

Similarly, if we were hearing music and wanted to sing along, the melody and tune would be processed in the right temporal area. Via interaction with the right angular gyrus these brain areas combine the sounds into a pleasing gestalt which is then transmitted to the right frontal area where the melody is vocally expressed. These areas are interconnected by a rope of nerve fibers, the arcuate fasiculus.

If the left brain desires it can provide the necessary temporal-sequential punctuation so as to provide words and rhythm and thus sing along. However, it can also engage in foot or finger tapping if it cannot remember the words.


Because each hemisphere is specialized in regard to the type of material that it can receive, process and respond to, some types of information cannot be transferred or even recognized by one versus the other half of the brain. One half of the brain may perceive, process and store in memory certain aspects of experience that the other half knows nothing about. This is particularly true regarding negative emotions and emotional traumas which may stay confined to the right half of the brain.

Since language, emotions, memories, and perceptions are lateralized, the two halves of the brain may reach different and conflicting conclusions about what ostensibly seems to be the same piece of information. Indeed, this is a major source of intra-psychic conflict as the two halves may not only perceive things differently but have different memories triggered and then based on these different experiences act in an oppositional manner. One half of the brain may respond in an emotional manner and attempt to do one thing, the other half may attempt to accomplish something entirely different.

For example, Jane is in a store and ask a clerk a question. He looks at her like she are an idiot, uses an insulting tone of voice, points with his finger like a parent lecturing a child, and says: "It is in aisle three."

Jane's left brain hears the directions and prepares to retrieve the desired item. Her right hemisphere having attended to his facial expression, tone of voice, and body language, begins to feel irritable and then suddenly remembers an incident where someone important to her had acted in a similar fashion and had treated her quite miserably. Her right hemisphere feels irritated and upset. However, her feelings of anger are completely disproportionate to what is going on as her right hemisphere wants to strangle the clerk. Jane hesitates and then...heads on down the aisle.



The "lateralization of specialized functions" refers to the fact that some abilities are found in a greater proportion on one side versus the other side of the brain. Functional specialization greatly determines what type of material can be memorized, or even recognized by each half of the cerebrum. This is because the code or form in which a stimulus is represented in the brain and memory is determined by the manner in which it is processed and the ensuing transformations which take place.

Since the right and left cerebral hemispheres process information differently, the manner in which it is represented in memory will also be lateralized. Hence, some types of information can only be processed or stored by the right vs the left cerebrum 8. It is well known that the left half of the cerebrum is responsible for the encoding and recall of verbal memories whereas the right hemisphere is dominant in remembering visual-spatial, non-verbal, and emotional memory functioning. When listening to someone who is angry the left brain might encode the words they are saying. The right hemisphere may perceive and store in memory the look on his face, tone of voice, the angry gestures used, as well as the overall emotional gestalt of the situation including one's reactions to what is being said.

If the right hemisphere were badly damaged (e.g. destruction of the right temporal lobe which contains some of the memory centers), the patient (i.e. his left brain) would be unable to store in memory most aspects of emotional, visual-spatial and related stimuli.

If the memory centers of the right hemisphere were damaged, this particular person (i.e. his left brain) would not be able to remember where he laid his wallet or car keys, how to get (drive through space) to the dentist's office, would fail to recognize him if he ran into him in the parking lot, and would forget the argument he had had with his receptionist about the overdue bill. However, this person (his left brain) would be able to remember the dentist's name, his phone number and address, the amount of the overdue bill, and the conversation he had had with the officer manager about the bill.

If the memory centers of the left brain were damaged (which are located in the left temporal lobe) this particular person would have exactly the opposite problems with memory. He would forget the dentist's name, the amount of the bill, but recall the argument, his face, etc.


Lateralization of memory in turns affects complex behaviors, for one half of the brain may experience and store certain information in memory, and at a later time in response to certain situations act on those memories, much to the surprise, perplexity or chagrin of the other half of the brain. This is what had happened to Carol, the young woman described earlier who had been molested and whose hair had been fondled.

When Jeff was a child his father frequently became angry and violent over nothing. As he became enraged he would begin pointing with his index finger and wave it up and down in Jeff's face, and then, his voice rising, sometimes slap Jeff across the face.

Twenty years later he was having a mild discussion with his new boss when this man suddenly raised his hand and began pointing with his index finger to emphasize a point. Jeff visibly flinched and was suddenly filled with anxiety, fear, and desperately wanted to leave the room. He didn't know (that is his left brain didn't know) what was bothering him, but, consequently he was unable to pay full attention to what his boss was saying. From that point on he felt an unreasonable fear of his new boss and soon began dreading going to work.

Unfortunately for Jeff, the link between his new boss and his father were not apparent to him; at least not to his left hemisphere. It was only after a few counseling sessions that these early, seemingly forgotten memories came to the fore.

When one half of the brain learns, has certain experiences, and stores information in memory, this information may not be always available to the opposing cerebral hemisphere; one hemisphere cannot always gain access to memories stored in the other half of the brain. However, partial access can be obtained if observable clues can be associated with internal feelings.

The visual image of his father's finger coupled with the anger which was followed by the slap was stored differentially in Jeff's right hemisphere. When his new boss employed similar gestures (in a non-angry manner) this triggered in his right hemisphere the recollection of Jeff's father and all the anger and fear associated with those early experiences. Hence, he became upset but did not (i.e. his left brain) know why. In so far as his left brain was concerned, his boss shaking his finger was insignificant, and in fact, he "hardly noticed it" as he was concentrating on what was being said. Therefore his left brain had no idea as to what the real problem was. The associated emotional and visual memories were not available to it.


Thus, in the normal brain, memory traces appear to be stored unilaterally (in one half of the brain) rather than laid down in both hemispheres (i.e. bilaterally) depending on if they are visual-spatial, emotional, linguistic, etc.. For the opposing hemisphere to gain access to these memories, it has to activate the memory banks of the other brain half via the corpus callosum, the rope of nerve fibers which interconnect the left and right halves of the brain. As demonstrated by R.W. Doty and W. H. Overman, if the corpus callosum is severed, the memory remains confined to the half of the brain where it is stored and the opposing hemisphere now knows nothing about it 9.

In one study 10, Drs. G.L. Risse & Michael Gazzaniga, injected sodium amytal (an anesthetic) into the left carotid arteries of various neurosurgical patients in order to anesthetize the left half of the brain. After the left cerebrum was inactivated and essentially asleep the awake right hemisphere, although unable to speak, was still able to follow and respond to commands, e.g., holding and palpating an object with the left hand or looking at pictures. These two doctors then gave the right hemisphere (via the left hand) a number of objects to hold and showed it several pictures.

Once the left brain recovered from the drug, as determined by the return of speech and right handed motor functioning, such that both halves of the brain were now awake, none of the eight patients studied was able to recall verbally which pictures had been shown to the right hemisphere or which objects had been held and palpated with the left hand, "even after considerable probing."

Although encouraged to guess, most patients (i.e. their left brains) refused to try and insisted they did not remember anything. When they were shown several objects or pictures and asked to guess by pointing with the right hand (which is controlled by the left brain), patients continued to state they could not recall any of the pictures or objects or pointed at the wrong items.

When they were asked to point with their left hand, most patients immediately raised the left hand and pointed to the correct object. This is because the right hemisphere, which controls the left hand, was fully able to recall what it had been shown; although this knowledge was not translated into words and the right hemisphere was unable to talk about it (talking being controlled by the left brain). The left brain was unable to gain access to these memories even though they were stored in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere not only remembered, but was able to act on its memories.

Surprisingly, once the person pointed or grasped the correct object with the left hand, such that both halves of the brain were able to see what only the right hemisphere had learned and remembered, the left brains of most of these patients immediately claimed to now recall having been shown the item; just like the girl whose hair had been stroked while performing fellatio as a child.

This indicates that when exchange and transfer is not possible, or is in some manner inhibited, or if, for any reason, the two halves of the brain become functionally disconnected and are unable to share information, the possibility of information transfer at a later time becomes extremely difficult. The information can become lost to the opposite half of the cerebrum. Nevertheless, although lost, these memories and attached their feelings can continue to influence whole brain functioning in subtle as well as in profound ways.

Nevertheless, once the right hemisphere acts on its memories, the left brain may then gain access to some of this information via observation and guess work 11. If the left brain guesses correctly the right hemisphere may reward and reinforce it emotionally or give it clues by generating various emotions until it guesses correctly.

In very young children, however, sometimes these emotions and memories cannot be expressed or accessed by the left brain because of limited language abilities (as well as the immaturity of the corpus callosum, as discussed below). Consider for example, a child who has been molested. Although she may never talk about it, and may deny it if asked, she may nevertheless go to school and pull up her dress, pull down her panties, play with the genitals of her friends, or allow them to play with hers. In other words, she acts out the memories and experiences selectively stored within the right half of her brain. Because her right hemisphere cannot talk about what has happened, it acts it out instead.


For most individuals events which occurred before age 3.5 are very difficult if not impossible to recall. There are several explanations which can account for what appears to be an age related amnesia.

For one, information processed and experienced during infancy vs adulthood is stored in memory via certain cognitive transformations and retrieval strategies which are quite different. As the brain matures and new means of information processing are learned and developed, the manner in which information is processed and stored becomes altered.

Although these early childhood memories are stored within the brain, the adult brain no longer has the means of retrieving them i.e., the key no longer fits the lock. That is, early experiences may be unrecallable because infants use a different system of codes to store memories whereas adults use symbols and associations (such as language) not yet fully available to the child.

Much of what was experienced and committed to memory during early childhood took place prior to the development of linguistic labeling ability and was based on a pre- or non-linguistic code. Hence, the adult, relying on more sophisticated coding systems cannot find the right set of neural programs to open the door to childhood memories. The key does not fit the lock because the key and the lock have changed 12.


As we are now well aware, the developing infant is extremely vulnerable to early environmental and rearing influences, such that the nervous system and behavior may be dramatically and permanently affected depending on the manner the child was treated. Children and animals raised in a diverse environment with an abundance of physical, auditory, and visual stimulation as compared to those who haven't been, are better able to cope and are more resilient to the effects of stress and emotional extremes later in life.

As has been demonstrated by M. R. Rosenzweig, F.L. Bennett, M. C. Diamond, W. T. Greenough, V.H. Dennenberg, and many others, those exposed to a diverse or enriched environment have brains that are heavier, with a neocortex that is thicker, their nerve cells are larger and more abundant, the interconnections between different brain tissues are richer and more extensive. Moreover, as Dr. R. E. Gallagher and I have shown, they are more intelligent, inquisitive, and capable of inhibiting irrelevant and even potentially dangerous behavior 13. Interestingly, the right cerebral hemisphere seems to be more greatly affected by early experience than the left 14. This is true in regard to right hemisphere development, its interconnections with other brain tissue, and its overall growth. In fact, the right hemisphere is slightly bigger than the left half of the cerebrum.

The right hemisphere is more greatly affected than the left by emotional extremes as well. Moreover during these same early years, our traumas, fears, and other emotional experiences, like those of an adult are mediated and stored in the memory banks of the right cerebrum.


Much of what is experienced and learned by the right hemisphere during these early years is not always shared or available for left hemisphere scrutiny (and vice-versa). That is, like an adult, a child's two cerebral hemispheres are not only functionally lateralized, but limited in their ability to share and transfer information 15. More important, however, infants and young children have right and left brains which are not fully interconnected. Their right and left brains thus have considerable difficulty communicating; much more so than in an adult. This is due to the immaturity of the corpus callosum.


The great nerve fiber bundle, the corpus callosum, is the main "psychic corridor" via which information can flow between the right and left cerebral hemispheres. The corpus callosum, however, takes over 10 years to grow completely and mature 16. The process of development and maturation is not complete until the end of the first decade. This greatly limits information transfer between the two brain halves, particularly in very young children.

There are good reasons for this as the developing brain does not need to be subjected to competing influences occurring on the other side of the cerebrum, nor does one hemisphere need to be flooded by activity or information other than that which it is attempting to process and master. Otherwise it would be overwhelmed and its ability to become proficient at specialized tasks would be compromised. This also reduces competition for cerebral space, keeping certain functions confined to one versus the other hemisphere. The immaturity of the corpus callosum insures that information transfer is greatly limited.

Nevertheless, like adults who have undergone surgical splitting of the corpus callosum (called "split-brain surgery), it has been shown (by David Galin, R. Kraft, Dan O'Leary, A. Salamy, myself, and others 17) that communication between the two halves of the brain is so poor that children as old as age 4, have difficulty transferring tactile, cognitive, or complex visual information between the hemispheres, e.g., describing complex pictures shown to the right hemisphere, or indicating with the right hand complex objects and shapes which have been felt by the left hand (and vice versa).

Indeed, as my colleagues and I have demonstrated, when a child is questioned about a picture shown selectively to the right hemisphere, the left (talking half of the) brain may respond with information gaps which are erroneously filled with confabulatory explanations. The left will make up explanations as to what was seen by the right since it does not know 18.

Thus the left brain of a very young child has incomplete knowledge of the contents and activity occurring within the right. This sets the stage for differential memory storage and a later inability to transfer information between the cerebral hemispheres. That is, just like the experiments of Drs. Doty, Overman, Risse and Gazzaniga, when the two hemispheres are unable to communicate and one brain half learns and stores certain experiences in memory, the other half of the brain cannot gain access to those memories even when communication between the two brains is restored or established.

In young children, their two brains cannot fully communicate and cannot share information due to corpus callosum immaturity. Later in life, although the corpus callosum has grown and now allows for more efficient communication, these early memories still cannot be shared.

As discussed earlier, if one hemisphere learns, and at that time memory and learning transfer was not possible, then transfer later in life becomes very difficult. The information and memory become stored only in one half of the brain. They remain well kept secrets.


Because of lateralization and limited exchange, the effects of early "socializing" experience can have potentially profound effects. As a good deal of this early experience is likely to have its unpleasant if not traumatic moments, it is fascinating to consider the later ramifications of early emotional learning occurring in the right hemisphere unbeknownst to the left; learning and associated emotional responding which later may be completely inaccessible to the Language Axis of the left cerebral hemisphere.

Although (like the adult brain), limited transfer in children confers advantages, it also provides for the eventual development of a number of very significant psychic conflicts --many of which do not become apparent until much later in life. This is because the two brains not only have different memories which cannot be shared, the hemispheres may independently recall certain experiences and all associated feelings, and then act on them. As such, a person may respond nervously, anxiously, angrily, fearfully, and not know what is really bothering him or even "what came over" him.

Moreover, due to the immaturity of the callosum, children can frequently encounter situations where the right and left brain not only differentially perceive what is going on, but are unable to link these experiences so as to fully understand what is occurring in order to correct misperceptions.

This is what sometimes happens with young children who are molested. Not only are they confused as to what is happening to them (or as explained by some, they pretend it is happening to someone else), but sometimes they seemingly forget what had happened or even that it had happened at all, although they may be plagued by the associated trauma for years. Indeed, the molestation may stay a secret of the right hemisphere until the memory is accidentally triggered by some action or event witnessed later in life by both halves of the brain.

Nevertheless, similar confusions, miscommunications, misinterpretations, failures to transfer information, and differential storage occurs even in less severe cases of abuse. These experiences or trauma simply remain secrets of the right half of the brain.

Take for example a young divorced mother who has some ambivalent feelings about her young son. She knows she should love him, and of course she does. She wants to be a good mother and makes herself go through the motions. However, she also resents her son because he restricts her freedom, he is a financial burden, and his presence may hinder her in finding a desirable mate. She is confronted by two opposing attitudes, half of which are unacceptable to the image she has of a good mother. Like many of us, she must prevent these feelings from reaching consciousness or from being acted on. This does not however, prevent them from being expressed non-linguistically or tactually via the right hemisphere. That is, both sides of her feelings are expressed.

Her son, who of course, also has a right hemisphere, perceives, her tension and ambivalence. His right hemisphere notes the stiffness when she sometimes holds or touches him and is aware of the manner in which she sometimes looks at him. Worse, when she says, "I love you," sensing the tension and tone of her voice, his right hemisphere correctly perceives that what she means is that "I don't want you". or "I hate you." His left brain hears, however, "I love you" and notes only that she is attentive. He is in a "double bind" conflict. Indeed, they both are.

This little boy's right hemisphere feels something painful when the words "I love you" are spoken. When she touches him he becomes stiff and withdrawn for his right hemisphere, via the analysis of facial expression, emotional tone, tactile sensation, etc. is fully aware that she on some level does not want him.

Later, as an adult, this same young man has one failed relationship after another. He feels he can't trust women, often feels rejected, and when a girl or woman says "I love you" it makes him want to cringe, run away, or strike out. As an adult, his left brain hears, "Love' and his right hemisphere feels, "pain."

Because the two halves of his cerebrum were not in communication during early childhood, his ability to gain insight into the source of his problems is greatly restricted. His left brain cannot access these memories. It has "no idea" as to the cause of his conflicts.

However, if his right hemisphere could talk it might fully regurgitate all that was really bothering him: His mother pretended to love him at times when she really didn't even like him. If his own mother didn't want or love him, how could anyone else?

Thus this curious asymmetrical arrangement of brain function and maturation may well predispose the developing individual later to come upon situations in which he finds himself responding emotionally, nervously, anxiously, or neurotically, without linguistic knowledge, or without even the possibility of linguistic comprehension as to the cause, purpose, eliciting stimulus, or origin of his behavior.

As a child or an adult, we may find that we are faced with behavior in ourselves which is mysterious, or even embarrassing. As such, the real cause and origins of any misery and unhappiness we might feel may remain a well kept secret throughout our lives.

Copyright: 1996, 2000, 2010, 2018 - Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.