Limbic Leakage as Lifelong Response to Distressing Experience


I have intuited the concept of “Limbic Leakage” for years based on clinical experience but had not consciously “abstracted” it out until I was researching a couple of years ago for a lecture on “Essential Brain Structure and Function for the Mental Health Professional.” I was impressed by more recent research on memory formation and the idea that the reptilian part of our brains can store memories, but as best I understood, could not think about them.

Since all of the parts of the brain are interconnected, one thing that especially impressed me was the idea that midbrain structures (especially including the “amygdala,” which along with the “hippocampus,” is part of the “limbic system”), being closer to the brain stem and peripheral parts of the body, could actually send signals to muscles to take action before our cerebral cortex has registered what is going on.

This is part of what recently prompted the scholar on religion and atheism, Sam Harris, to come out with a new book suggesting that it is an illusion that mankind has ‘free will.’ Among his reasons for thinking that man does not make all of his decisions based on “conscious choice,” is the fact that our “unconscious inner worlds” guide much of how we behave, without any conscious awareness of why.

The title of this section thus includes the phrase “limbic leakage” because I wish to convey that the early experiences stored as “memories as feelings” in the “amygdala” color all of our stronger emotional reactions to events in life, and yet, very often we are unaware that it is happening. In fact, if one carefully traces his emotional states of mind during the course of the day, one can observe the subtle “leakage and influence” of “baby states of mind” on nearly everything one thinks and does on an hour by hour basis.

Power to the “Limbic System’s” Amygdala as the Center of the “Baby Core of the Personality”:

I would like to make a proposal at this point. Put starkly, all intense infantile emotional experience is registered at the limbic system, midbrain level in the “amygdala” and may or may not be constructively worked on at the level of the cerebral cortex and frontal lobes.

So no matter the efforts at dealing with the issue cortically, if it was really intense originally, it will probably ‘leak out’ from the midbrain level any time something in one’s current life triggers the limbically stored “memories in feeling.”

Implications of Limbic Leakage:

This is a very scary idea. It implies that when things go awry in infancy, one may be committed to a struggle with that issue for the rest of one’s life. This is why these baby models of the mind are so difficult to tolerate exploring in depth. It quickly takes us to really thorny, if not impossible, ethical questions about such issues as fertility treatments leading to multiple fetuses, prematurity and neonatal ICU heroics, abortion, etc. But the thorniness of the questions should only propel us forward to think our way through in as constructively informed manner as possible.

Take, for example, some of our most common issues: prematurity, colic, very close sibling spacing, and adoption. None of these issues need ruin a life or prevent happiness. But I have never seen any of these experiences not leave stamp on the personality that is obvious to me on detailed exploration.

The “adopted” person may have greater concerns than average about “separations.” The one with close “sibling spacing” may have a discernible difficulty with “sharing.” The “colicky” baby may grow up with specific “food fads” or more generalized “anxiety” that things are always about to go badly. The “premature” child may be delayed significantly in every “milestone of development,” even if the long-term result is fine.

I am suggesting that “limbic leakage” of primitive emotions adds a coloration to life that is often like a background sound or reaction that never completely goes away. For some it may be only “white noise,” but for others it is “paralyzing.”


The take-home lesson, as I see it, is that if the leakage is too disabling or problematic and is interfering with having a satisfying life, then it is time to get help to understand it. Chronic depression, borderline character disorder,and severe anxiety disorders are just a few examples of situations that fit this description.

Trying to suppress it further with drugs will not work. One would have to make oneself a “zombie” to succeed, and if the latest movies are any indication, I don’t see a future in that.