Why Trauma Affects Some People Differently Than Others

Vision (1919) by Otto Lange (1879-1944) for trauma blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Three of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Two.

Large swaths of populations, including Americans, are experiencing the devasting effects of trauma. To honor this epidemic, to offer new insights into its mechanisms, and to inspire hope for the reduction of human suffering, I extended my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience.

Dale Kushner: Can someone suffer the effects of a traumatic memory, but be unaware of the event that caused it? If someone had trauma, but doesn’t remember it, what’s going on?

Daniela Schiller: A lot of what is happening in the brain is unconscious. We have learnings that we are unaware of. We can have events that impact our behavior such that when there is a trigger, we’ll respond in a certain way, but we won’t remember the association that formed it. A simple example is phobia. People are afraid of flying, but it wasn’t always because of a traumatizing event. The same is true with phobias about snakes or blood. The heart of these could be some event that they’re unaware of. There are events that shape our behavior, that make our behavior habitual or strongly associated with something without our awareness.

DK: But if your research is about eliminating or muting the negative feelings and someone doesn’t know the original trauma, how could they be helped?

DS: There are several lines of research, like the research on reconsolidation, the idea that you have to reactivate a memory in order to modify it. Also, the research that we’ve been discussing, that traumatic memory is an experience of the brain as if it’s happening in the present[1] These point to the fact that a memory, in order to be modified, has to be active and engaged with. At the same time, there are other ways to approach behaviors when their source is unknown — by analyzing the behavior. Even if we think we know the source, we don’t always necessarily know, because sometimes we can have a memory that is very disturbing for us, or a focal event, which very well can be not accurate or was revised or reconstructed over time.

Dr. Daniela Schiller for trauma blog postThe interesting thing is that now there’s growing research on the effect of psychedelics in treatment for PTSD and other conditions like depression. What people are reporting is that while they are on this psychedelic trip, many memories come up, memories that they didn’t know they had, memories they never linked. So there’s an event and suddenly there are additional peripheral events like, oh, and then you make new connections, and that suddenly makes the memory either more understandable or frames it differently. That type of flexibility seems to be occurring in research on psychedelics. When you don’t have that, that could be part of the rigid response or not necessarily accurate response that you have to a particular event that you think you remember.

DK: What determines the severity of the effect of trauma? We know that some people who have experienced severe trauma don’t seem to be affected while others who have had less severe trauma, or maybe just bad experiences, seem to be very altered by them.

DS:  Yes, that’s interesting because the definition of the trauma is not in the event itself. You don’t compare events, you compare the responses to the events. That’s why there’s no competition between someone who was at 9/11, for example, close to the building versus far from it but with a different interaction. There’s no measure like that. It’s all in the response. The definition is: to what extent does a trauma affect your daily life and functioning? If it impairs functioning — this is the measure of the severity. If you can’t get out of bed, if you don’t interact, you can’t work, you don’t need — these are the degrees of severity, how it affects you at that personal level.

DK: Are some people more vulnerable? Who is more likely to be affected? Can we predict who will be affected?

DS: Yes, some people are more naturally resilient than others. Many factors come into play. One is the past, like childhood trauma. The other could be genetics. Some processes make your brain more sensitive. The way the brain reacts could lead to some processes versus others, like epigenetics, which is the experience of your parents. We see this in studies of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, and also in animals. If the parents were stressed, then the pups, the offspring are also more reactive or more sensitive to negative experiences. This is because of the way the genes are being monitored, what is being inherited. In this sense, experience is being inherited. It’s also about the context. In what conditions do you have social support? Many parameters will influence resilience.

DK: Which is more important: the intensity or the duration of the trauma?

DS:  These all come into play. The intensity, the duration, and also the age of the memory. In the present moment, each of these can have a serious effect on trauma. There are traumas that are one-time events, and there are traumas that are very much chronic or prolonged. These are complicated types of trauma. They are different from a one-time trauma. So now you get into the different forms that trauma can take, and each one comes with its own characteristics and complexities.

DK: Can someone who has inherited the epigenetics of a traumatized parent change their epigenetics, if intervention is early enough?

DS:  Yes, I would expect so. It is not my research, but in principle what epigenetics means is that you have the DNA, but peripheral factors affect which gene is being expressed. They’re like the monitors, the modulators of the genes that you already have, and some of them will be expressed more or less depending on your experience. What is shaping the next generation is the environment in the fetus when the fetus is evolving. This is where epigenetic factors come into play, what is formed in the growing fetus of the next generation. Whatever is in that environment at the time of the pregnancy will have an effect. If you did have a negative experience, but then it was mitigated, this will have an influence because epigenetics is about the environmental and experiential context of your development.

DK:  One last question. Where are you headed now with your research? What are you excited about?

DS:  I’m excited about diving into complexity, diving into experiments that touch on personal experience. They’re difficult to study in the lab, which has to be very controlled. With new methods of analysis and also with artificial intelligence, machine learning gives us approaches to study more complex processes. I hope science will become more personal in the sense that it could characterize and be able to focus on the individual. Science is usually about statistics in large groups, and you need large samples to see effects, but I am hoping we can explore it more at the individual level.

For artists and scientists, their goal is to understand experiences in life. Their goals are exactly the same, and even as specific. If your character in the novel you’re writing is struggling with a certain memory, it’s a very specific sliver of reality you are trying to capture. I think science is trying to do the same.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories,” Part One of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, “Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember,” Part Two of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” an interview with Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone.

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember

The Last Survivors of a Family (c. 1870s) by Félicie Schneider (1831–1888) for Memory blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Two of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Three.

Thank you for joining me for Part Two of my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. Today we discuss how current research in neuroscience is confirming many of the working hypotheses of psychotherapy and also the role of narrative in creating memories.

Dale Kushner: There’s been a lot of research about how our brains are wired for narrative.[1] Your research[2] has to do with contextualizing a memory, that when a memory is contextualized that somehow mitigates the traumatic effects. How would you explain that?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. I think it’s important to emphasize that many of the insights I’m talking about are widely known and used in psychotherapy and psychological research. We’ve known for many decades that memories are not accurate, that there can be false memories, that they can be affected. And also that you need to create a narrative. Many therapy forms are about creating a narrative around memories because traumatic memories are fragmented.

In a way, neuroscience research is catching up or even occurring in parallel. When you interpret the neurobiological or neuroscientific findings, you see that, oh, it comes to the same conclusion as the therapists. Neuroscience brings a mechanism, whereas, for psychologists and psychiatrists, the therapy has been developed through trial and error or through hypothesis. It brings structure and constraints. But if there’s a mechanism, together they can kind of constrain each other. Now there’s a mechanism, now we know exactly what to target in a more well-defined treatment. The neuroscience resonates with many observations in psychology. It’s exciting.

DK: Now that you and your team and other researchers understand these mechanisms, what impact will this have on pharmaceuticals? Or in treatment? We hear of people recreating their nightmares in imagery rehearsal therapy.[3] How could this be used?

Dr. Daniela Schiller for memory blog postDS: Let me answer in two steps. In terms of narrative, memories are part of a narrative almost by definition. A memory is something that is embedded in time and space in a certain context, at least episodic memory. And if it’s not, then it’s a fragment of a present moment. To make something into a memory, it has to be part of a narrative because memory is a narrative. The brain is prone to that. The reason is that narrative is something that gives you cause and effect. It allows you to understand and predict, which is precisely what the brain wants to do.

So the connection with narrative is very tight. At the same time, there’s room for flexibility in that narrative because we know that memories are not accurate. We keep changing them, we reconstruct them. So when we do hold onto a narrative, it’s like a hypothesis. It’s a plausible explanation of the event. And that is what is liberating because if you’re stuck in a very harmful, negative narrative, there’s room to think that maybe it’s not the reality. There’s room to modify it and turn it into something more accurate and more conducive.

In terms of pharmaceuticals, it’s an interesting interplay because it depends on the impairment. In some cases, it could be at the neurobiological level, so you need something to, let’s say, enhance the brain’s plasticity or help neurons recover or return to balanced action. For this, you would need some type of invasive, like a drug or brain stimulation.

But at the same time, once the brain is functioning, you need to overlay behavior on it. It’s like having a car that works, but not driving it or driving a car that doesn’t work. If the car works and you don’t learn how to drive, there’s no point, right? It doesn’t really help you that the car works. So, if you can stimulate the brain to put it on a functional level, you then must practice behavior. The combination is very important. For different people, it depends on the situation. Sometimes the neurological is fine and you just need to practice behavior. Behavior itself is like a drug in the sense that it shapes the memory. It can stimulate, can train the memory. Behavior is a product of the brain, but it’s also a trainer, a manipulator of the brain. Behavior is very powerful. There is a lot of room for pure behavioral interference or adjustments that people can make in their daily lives when they understand how the brain works.

DK: That’s fantastically hopeful. What else should we know about what you have learned in your research?

DS: All these insights that come from neuroscience and psychology about memory are changing the way we think about memory. This is potentially important for how people engage with their memories. Because in everyday life we assume that our memories are accurate and they define who we are. This is what meditation is giving you. It’s a way to observe and interact with your thoughts and with your memories such that they don’t define you. You have a relationship with them, and that gives you a great deal of flexibility. On the one hand, it can be disturbing to think that I am not being correct in what I think about myself. But it changes your perspective in the sense that you don’t need to look in the past to understand who you are.

You need to look at the present because whatever you retrieve now reflects who you are now. For example, if you’re in a negative mood, you will retrieve negative memories. This is what will come to mind. It doesn’t mean that this is your entire life. It just means that now this is what you’re experiencing. So, you kind of think about memories differently. It’s not about telling you who you are or not, they give you actual information about the present in a way that helps you predict the future. Each one of us is becoming like an artist in the sense that we feel the memories and interact with them and have more of an intuitive sense of the process. I think it frees us, it gives us much more flexibility in moving forward in our experience of ourselves.

DK: Great. And that aligns with a sort of spiritual perspective. That our capacity, our perceptions, are narrowed by memory and many other things. But our capacity is so much more expansive.

DS: I think the affective world, the world of affect, which is everything from emotion, feelings, and mood, is best understood from the perspective of being an organism. You’re an organism in the world. You interact with the world and your reactions to the world. What we call emotions are concerns that we have for our survival. If we interact with something in the environment, that’s important to our survival or the way we interact with it. It indicates the importance or the relevancy of that object. That could be a mental object or a physical object, but the way we interact with it signifies what it means for us in terms of our survival.

[1] Westover, Jonathan, “The Power of Storytelling: How Our Brains are Wired for Narratives,” Human Capital Innovations, January 11, 2024

[2] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[3] . M. Albanese, M. Liotti, L. Cornacchia, F. Manzini, “Nightmare Rescripting: Using Imagery Techniques to Treat Sleep Disturbances in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2022: 13: 866144

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories” (Part One of my interview with Daniela Schiller),  “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories

Sagittal MRI slice of a brain with highlighting indicating location of the posterior cingulate cortex. The study cited found traumatic memories engaged this area, usually associated with narrative comprehension and autobiographical processing, like introspection and daydreaming.

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part One of a three-part interview. Read Parts Two and Three.

Does the brain encode traumatic memories differently than it does other memories? This question prompted a recent series of experiments by a group of researchers at Yale University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The publication of their breakthrough findings in Nature Neuroscience[1] in November generated news media headlines.[2] To learn more about these findings, I interviewed one of the authors of the study, Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. In 2014, The New Yorker did an extensive profile[3] of Dr. Schiller’s achievements in memory research.

Dale Kushner: Is it accurate to say your goal is to untangle a traumatic memory from the strong emotion it evokes so that a person might be able to remember something traumatic but not feel its negative effect?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. That’s the ultimate goal. The way to go about it is to ask questions about how to understand the mechanism: how the brain forms emotional memories, how it maintains these memories. Are these memories malleable? Do they change over time? Under what conditions do you retrieve them, in what way? To prevent the malfunctioning of it or the negative impact of it in certain cases you try to understand the entire mechanism of it. How does it work in the brain before it goes awry? And then what might change that it has such a negative impact?

DK: Could you briefly describe what you’re looking at now and how that unfolds for you in the lab?

DS: Sure. Here you have two main approaches. One will be the very, very controlled way that you create some experience in the laboratory and then you test it. For fear or for emotional memory, we can use this basic process that is called classical or Pavlovian conditioning, where you take one stimulus and associate it with something negative. That stimulus that used to be neutral is now negative. This you can do in the lab. You just present something on the computer, and they can get a mild electric shock, or they can lose money, something negative. They then develop this emotional response to the stimulus because they know that something negative is going to happen. When you look at that in the FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, you can see specific responses in the brain to that stimulus before and after learning, or in comparison to other such stimuli, or such cues.

Another approach is to investigate memories that the participants themselves bring. This is what we did in the research that was just published. The participants had been diagnosed with PTSD and they had their own real life traumatic memories and also sad memories. We reminded them of these memories while they were in the FMRI scanner, and we then looked at the brain. So, we found a way to analyze that very naturalistic experience and real-life memory. And of course, this is personal. In classical conditioning, everybody undergoes the same stimulus. All the participants look at a blue square paired with a shock. Then we’ll see in the entire group on average how the brain is reacting. With the PTSD group we see each and every individual brain reacting to the personal memory, but we still find commonalities. And these commonalities tell us what is different between traumatic memories and sad memories.

DK: That’s very interesting. So, the participants in the first group who have not had PTSD, you’ve induced some kind of shock so that you have a parameter of what an untraumatized person might experience when they are initially getting traumatized in the laboratory. Then you compare that to someone who comes to you with a history of trauma and look for the same things. Then you compare the responses and figure out how the brain is working in both cases. Is that accurate?

DS: Yes. What you’re describing is a challenge to the field because we really cannot induce trauma in the lab. What you have in the laboratory is a model, something that mimics aspects of trauma. With animals, you would do an animal model, an animal will undergo something negative, and then they will be afraid. In humans, you can do the same, but what you do in this case is you’re asking questions about basic learning and memory processes in the brain. And by understanding these processes, which are in the neurotypical, in the healthy realm, by understanding these, you assume that when these systems are impaired or you can envision or try to manipulate the impairments, then you can hypothesize what is happening in the traumatic state. In this case, it’s more like an extrapolation or an assumption that it would apply to trauma.

That’s why our last experiment was exactly to address that issue or those assumptions. Is it true that very simple emotional processes by way of exaggeration become traumatic, or is it a whole alternative process?  It can either be an extension or really a dissociation. It’s a challenge to study trauma in the lab.

DK: Yes. I bet. So, what are your findings on that question so far?

DS: My understanding now is that it’s really both. It depends on what you’re asking. You can see these basic processes in relation to emotional stimuli that are not a traumatic event. You could still see impairment in the aftermath of trauma because for example, people with PTSD would be more sensitive to negative information or some negative surprise or the way they compute and interact with emotional stimuli. You do see changes at the basic level. So that approach is very informative. In addition, when we look at the specific individual personal traumatic memory, we did see a difference between the traumatic memory and a sad memory. It wasn’t just more of an exaggeration of it, which in the brain you would see as more activation, more impact. It really looked like an alternative path of representation. This stayed virgin between the two memories. So, I think both are occurring at the same time. I hope that makes sense.

DK: Yes, it does. And it gives me a sense of what clinicians are dealing with and going to have to deal with. This research is going to be applicable and so crucial for coming generations.

Part two of this interview will follow in January.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[2] Barry, Ellen, “Brain Study Suggests Traumatic Memories Are Processed as Present Experience,” The New York Times, November 30, 2023.

[3] Specter, Michael, “Partial Recall,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

 Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Memory: Can We Trust the Stories that Shape Us?

Photos – memory for Memory blog post

 

What is your earliest memory? Where were you? What season was it? Was the sun shining? Clouds in the sky? How old were you? Were you alone? What were you wearing? What did you smell? Were you happy or confused, sad or dreamy?

The world created by memory lives inside our minds. We believe it is an inviolate reservoir of facts. This is what happened, we say. I remember it clearly. And yet if you ask yourself the same questions stated above several weeks apart, you may discover your earliest memory has altered, expanding some details, subtracting others, or offering up a completely different image. Let’s face it: “facts,” as memory sees them, are not stable.

Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses for Memory blog postAs long ago as the Greek philosophers, we were attempting to unravel the mystery of memory. For centuries, memories were thought to embed themselves in our brains like a stamp onto soft wax, stored forever in archival files. Current cognitive neuroscience conceives memory as a more creative and adaptive system, a complex interconnected neural network involving many areas of the brain. Even when specialized areas of the brain are damaged, causing speech and memory deficits, other parts of the brain can step in to complement the injured functions. This is what’s truly remarkable about the brain: its plasticity, its capacity to transform through learning.

Research on memory continues to unfold, but what we do know is that memory is fallible, and shockingly so. Most of our most cherished memories are confabulations, an intricate blend of fragments from our past, images from dreams, movies, books, and even other people’s memories assimilated as our own. This is the fantastic, frustrating, perplexing nature of memory: it is endlessly redefining and refining what we remember. Ask three siblings about a shared experience and you are likely to get three different versions of the event.

In his autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, the renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks detailed a memorable childhood event that occurred one evening during the Nazi bombing of London when his family members tried to douse an incendiary bomb with water. With immaculate specificity and the astute eye of a scientist, Sacks wrote:

“There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.”

He remembered, unequivocally. droplets of white-hot aluminum oxide from the thermite bomb cascading over the lawn. He had been seven at the time.

Only later, after his book was published, did he discover that he and his brother Michael had been away at boarding school when the bomb landed and that his recounting of the incident could not possibly have been an eyewitness account. The details he recalled were from a vivid letter written by his older brother who had been home at the time.

The Bologna station clock for memory blog postOur flawed memory unnerves us. We count on memory to validate reality. As our brains develop, we begin to create an autobiographical first-person narrative that defines who we are. Our identity formation depends on memories strung together into a recognizable story. (Autobiographical Memory.)  In childhood, remembering positive choices and outcomes enhances a positive sense of self. We also remember bad choices and their consequences, which enables us to make better choices in the future. When neurodevelopment is interrupted or delayed, by trauma, illness, poverty, or other factors, children have a harder time using memory to assess how to relate to a situation or prevent negative patterns from repeating. Their sense of self lacks the support of positive memories to reinforce a positive self-image.

What we remember about ourselves shapes the stories we tell about who we are, which in turn shapes who we become. The art and science of psychoanalysis, of talk therapy, in general, respects the role of memory and its significance in our mental health. Examining long-held stories spun from memory and placing them in the context of a life history and a family history elucidates and untangles, and importantly, revises the hurts of the past. People with memory disorders face an inability to retrieve a coherent past. Sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases lose a cohesive sense of self as they experience the erasure of personality. As Sacks writes in his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”

For those of us who have witnessed the ravages of memory loss, the rupture of mental processes shakes us to the core. I’ve been drawn to explore the byways of memory for both artistic and personal reasons. Several years ago, my sister was diagnosed with and subsequently died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As my sole sibling and only living member of my family, she alone carried the memory of our shared childhood. As her mind dissipated and she began to weave fantastic tales from the images that remained, I realized I would soon lose the only person alive who could corroborate my memories. After she died, to work with grief, I plunged into writing my second novel, which explores family secrets, intergenerational trauma, and how what seems to be forgotten in the family line never really is.

Sacks’ faulty memory about the Blitz bombing did not have serious consequences, but when a witness’s unreliable memory results in a defendant’s prison sentence, or when public policy is based on invalid eyewitness reports, the consequences can be disastrous. Nor are photographs or digital images to be trusted. Photoshop and a slew of other technological advances can change our reality by altering images of real events and inserting them into our collective consciousness. How do we separate the real from the fictitious? The imagined from the remembered? And does it matter? Could it be that our memories are not just the vessels in which events are stored but are the foundation of our beliefs and values?

In the 1950s, when anti-communist sentiment was raging in this country, noir thrillers and futuristic science fiction movies became dramatically paranoic, centering around foreign regimes or space-aliens intent on reprogramming our brains. Words like “thought control,” “indoctrination,” “brainwashing” filled our nightmares. Popular culture featured movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Grotesque extraterrestrial pod people were dropping into our world, intent on colonizing our bodies. The contested territory was not land or empire, but our minds. The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 film, featured a POW returned from the Korean War. Memories of his former life and allegiances had been wiped out. As a robotic puppet of the nefarious enemy, he had been programmed to assassinate the U.S. president. A year after the film was released, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the movie was pulled from circulation. Life seemed to be confirming fantasy.

A more recent example is The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood that tells the dystopian story of Offred and her Handmaid sisters, slaves in mind and body to their masters in the new Gilead, where memory of the past is forbidden. But Offred has flashbacks to the before-time, pre-Gilead. Images of her loved ones appear in dreams and waking fantasies. These are forbidden as is all mention of the past, its values of individual freedom and compassionate humanity.

Throughout history, entire populations, nations, and empires have been coerced to annihilate the past so that a new regime can flourish. Chairman Mao understood this as did Stalin, as do all authoritarian regimes. In our own country, amid much debate, we are in the process of collectively remembering the unspoken stories of the indigenous peoples and the enslaved.

Even when faced with exile, gulags, beatings, torture, or the invasive progression of disease, the mind mutinies and remembers. Even suffers from dementia can be spontaneously gifted with gems of memory. Until the very end, I would sit with my sister and she would suddenly take my hand and start swinging it, as if we were children again. The old mischievous brightness would return to her eyes. Remember the time, she would say, and with absolute clarity she would tell me a story from our youth.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?

Multiple Personality by Kamil for Trauma blog post

Have you ever been at a family gathering and someone shares a memory and, as you hear it told, you say to yourself: That’s not the way it happened! The truth is that our memory is an unreliable narrator, a literary term that describes a person telling a story who is not telling it straight. In fiction, an unreliable narrator can be a clever deceiver, as in many crime novels, an innocent lacking self-awareness, or a charming raconteur simply happy to spin entertaining tales.

The unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulously gruesome horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is mentally unstable and can’t be relied upon to give accurate information. Wuthering Heights has dual narrators, both of whom have biases about Heathcliff and company. Some unreliable narrators seem to have all their marbles, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but when he kidnaps the precocious Lolita, we conclude he is what he says, a psychopath. In reading a book, there’s real delight in figuring out who’s lying, who’s manipulating, who’s speaking the truth—but what happens when our own psyches present us with multiple narrators, each with a different set of perceptions and interpretations of reality?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Virgil Finlay for Trauma blog postHow we see and react to the world is prompted by different parts of the brain. Sometimes, we act on “a gut feeling,” sometimes, we critically think through pros and cons. Both aspects of consciousness, and the spectrum of subtle and complex hues in between, are necessary for decision-making, and thus, ultimately, necessary for survival. Recent research indicates that in people who have experienced trauma and for whom survival, past or present, is an issue, the split between conflicting prompts can manifest in a split sense of self. An abused child, for instance, may exhibit paradoxical behavior, simultaneously clinging to and withdrawing from her abuser.

In her newest book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, Dr. Janina Fisher helpfully presents a neurobiological map of early trauma’s negative effects on the communication between the right and left brain hemispheres and shows how this can lead to a lack of integration between the functions of each. This functional “splitting” can make us feel as if we have two brains, one under the direction of a traumatized part that originated in a painful experience, the other part guiding us toward normal responses to the day-to-day world.

Dr. Fisher has observed that many of her trauma clients speak of being “hijacked” by responses triggered by memories or perceived threats in the present moment. She writes:

“Characteristically, while the going on with normal life part tries to carry on (function at a job, raising the children, organizing home life even taking up meaningful personal and professional goals), other parts serving the animal defense functions of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and “cling” or attach for survival continue to be activated by trauma-related stimuli, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopelessness about the future.”

Marci Gittleman, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin who works with trauma in her clinical practice, asserts: “Trauma often raises parts of ourselves, pushes other parts down, and separates parts of ourselves from each other. Recovery from trauma helps to welcome all of the different parts of ourselves into consciousness—even if we like some parts better than others!”

The traumatized “part” might be considered an unreliable narrator, pumping us with stress hormones that distort our awareness of reality. Trauma corrupts the telling consciousness that has been damaged by tragedy.

In a mindful approach to healing inner fragmentation and compartmentalization, we might acknowledge our multiple parts and discern who is telling the story (some research indicates that we are all multi-conscious rather than uni-conscious); acknowledge the source (traumatized child, veteran, shooter survivor); and ask if the information being given is valid.

Looking at fiction can help us understand how who tells the story shapes the narrative, and therefore shapes how we feel about what has happened. As we read, we might ask ourselves, who owns this story? How is reality being filtered through this consciousness (narrator)? Using one of the foundational stories of Western culture as an example of how meaning and interpretation vary with differing points of view, let’s look at different versions of the story in Genesis of the first human couple.

The Expulsion from Eden by Schnorr von Carolsfeld for Trauma blog postAdam’s version of the expulsion from Eden might include a description of the satanic snake, despair and betrayal over a temptress mate, his remorse and anger at being duped. Imagine Eve’s version as a woman pissed at taking the blame.

The same sequence of events narrated by the snake might emphasize Adam and Eve’s naiveté and the snake’s desire to wise-them-up by offering up a bite of fruit. Now imagine the story from a third teller, the archangel Jophiel, who led the couple out of paradise. His tale might be packed with the difficulties of being God’s messenger, his questioning of divine authority, his sympathy for the banished pair. Each version of the story would be accurate according to the experience of the teller, their truths part of a larger truth.

So, too, all aspects of the self, including the shameful and wounded parts, are worthy of having a voice; each deserves respect. Injury and self-harm occur when emotional pain is shunted into the borderlands of consciousness. To speak and to be heard, to be witnessed and bear witness is to shed the mantle of victimhood and embrace agency, dignity, and self-empowerment. These abstract words take on life and meaning when dramatized through characters in a story.

As an experiment in relating mindfully to the storm of conflicting impulses within us— with the goal of externalizing troublesome inner voices—try this:

  1. Grab a pen and notebook, or sit at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe. Center yourself in your body. Open your eyes and begin.
  2. With curiosity and playful creation as your guides, choose a specific troubling event in your life (you needn’t choose the most painful or difficult episode) and tell the story from your own point of view.
  3. To objectify the narrative, consider using your name in place of “I.”
  4. Now tell the same story from another person’s perspective, someone engaged in the situation, or a bystander, or even from an observing inanimate object like a tree. Use as much sensory data as possible: what is seen, smelled, touched, heard?
  5. Compare the stories. What differences do you notice? What has been emphasized or left out in each? Can you name the prevailing emotion in each story? What feelings come up as you read them? What have you learned?
  6. Take 15 minutes to write your responses beneath the stories.

Walt Whitman portrait for Trauma blog postThe influential and ground-breaking American poet and essayist Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Elsewhere, Whitman wrote,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall
possess the origin of
all poems . . .

You shall listen to all sides and filter them
from your self.

In healing from trauma, we might take our cues from this great poet by gathering our inner tribe, including the exiles, and validating their worth.

Psychologist Gittleman offers hope:

“I think of trauma like a perfect storm—it’s random, surprising, time stops, and life becomes different after the trauma from what it was before it happened. Trauma rocks the heart, body and soul—sometimes more, sometimes less, and different for you than for me. It can be hard to feel safe, and the impact reverberates into the present and future in ways that are both known and unknown—even if we decide we are not going to let it! Our best shot as survivors, however big or small the traumas, is to own our stories, and all of the different parts, over time, when we are motivated and ready, by ourselves and with others whom we have come to trust.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know

child in tunnel for childhood trauma post

 

My father’s first heart attack was a rehearsal in loss. It’s August in New Jersey, the air an incense of mown grass and spent lilies, sunlight sizzling off the grille of our Ford. I’m nine, hot and tired from jumping rope. I saunter into the cool interior of our house. On the way to the fridge, I halt at my parents’ door. Why is my father sleeping mid-afternoon, his body skewed across the bed?

Once upon a time, middle-class Americans like us ate fried eggs, bacon, and buttered toast for breakfast, adults topping the meal with cream-thickened coffee and a cigarette. Malnutrition, not obesity, dominated public health concerns; polio, not diabetes, the public scourge. At fifty, my father’s arteries were filled with sludge, and on that day, his heart spasmed its distress. I shake his shoulders, shout his name. When there is no response, I’m frozen with dread.

brain diagram for childhood trauma postComing upon my father’s inert figure on the mattress that day has been a central trauma in my life. Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s not just the triggering traumatic event that can flatten us. Nor is it simply that the memory of the event causes anguish. Far more enduring is the exhausting hypervigilance and anxiety that becomes part of our nature. In The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst and renowned expert on trauma Donald Kalsched tells us that in traumatized moments our entire nervous system is flooded with stress hormones. Our bodies and emotions revert to a primitive state of fear, charged by the brain’s limbic system, while our higher cortical functions like rational thought become mute, unable to be accessed. A traumatic situation throws us into a time-stopped and tunnel-visioned moment in which we might freeze or flee in panic—the well-known fight or flight response. Trauma initiates us into an irretrievable loss of innocence: not only do we feel exposed and vulnerable, we can no longer anticipate feeling protected and safe.

Most of us will never experience the extreme traumas of war or genocide or the murderous rage of an enemy, but coping with smaller traumas are part of human life. Kalsched asks how is it possible to live an ensouled life after trauma, or put another way, how do we accept our suffering and also find joy? The question points to both a psychological and a spiritual answer.

sculpture by Barbara Hughes for childhood trauma postMyoshin Kelley, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says there is a great movement within our hearts to be free from suffering. We may yearn that the hearts of all beings be open and free, but the wounds inflicted by trauma interfere—and persist. A first step in healing trauma is recognizing its presence within us. My own experience has led me to understand that trauma shapes us from below, from the unconscious, where the dissociated parts thrive in darkness. “After trauma,” writes Kalsched, “dissociative defenses are set up in the inner world and these defenses distort what we are able to see of ourselves and others.” These defenses protect us from feeling past and future traumas, and yet the defenses can cause their own problems. They create vacuums in which hope, creativity, and self-love cannot exist.

In her book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, analyst and professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary Ann Beldford Ulanov writes, “When we make an unconscious deal to cut off parts of ourselves, we swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us.” Dr. Ulanov suggests that whatever we are afraid of is asking for our attention. “We must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.” In this space of not-knowing, we assemble all the parts. “It is like collecting all our laundry, even the fugitive socks that seem to lead a life of adventure all their own.” Through this process of discovery, we compose a picture of our wholeness that is an ensemble of parts, a “completeness,” rather than “a seamless excellence.”

child in darkness for childhood trauma postThe thought of going into our darkness takes our breath away. It seems to require more than we can bear, and yet instinctively we know this is the path to healing. Acclaimed mindfulness author and teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that “when we see our pain, whether mental or physical, as a single, solid, monolithic entity, unyielding and oppressive, it is almost impossible to bear. Fighting a consolidated enemy, we feel overcome, helpless, stuck. But when we can be mindful of exactly what is happening, we begin to see that everything we experience is composed of many ever-changing elements.” Our traumas are part of the rich texture of who we are, but they are not all of us. They are a summons to wholeness.

The power to make meaning of our experience, good and bad, lies within us. As my nine-year-old self stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, in the gap between blinks, I imagined I saw my father’s soul hovering above his body, a fragile blue shimmer similar to what orbiting astronauts report observing as a sort of halo around the Earth. Like the spacewalking Russian cosmonaut who was so awed by the universe he was unwilling to step back inside his cramped spacecraft, so too my father’s soul seemed to falter, trying to decide whether to reenter his flesh.

Years later, the memory still detonates strong feelings. We cannot willingly unremember. Nor could I have predicted how that moment would animate a lifelong investigation into the transforming power of fear. We all lose things — glasses, car keys, memories. Over a lifetime, we lose people we love. Loss and time pick us clean, which may well be why we like to accumulate things, pad our nests with stuff, even as time insists on revealing itself in natural cycles, bare branches slicked with ice later weighted with fruit, pencil marks on a wall behind a door to mark a child’s growth.

mirror with hands for childhood trauma postThe Buddhists say to see the flower is to want to possess the flower. Be mindful, they warn: observe the desirous self and let go. My sorrow, I discover, matches the dilemma of all beings: we fear change and loss. But aren’t we deeply attached to our attachments?

What if becoming attached to things is our way of praising earthly life? The great poet Rilke on the windy cliffs near the Duino Castle wonders: Are we perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window, –at best: pillar, tower. Rilke reminds us of the reciprocity between things and the soul: when we imagine a beloved’s bathrobe on its hook, her worn slipper beside the bed, we see the essence of the person contained in the thing, each object a star in our private galaxy. Here then gone: everyone I love.

We have our shocks, our terrors. However, inside the damage are seeds of change. Childhood trauma forges our identity, lending us our tics and insomnia, our depressions and panic attacks, but emotionally charged experiences also drive the quest for spiritual maturity as we reconcile the controlling part that draws a protective circle around what we love and the surrendering part that recognizes our helplessness. Our heads understand we don’t control the universe, but our hearts pine for a stable, anguish-free life. Head and heart wrestle, but the heart is the queen, the high priestess, the beginning and end of the world.

I sit now and breathe into my heart. Even the troubling memories arrive dusted with the aura of the sacred. What is buried is not lost. The past lives in infinite dimensions. Either way—sorrow is inextricable from joy. Grief itself isn’t a solid fortress, it’s porous. Light shoots through the cracks.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Nature, Time, Memory and the Childhood Experience of a “Cherishing Force”

Looking at the sky through oak branches for blog post on "cherishing force" in nature

Arriving at a new destination the first thing I notice are trees and sky. People, the details of their physiognomy, their manners and gestures, their clothing and habitations prompt my curiosity, but trees and sky are the welcoming agents that make a place home. This is a bit shameful to admit. As a fiction writer I’m obsessed by the unexpected beauties, swathes of ugliness, and confounding mysteries inherent in the human condition, but I must also confess to being an adoring student and humble acolyte of the natural world.

My attachment to trees began early in life. In a memory I am no longer sure is recollected or fabricated, equal parts invention and truth, I’m in our backyard on Elberta Road in rural Maplewood, New Jersey, washing dolls’ clothes in a galvanized tub. It’s late June, the air still clear of late summer humidity, the sky a pure jewel blue. I am between two stalwart friends: an ancient oak that marked the western border of our property, in autumn host to noisy conventions of migrating crows, and the younger but equally wide-girthed maple at the eastern corner whose winged seed pods we children stuck on our noses and ran around calling each other Pinocchio.

The leaves of both trees were deeply green, a hue more satisfying even than the edible green of Crayola crayons, the shadows they cast enclosing and giving texture to space as they filtered the light. Their overlapping branches created a vestibule of shade, a sort of room or entryway infused with its own particular vegetal scent within whose borders I experienced the pleasure of tranquility and happy solitude.

girl washing dolls clothesArrows of sunlight shoot through the branches and hang in dusty, pollen-filled columns shaped and reshaped by the whim of a breeze. My hands are wrist-deep in sudsy water. I swish the doll nightgown and party dress through the bubbles, then wring them to dry on the sunny flagstone path. Nothing I can remember prompts me to throw back my head and stare at the sky, but on this day when I do, I’m transported out of my body into a separate sphere existing alongside the known one, the familiar world morphing into a wilderness of new perceptions.

If I spin around I see what I always saw: the screened porch with its slider couch from whose safety my grandmother and I watched the gathering darkness of summer storms; the clothesline strung with sheets and jiggling undies; the webbed lawn chairs circling the patio; the ruffled edge of an organdy curtain billowing from an upstairs window—the ordinary is still intact, and yet the longer I gaze at my steadfast guardians, the maple, the oak, the imperturbable summer sky—each stone in the garden, the delicate purple of the petunias—wherever I look each thing is radiantly alive, gazing back at me with equal curiosity.

There was, as I’ve said, a gentle wind and also an astonishing silence, as if I were alone in an invisible walled chamber suffused with goodness and calm. The words reverie, immersion, liminal come to mind. No more than a few seconds elapsed in real time, and even the sensations that accompanied my experience did not linger. I must have immediately gone back to wringing out dolls’ clothes, or I simply left what I was doing, caught up as young children are with another curiosity, a bug I fancied nosing the zinnias, or I ran off to play at a friend’s call. I had no comprehension that anything extraordinary had occurred and attached no importance to the event.

800px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonI forgot about this experience but the experience did not forget me. It sank to the bottom of consciousness awaiting my adult self to resurrect and examine its meaning. It was, I see now, one of my first memories of being fully alive, a person separate but a part of a palpably living universe. As Keats wrote in his Letters: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Certainly not then and not now do I make any claim for a visitation from the divine. In childhood, and my opinion hasn’t changed since, the God of the Old Testament did not fritter away His time spying on children. Wasn’t He much too busy smiting the enemies of Israel to care about me? Yet God knew everything you did without looking, so one could still be punished for bad behavior. The connection I felt was not to a personality—God, Jesus, angels, fairies—but to something ineffable and kindly nonhuman.

Nor can I reconstruct, as Barbara Ehrenreich does in her book Living with a Wild God, that perhaps I had succumbed to some form of dissociative mental illness or epileptic seizure. Neither God nor madness chose me. Enchantment might best describe the threshold I crossed.

For however briefly I was filled with gladness and the feeling of being less isolated, less lonely, as if I had entered my own fairy tale in which trees and birds and flowers whispered their secrets. The oak, with its giant’s torso substantial beyond injury from hurricane or gale, its extended humped roots evidence in my mind of a taproot that surely reached to the earth’s molten core, and the maple with its low-slung embracing arms, were benevolent sheltering presences that bore witness.

I am surprised at how much feeling bubbles up when I write these paragraphs. My self-aware adult self sees with sympathy the small child framed in her fleeting moments of bliss that will shortly be swallowed by chaotic family life; but perhaps it is precisely this duality of inner and outer experience from which we can take hope. It may be that I’m describing a kind of grace, those unwilled, spontaneous transcendent seconds in which we glimpse the eternal timeless.

I suppose now that my early experiences with the benevolent Other may have saved my sanity by providing an alternative to a world often dominated by cruel human motivations and laid the groundwork for a sympathetic imagination. It would be reckless as well as foolish for me to believe that glimpses of the eternal cure our fear of earthly horrors or of death, that end of everything we dread, but I can’t help wondering if we are eased by an experience of a cherishing force charged with maintaining the harmony of the spheres that includes us in its balancing act.

nabokovhuntIn his memoir, Speak, Memory, which is among other things a gorgeous elegy to loss itself, Nabokov writes about his experience of time, its treachery and consolation. Considering the latter, he says:

“I confess I do not believe in time….And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plant. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”

It would have been impossible for my child self to have put any of this together—threshold experiences, love, death, immortality, beauty, solitude, loneliness, fullness, inner and outer worlds—but as I write these words sitting in my rented casita in New Mexico and race to finish a draft of my second novel, I see the timeline that exists from the backyard moment of long ago to this moment now. Newly arrived in the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for a special tree, a companion under whose boughs I can lose my ego-bound self, whose nonverbal teachings will be beyond my wildest imaginings.