The Mechanics of Trauma – An Introduction

There is a mechanism in our brain that handles trauma. I do not presume to be an expert in brain science so, for the purpose of this discussion, I will be using the term ‘mind’ instead. It means roughly the same thing.

Trauma is an instance in which we have failed in our goal – to procreate and to survive, in order to be able to continue procreating; it’s our genes’ goal, as it has been wired into our psychology. When a significant enough failure occurs, like a serious injury or loss of something that’s important to our goal, the Second Brain kicks in.

The rationale behind this modus operandi is that evolution has decreed that it should be so…. the part of our mind that deals with trauma evolved before all higher parts had, and it has kept its wiring in place, kept its ability to override all other parts when an impulse saying ‘we have failed in survival’ is received in the mind.

The brain is a computer that programs itself through experience. Trauma is one type of experience. The Second Brain – or the ‘Reactive Mind’, as someone once called it, seeing as it reacts to life threatening impulses within the mind – also has the ability to learn. It records instances of trauma and they become the blueprint of our ‘reactive’ behavior.

How is traumatic memory analyzed? The first and simplest interpretation of anything trauma-related is as a sign of warning. It signals you to get away from a life-threatening situation (life-threatening in the broader sense), which is identified by comparing our current circumstances with those contained in traumatic recordings.

Let’s say you had a traffic accident. The memory associated with it will contain all the experiences related with sitting in a moving car, also, maybe tires screeching, the sound of tearing metal, a blow, the physical sensations of being injured – things associated with an emergency on the road.

So, generally speaking, when one has such an experience in one’s ‘traumatic memory bank’, one might not become nervous about driving, in general, but the sound of screeching tires, or of anything else that indicates ‘traffic troubles’, is likely to make them more nervous than it would have before the accident.

Now the magical switch has occurred: before we knew to be generally wary when interacting with traffic, we knew it was dangerous; now it has happened to us, this means it can happen to us again. But I’m trying to rationalize something that uses a completely different logic. The Second Brain identifies danger in our experiences and safeguards against it, and all the above reasoning can go to hell.

An additional aspect of this interpretive process is speech. Memory of any kind stores information and speech is a very effective way of transmitting information. Speech is sound, it is ‘recorded’ as sound, but then it assumes new meaning. Now our Second Brain becomes a primitive yet arrogant expert in the hermeneutics of traumatic dialogue.

Notice how neurosis is always accompanied by speech, how every neurotic person has their own stock phrases, of which you will hear more and more the more stressed they become. This is because, in those ‘traumatic blueprints’, speech acts like the commands of a hypnotist. Interpretation comes into play when you have a large body of text, in your subconscious, that is often contradictory and might be speaking in several different voices.

Before we continue down this path I would like to tell one anecdote – one story about monkey education. I heard it years ago on a tour of a big monkey zoo….

So, monkeys were put in a big cage with electrified walls. The walls delivered a mild, non-life-threatening, shock, but it was unpleasant, and, most likely, very scary to monkeys who knew nothing of the technology behind it. The adults, having been zapped a few times, were keeping the youngsters from getting close to the walls, but one did get through and almost got to the fence (/wall).

His mother had been quick, though, she caught up with him, grabbed him and bit him – not too hard. The youngster had learned his lesson.

But what really happened was education, in the fullest sense of the word: the fence had become a cultural taboo for that pack of monkeys – it hurts, stay away! The way to instill a social taboo in the minds of the young is through pain: breaking this rule will cause you pain (nevermind that it’s caused by us). And the Second Brain will then take care of avoiding experiencing this pain again, in the future, because that’s what it does.

So I guess it does still work. Can’t argue with evolution’s math.


Now we shall be stepping into the land of a notorious and problematic thinker who’s name I choose no to reveal at this point. I’ll just say that geniuses go crazy, it’s part of life, and that we should not judge their early brilliance by their later lunacy.

According to that person, human memory is organized along a timeline, with every bit of sensual input being stored in its own channel along that timeline. This recording goes uninterrupted throughout a person’s life, beginning at conception, unless trauma occurs, in which case the recording becomes, depending on the intensity of the trauma, either partially or completely immersed in the subconscious for the duration of the traumatic incident.

This means that it is stored to be used by the subconscious parts of the mind and becomes inaccessible by us, consciously (fully inaccessibly in case there was full unconsciousness involved). These subconscious memories generate ’emergency behavior’ that can be forced on us when the Second Brain perceives danger.


What exactly is unconsciousness? The brain shuts its higher functions down to safeguard itself against an overload of input, of impulses that carry pain. It can be full, it can be partial, though it does not always spare us the need to use morphine, on the battlefield…. it can be as light as the partial unawareness of our surroundings that overcomes us when we receive bad news, it can be present even when we’re screaming in intense pain. It simply means that part – or all – of our experiences are being processed differently.

In some cases it can facilitate survival (this time, in the narrow sense of the term, not including procreation) by the Second Brain remaining active while the rest is in overload, making you crawl, semi-conscious, out of a burning house – for instance. Assuming this is really how it works.


These recordings (assuming information is indeed fully recorded like we’re use to expect of our electronic devices, which I doubt) contain all the drama and stories and personas that had been present when the trauma occurred.

The things that hurt us and the things that were present during that incident serve as warning signs. Recorded speech acts as commands in post-hypnotic suggestion. The speech and the actions of the people involved in the drama do the same, but they also define our subconscious heroes and villains, for us.

The people who tended to us when we had a childhood sickness, for instance. They might have been truly helpful to us in that circumstance, but they said things like “I will take care of you” and “everything will be alright”, and then, as far as the Second Brain is concerned, they become allies.

This gives rise to a unique mechanism which generates psychosomatic illness: when we need an ally, later in life, when we feel distress, our subconscious might recreate the illness we had (or generate something it considers to be similar) because, in its primitive thinking, this will bring the ally back to our side.


Like I told my doctor once, trying to make my case: if the brain can generate insane behavior, behavior that’s harmful to the individual’s interests…. externally, observable behavior, why can’t it also generate insane internal behavior, one that will be manifested simply by mismanagement of internal processes. Why couldn’t insanity assume the form of disease?

And what is insanity, if not reacting, in the present, to trauma that is no longer present? But, of course, in order to manifest itself, in order to be triggered, we need to feel distress. Generally speaking, distress, and/or the specific triggering of traumatic memories, is what fuels the manifestation of both internal and external irrationality.


The person who’s name I did not mention before was L. Ronald Hubbard, the inventor of a quaint and not too well known regression therapy he called Dianetics, and also the founder of one of the most vicious and notorious cults of the 20th century – Scientology (‘The Scientific People’ – for Alfred Bester’s fans). I have been trying, here, to write an introduction to the model proposed in his book Dianetics, The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950.

The reason for me doing so is because I believe he was right on the money, back then, in 1950, though it’s hard to say exactly how much research he had done, and many of his claims require verification. But they do deserve to be put to the test, and I have found no evidence of it ever being done outside of that cult, where the original idea got very quickly corrupted beyond recognition.

So, how shall I continue? I could explain his theories more in depth, I could tell you about my own lifelong experience with regression therapies (including Dianetics) – seeing as I am a little uncertain, maybe this is the best way to go.

Until then, Peace out,

Daniel.

 

(Next: The Mechanics of Trauma – Part II; Previous: The Second Brain)

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