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December 12, 2003

trauma rap


This is an illustration from Struwwelpeter, it's Pauline, suffering the consequences of playing with matches.

Here's a little more about trauma - brain physiology from the scientifically challenged. I'm of the "get-the-gist" school.

When a person has a regular, plain old experience that isn't traumatic, this is what happens. Sensory information (all but smell) is received by the amygdala, a central brain structure. I like to call it the groundhog brain, you know, instinctual. The amygdala screens the incoming information and makes a decision.

If the information is neutral, here's what happens. The amygdala makes the incoming information into a hamburger, and stores it for future reference. Like, beautiful sunsets I have seen, colors of orange I want to paint my kitchen, Caribbean Islands I would like to revisit. The information goes up into the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is where cognition and language reside, the part of the brain that is uniquely human, that enables us to think, if we so choose. There, the experience gets a date stamp, and becomes part of the narrative of life. For example-- in 1999 I went to Aruba with my friend Susan. We saw this beautiful sunset, and I said to myself, "I must remember this", and, maybe you do and maybe you don't.

In a traumatic experience, the sensory information comes into the amygdala, and the amygdala says "Holy Toledo (do I date myself?), this is an emergency!", and sends a signal to the adrenals, located in the gut. The adrenals fire their juice, and the person is mobilized to fight or flight. Freeze is another option. Can't remember the physiology, but take my word for it, it happens. These are hardwired, instinctual responses. Notice that rabbits and squirrels do alot of freezing, zebras and horses do flight, and bears and wolverines, fight.

Almost the last paragraph, stay with me. With all the adrenalin hubbub, it appears that the incoming traumatic sensory information is inadequately stored, or not stored at all. It just sits in the amygdala, like marbles in the bottom of a file cabinent. When the drawer is opened, the marbles roll around and make a terrible racket, usually setting off the adrenals again. The traumatized person, to whom this is happening, has a "gut" feeling that they are in an emergency situation again. The sensory information is often fragmented. People experience visual flashbacks, or have a terrible feeling without any thought surrounding it. They respond to noises, like the vets who hit the ground when they hear a car backfire. Since all this happens before the integrated information hits the frontal cortex, people cannot "think" about what is happening to them. They behave instinctually.

Sometimes instinctual behaviors are not very civilized. This is why so many inmates in the prison system are also trauma victims. This is also why we must work to protect our children from trauma, so that they don't go on to traumatize others.

For much more accurate information about trauma take a look at Bessel van der Kolk's publications

Posted by Dakota at December 12, 2003 04:37 PM