Our brains can be conceptualized as being in three parts corresponding to the stages our species has come through in its evoluationary journey. These parts are the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain and the human brain. All of these parts are important to life and it is important that we appreciate the function and role of each one. The reptilian brain is our survival brain and its role is to keep us alive and to promote the survival of the species. Because of this brain we can breathe and move and protect ourselves. The mammalian brain is responsible for the emotions which help us to care for our children, love our friends and have compassion for one another. And of course the human brain, the front part of the brain, enables us to talk and reason, plan and create.
As human beings we are capable of creating satellites, transplanting the heart of one human being into the chest of another, developing and using the internet, writing poetry and composing music. We are capable of the compassion of a Mother Theresa. Truly we are a wondrous work of art. And if this is true then how is it we are also capable of road rage, of wars, of violence against children, and of atrocities without end. Even the kindest and gentlest of us can behave very strangely - not just once but thousands of times a day.
To capsulize the process by which we react irrationally, let us first understand trauma and how it creates an imprint like a searing brand in our brain.
The Curious Functions of the Human Brain
Remember the first goal of any species including humans is survival. To this end we are programmed to record threats or perceived threats very strongly and to continue to reinforce these perceptions and to strongly resist anything that threatens to weaken them. We are also programmed to add to this wiring anything that resembles the original threat or occurred at the same time and is associated in any way with that threat. The threat, by the way, may have to do with an actual danger or something which is not dangerous but is perceived as being dangerous.
Let us begin with a trauma that is clearly traumatic. While on his route, a truck driver suddenly sees a car swerve in front of him. He tries to stop his truck and pulls it sharply to the left to try to avoid a collision but he cannot avoid hitting the car. He realizes that there are children in the front passenger seat and in the back seat of the car. Later he finds out that the driver of the car was drunk. The driver dies later in the ambulance. The children are frightened but thanks to the truck drivers' action, are physiclaly alright. Even though the truck driver was not physically injured, he was clearly traumatized. He was barely able to drive, let alone drive his truck and absolutely could not drive the truck on the road where the accident occurred.
Some traumatic reactions are not as easily identified, but can still cause what appears to be an irrational response that is not easily modified. Many of these occur in childhood. When we are very young, we are really helpless and totally dependent upon our caretakers for our lives. Anything that is experienced as a threat to safety during childhood is likely to become deeply imprinted and then reinforced through our lives. If there is real overt abuse, again, this is easier to understand. A child who is physically abused may end up being abused as an adult, repeating the same patterns, feeling helpless to get away or defend himself or herself.
Many of these reactions are less apparent and their source is less obvious. For example, a woman, Mary, is extremely anxious when she has to speak out and draw any attention to herself. Her parents were not abusive, she is in a good marriage and otherwise, relatively happy. Why this reaction? Exploration brought forth that when she was about three years old, her father had been sent on an assignment overseas leaving her and her mother alone. Her mother had been very unsettled by this event and one day when Mary came gleefully into the living room loudly laughing and showing off, mother lost her composure, yelled at Mary and sent her off to her room. Mary was terrified, especially since things had been strange and scarey since her father’s departure anyway. So without being able to understand the context of the incident, Mary’s survival brain kicked into high gear. Being loud and trying to get attention became wired with danger in Mary’s mind. At a primitive child level, Mary resolved never to have this happen again and never to draw attention to herself in any way at all.
Eye and Body Position in Trauma
What Fires Together, Wires Together
Another example of this with an auto accident is panic being set off by the smell of gasoline or in an accident where the driver was hit by a car coming from the left side, any vehicle on the left can cause fear or a vehicle of the same make or color as the one in the accident.
This belief is what is known as a kind of Psychological Reversal in Energy Psychology terminology. That is, we believe we have to be afraid in order to be safe. It is never safe to relax. Thus feeling relaxed, makes the person anxious.
These beliefs are held very intensely, again a product of the survival brain, and are very resistant to letting go no matter how much we may argue with ourselves.
Then lets go back to Mary. Mary remains very shy in social situations but she finds herself at work being asked to explain a process she does well to her coworkers. She becomes frozen, cannot think and fumbles through an explanation of something she knows well and in fact invented. Her rational brain is not “on” but has been turned “off” by the survival brain in order to protect her from a danger which does not exist. She knows rationally that her coworkers are not going to scream and send her to her office but the survival brain is determined to protect her from that chance and so she freezes.
These blocks are a very important compenent in what keeps us angry, scared, frozen, and so on about something that we are afraid will happen in the future or did happen in the past but is not happening now. These blocks are what keeps us from BEING IN THE NOW.
In all of these situations the process is the same. Something occurs which is either a real threat to survival or is perceived to be. The survival brain or hind brain records this in such a way that anything resembling the original incident or wired together with that incident creates an instantaneous physical reaction. The reaction may be fight, flight, or freeze but in all of these one things remains consistent – the ability to think logically, to reason, to see options calmly is disconnected. In a primitive world, the jungle, logic isn’t needed. We much either fight the enemy, run away or become totally still, frozen to avoid notice or to decrease the pain when we are eaten. This worked okay then but now this creates more problems than it solves.
Obviously it is not productive or practical for the truck driver to be unable to drive a truck especially on his regular route. The chance of the same thing happening again at the same place is pretty slim. The driver of a car in another accident who panics whenever she views another vehicle on her left is not only not protecting herself but is actually making it more likely she will get into another accident.
(At a workshop given by Fred Gallo many years ago I saw the rationale behind this very clearly. A woman participant volunteered to work with Fred using his Energy Treatment technique. After several rounds of his treatment, she remained very anxious when she thought about driving. Talking with Fred the woman began to realize and explain how she believed that she had to remain anxious to be safe. Fred then explained to her that in fact she would be able to think more clearly and keep herself safer if she was not anxious but alert and able to think clearly. The next round of energy treatment was totally successful and her anxiety about driving was gone.
Some events are clearly traumatic. For example, a car accident or an ambush in a war. Other events may at first not seem to be traumatic but they still carry a traumatic impact. Many of these occur in childhood when we are very vulnerable and can experience ordinary events as life threatening.
An interesting piece of this particular trauma came to light when I had a session with the driver and his wife. For the first sessions he would describe his fears but appeared to be very calm in the session with me. On the third session I asked his wife to come in with him so that she could describe his symptoms more clearly. He talked about the accident as usual until he turned to listen to his wife for a moment. To do so he turned his head to the left and looked slight down. He began to shake visibly. I asked him to change positions and when he looked straight forward, he appeared to be calm but as soon as looked to the left and down he shook. Why the difference? Actually it is very simple. In the accident he had turned the truck to the right to avoid the car and the collision occurred on the left side of the truck. His head had been turned left and his eyes down. (The truck cab is, of course, higher than the car.) The body recorded the trauma in that position. The saying is “What fires together wires together”. This is a very vivid example of how this works.