As a clinician who wants to understand dissociation, I keep bumping into two fundamental questions:
1. What is the relationship between trauma and dissociation?
2. What is the relationship between dissociation and PTSD?
I ended my last post with a question about dissociation and PTSD (i.e., “Do all persons with PTSD have structural dissociation?” — as the proponents of structural dissociation contend). Let’s defer consideration of that question for now. Instead, let’s address the most basic issue of all– the relationship between trauma and dissociation.
Trauma-Dissociation Skeptics and Deniers
If you do not read the academic literature on trauma and dissociation, you may not know that there is a contingent of skeptics in academia who insist that there is no causal connection between trauma and dissociation. These skeptics often seem to ‘cherry pick’ scientific findings in order to support their preconceptions. These ‘guys’ remind me of the people who insist that there is no global warming or who reject Darwin and evolutionary theory. In any case, I will not talk about these skeptics today. I just wanted to make sure that you know these skeptics exist.
Evolution produced the original link between trauma and dissociation. Natural selection, however, is never really about trauma or dealing with trauma. Natural selection is about survival (and reproduction).
So, the original link between trauma and dissociation was actually a link between (a) imminent threat of death (i.e., survival) and (b) a sudden alteration of information processing that involves dissociation. The threat of immediate death triggers a shift to an altered (and accelerated) form of information processing: rapid thinking, very high mental acuity, a slowed sense of time, and an automatic dissociative silencing of pain, fear, and other emotions that could interfere with survival-related thought and action. These survival-related shifts maximize the person’s ability to act decisively and effectively.
Survival-related dissociation is not a recent evolutionary development. Its origins do not lie in the human neocortex, but in the paleomammalian brain — the midbrain (e.g., periacqueductal gray) and parts of the limbic system. I emphasize the subcortical location of this evolution-prepared dissociation because it is probably very different from the dissociation of persons with a major dissociative disorder (which, I think, is largely located in the neocortex).
What Does Evolution-Prepared Dissociation Look Like?
The first, and still one of the best, accounts of evolution-prepared dissociation (although not labeled as such) was published in 1892 by Albert Heim in a Swiss mountain climbing journal. Heim interviewed dozens of mountain climbers who had survived potentially lethal falls. Ninety-five percent of them described some version of the following experience:
[N]o grief was felt, nor was there paralyzing fright of the sort that can happen in instances of lesser danger (e.g., outbreak of fire). There was no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain; but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance, and a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundred-fold velocity or intensity. The relationships of events and their probable outcomes were overviewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning quickness in accord with accurate judgment of his situation… Men who had fallen from great heights were unaware that their limbs had been broken until they attempted to stand. (Heim, 1892/1980, pp. 130-131)
The next contribution to our understanding of evolution-prepared dissociation did not occur for another 80 years. In the late 1970s, Russell Noyes, a near-death researcher, interviewed many people who had near-death experiences (e.g., falls, accidents, near-drownings, etc.). Here is one such account (of a person who was driving at 60 miles per hour when the steering on his car failed):
My mind speeded up. Time seemed drawn out. It seemed like five minutes before the car came to a stop when, in reality, it was only a matter of seconds. I remember that my sense of touch and hearing became more acute…. My mind was working rapidly and reviewed information from driver’s education that might bear on what I should do to save myself…. While all this was taking place I felt calm, even detached. (Noyes, Kletti & Kupperman, 1977, p. 376)
The Essential Features of Evolution-Prepared Dissociation
It is crucial to appreciate that evolution-prepared dissociation is utterly biological. It is ‘hard-wired,’ and not psychological. It is not a defense. It has been built into all of us by natural selection.
Evolution-prepared dissociation has six characteristics:
1. It is about danger, threat to life, and survival.
2. It is automatic and near-instantaneous.
3. It is just one component of an organized response to an immediate threat to survival.
4. It is a brief, time-limited phenomenon (which ceases as soon as the danger is over).
5. It is a subcortical response (i.e., from phylogenetically old areas of the brain).
6. It is completely normal. There is nothing whatsoever that is pathological about evolution-prepared dissociation.
How Does Evolution-Prepared Dissociation Relate To Chronic Dissociative Symptoms?
I believe that evolution-prepared dissociation is the original root of human dissociation. But — and this is a big but — I also believe that evolution-prepared dissociation is not the chronic dissociation of persons with posttraumatic and dissociative disorders. Chronic dissociation seems to be a phenomenon of the human neocortex. Still, there may (or may not be) important links between chronic dissociative symptoms and the mid-brain structures of evolution-prepared dissociation.
The closest approximation to evolution-prepared dissociation in the literature is the concept of peritraumatic dissociation. I will explain in a future post my thoughts about the relationship between evolution-prepared dissociation and peritraumatic dissociation.
OK. I hope that this post has given you a lot to ‘chew on.’ What do you think? Don’t hold back. Let yourself really think about these ideas — and share your thoughts with our little community of dissociation aficionados. By the way, personal reports of your own experience with evolution-prepared dissociation are welcomed.