The Evolutionary Link Between Trauma and Dissociation

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-Prepared Dissociation

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.

Peritraumatic 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.

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38 Responses to The Evolutionary Link Between Trauma and Dissociation

  1. It has been my personal experience that a single traumatic event has produced a single brief dissociative episode (evolution prepared?). Repeated trauma is what has produced my chronic dissociation. In my case, I see very little relationship between the two… but I will think about this… lots to consider.

    Susa

  2. Susa,

    Given my understanding of evolution-prepared dissociation, I incline toward thinking that there is no relationship between it and chronic dissociation. I also doubt that a brief dissociative experience in a person with chronic dissociation has much relationship to evolution-prepared dissociation (although one researcher — Paul Frewen — has suggested that they are related).

    • Okay, does the addition of amnesia to the equation have any impact on determining what type of dissociation has occurred? (i.e., how it is clinically labeled)

      I have also had fight or flight experiences where a potential deadly assault could have happened, but my steadiness and ability to think on my feet (yes, time did seem to stand still) helped me to avert the assault, although it was a slightly out of body experience with time slowing to a snail’s pace. This occurrence was much different than my chronic dissociation when at times, I have lost huge blocks of time.

      Susa

      • Susa asks, “Does amnesia make a difference in determining what kind of dissociation she experienced (i.e., evolution-prepared dissociation vs. one of her (chronic) dissociative symptoms?

        Yes, I think it makes all the difference in the world. Evolution-prepared dissociation is one component of a ‘package’ of changes in information processing that assist survival when faced with a dangerous, life-threatening situation. Amnesia is NOT part of that ‘package.’ Amnesia does NOT help one to survive. Amnesia, therefore, must be part of an entirely different kind of dissociation (and, perhaps, an entirely different kind of survival — e.g., psychological ‘survival.’).

        Note again, that like Lynette’s comments (below), Susa’s comment suggests (1) that evolution-prepared dissociation is DIFFERENT from typical dissociative symptoms; and (2) that a dissociative person can experience BOTH evolution-prepared dissociation and typical dissociative symptoms.

  3. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    I’ve had experiences of evolution-prepared dissociation. The last one was when I was a passenger in a car that fish-tailed and then rolled. As the car rolled, I watched the front window crack, and buckle, from right to left, slowly as we rolled. When the car landed, I calmly reached over and turned off the ignition, then checked in with my husband to make sure he was ok, took off my seatbelt, and climbed up, out the window on my side (which was at the point, the top of the car). We both got out, stepped back, surveyed the scene, and called 911. Verrry sloooooow experience, in a few seconds.
    That experience does not seem at all like the experience of dissociation I hear from clients. Time skips around, and some experiences may feel slowed, but most don’t. Their dissociation does seem to come from the neocortex, from selective accessing of different thoughts, feelings and experiences. It’s as if their consciousness starts playing ‘hot potato’ as soon as emotions are stirred – get too near the limbic system, and all hell breaks loose. Stay far removed from emotions, and everything appears fine. I have had dissociative clients report witnessing trauma in an evolution-based dissociative way. One person saw someone hit by a car, and his experience was in slow motion, even though he reported that people around him didn’t share that way of experiencing the accident. So, maybe a person who is dissociative is more easily triggered into evolution-based dissociation, and will end up with both experiences being familiar.

    • Lynette’s comment is PURE GOLD! This is an example of how it takes a community to understand dissociation. Lynette has provided some data that does not exist in the dissociative disorders literature!

      1. Lynette has personally experienced a ‘textbook’ incident of evolution-prepared dissociation. As a highly experienced DD clinician, she is immediately able to say: ‘Hey, this is different from the clinical dissociation that I see in the office.’

      2. Lynette reports that one of her DD patients has described to her an incident of danger-related, evolution-prepared dissociation. This means that dissociative individuals may experience BOTH evolution-prepared dissociation and clinical dissociative symptoms.

      3. Lynette proposes a hypothesis: Perhaps dissociative persons are more easily triggered into evolution-based dissociation.

      RESEARCH IDEA: Lynette’s hypothesis is very easily testable. Several people (established researchers and graduate students who want to study dissociation) should independently test this hypothesis.

  4. Holly Gray says:

    Evolution-prepared dissociation – so that’s what it’s called. I would never have thought to call it that. It doesn’t feel like dissociation at all. In fact, it feels – to me – like the opposite. Like everything in you is right there. And the world is slow but your mind is fast. And you’re chewing through incoming information faster than you ever have before. And everything is ok, not because it’s not terrifying but because you aren’t in the future or the past, but the present, the absolute present, and so there’s no time for ok or not ok. Everything just is.

    But you also said:

    “3. It is just one component of an organized response to an immediate threat to survival.”

    So perhaps I’m thinking of the whole of the organized response, rather than the one piece. Even so, it’s not at all like what I think of as dissociation at all. When I think of dissociation, I’m thinking of ” … the chronic dissociation of persons with posttraumatic and dissociative disorders.” And that feels very different to me. So it makes sense that the two involve different parts of the brain.

    • More first-person data. Thank you, Holly!

      Like Lynette and Susa, Holly finds survival-related, evolution-prepared dissociation to be distinctly DIFFERENT from the chronic dissociative symptoms of a person with a DD. Thus, the first-person data continues to accumulate — and it provides a consistent picture. Evolution-prepared dissociation and the dissociative symptoms of a person with a DD are not the same! And yet, PTSD researchers have been trying to find a link between “peritraumatic dissociation” (i.e., dissociation that occurs at the time of a trauma) and subsequent development of PTSD. No wonder this research has produced inconsistent results!

  5. ken benau, phd says:

    thank you again, dr. dell, for your very clear delineation of the phenomenology of “evolution- prepared dissociation” (a term new to me, even if the phenomena was not).

    you wrote: “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)”.

    i would appreciate your explaining your premise about the cortical location of major dissociative disorder, as it does not match my experience. while i do not question the subcortical location of evolution-prepared dissociation, i have a highly dissociative pt (ddnos is closest) who experiences a host of body memories and dissociated pain phenomena that seem, to me, to indicate clear subcortical activity (limbic and brainstem). (her early relational trauma was absolutely experienced as life-threatening, btw.) the problem for my pt, in a nutshell, is that she often does not have enough of her “observing neocortex” present when these somatic eruptions occur, which is of course quite troubling to my pt.

    you went on to write: “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”.

    again, i do not question the “hard-wired”, survival-based nature of evolution-prepared dissociation. the descriptions of time slowing down and heightened perceptual acuity make that quite apparent (and reminds me of what great baseball hitters say they do when looking at a fastball, but that’s for another blog!). but do you restrict the term “defense” to “psychological, non-survival-type adaptations”? if so, i can accept your statement. but this seems overly restrictive to me. i think of evolution-prepared dissociation as a very effective “defense”, in that it enables the person to cope with extreme stress, and i think of “defense” as a whole host of things we do, often but not always unconsciously, to manage anxiety or overwhelming
    stress– be the source of stress “biological” and life-threatening, or otherwise.

    your thoughts?

    • Hi Ken,

      You raise two important issues: (1) subcortical activity in the intrusive symptoms of persons with a dissociative disorder; and (2) whether evolution-prepared dissociation should be labeled a “defense.”

      1. The starting point of my blogging at UnderstandingDissociation.com is the conclusion that I reached in the concluding chapter of the Dell & O’Neil (2009) book (also titled “Understanding Dissociation”). I concluded (a) that there are many things that look like dissociation, but are not, and (b) that there are many that look like dissociation, which are (but which are still meaningfully different from one another).

      When you ask about the subcortical origin of intrusive symptoms, you shifted the discussion from one kind of ‘dissociation’ to another. Up to that point, we were mostly talking about dissociative events that suppress feelings and body sensations (as does evolution-prepared dissociation and many chronic dissociative symptoms). Intrusive symptoms (flashbacks, body memory, etc.) are the opposite of suppression. They autonomously intrude. Nijenhuis calls these “positive symptoms” of dissociation. Suppressive dissociative events are “negative symptoms” of dissociation.

      And, yes, you are correct. Intrusive symptoms come from uninhibited subcortical activity (due to a remarkably, and unhelpfully, inactive prefrontal cortex). That finding is perhaps the PTSD field’s most basic neuroimaging finding.

      2. As for calling evolution-prepared dissociation a “defense,” I disagree. The concept of defense is inherently a psychological one. Defenses pertain to the conscious mind with an identity and a set of important beliefs. Defenses protect the person from the distress of information that seriously challenges his/her identity and his/her important beliefs (about self and interpersonal world). Evolution-prepared dissociation does not do that. It operates solely at the biological level of survival (not at the mental level of psychological defense).

      Evolution-prepared dissociation existed before the modern human mind existed. Evolution-prepared dissociation existed before human language and human consciousness existed. At least, that is how I understand it.

      Bottom line: I think that it is unhelpful to refer to evolution-prepared dissociation as a “defense” — even though the earlier literature on freezing, circa-strike behavior, death feigning, and so on refers to these phenomena as “animal defenses.” At the risk of being pejorative, I will say that the concept of “animal defenses” comes from rat psychologists (who don’t have to worry about confusing the biological with the psychological). We do. 🙂

      • I agree that evolution prepared dissociation is not a defense.

        Ken said that the purpose of defenses is “to manage anxiety or overwhelming stress– be the source of stress “biological” and life-threatening, or otherwise.” I think the key word here is “overwhelming”.

        I experienced evolution-prepared dissociation a few years ago when I was driving home from the inner city hospital where I work.

        WARNING: Possible trigger follows

        I was stopped at a light and I heard a sound that could’ve been a car backfiring or a gunshot. I calmly scanned the area to see where the sound was coming from and saw a man with a gun exiting a building on the next block. I paused momentarily to figure out which way the man was headed so I could decide which way to turn. I felt preternaturally calm, with heightened senses and single-minded purpose. I was on the phone (hands-free, of course) with my husband and calmly said something about the man with the gun and he started yelling at me to get the hell out of there. I calmly said “it’s a red light!” and he freaked out while I quickly appraised the situation and turned the corner away from the direction the man was running. It wasn’t that I was waiting for the light to change. I just couldn’t afford to attend to my hubby’s concerns at that moment or take the time to explain why I was pausing instead of fleeing.

        Once I was out of danger I started shaking from head-to toe. Then it started to feel a little unreal. I was thinking something like “did that just happen?” That’s when I first noticed some anxiety. If my neocortex didn’t get involved at all, I would have been fine! But I started thinking about how close I had just come to death and I was no longer in evolution-prepared dissociation territory.

        To get back to Ken’s comment, I did not feel overwhelmed at all until it was all over. I was on automatic pilot, hyperfocusing on what needed to be done and filtering out all distractions. It was all very instinctual.

        –Andrea

        • Another very clear account of evolution-prepared dissociation — hyper-focus, clear head, no fear or anxiety, excellent reasoning, and effective action. Followed by “shaking from head to toe” after you were out of danger. Again, this is a ‘textbook’ example of what often happens after the person is safely away from the danger.

          Finally, you relate this to the idea of “defense” and you deftly point out that the overwhelming stress that defensive dissociation is supposed to manage was totally absent in your example — just as it is also absent in example after example of evolution-prepared dissociation (E-PD). E-PD really works very well — no overwhelming stress! That is what I mean about E-PD being a gift that has been bequeathed to us by natural selection.

  6. What you describe as “evolution-based dissociation” sounds like what I’ve long thought of as “hyper focus” (for lack of any expert definition) and although it’s definitely an “alteration of consciousness” it’s so different from the “problematic” dissociation I experience that I’m inclined to call it the opposite. Having lived a rather rough and tumble life, especially when I worked on ranches in my younger years, I’ve had both types of experiences.

    For example, one day I had climbed up the sheer face of a tall haystack, which was up in the loft of a barn, because I needed to get hay bales down for the horses. The dummies who’d delivered the hay stacked the bales flush and there was only about a foot-wide ledge between the front of the hay stack and the edge of the loft. There was a 12 foot drop from the edge of the loft to the cement floor below.

    Never having been in such a situation, and not thinking it through, (duh…) I grabbed a couple of hay hooks and did the Spider-Woman thing up the front of that hay stack. Then I had a heck of a fight to get the first bale to slide forward. My plan was to just let the bale fall to the floor. What ultimately happened was that as the bale finally broke free so did I!

    I fell at least 15 feet down to the edge of the loft, which I bounced off of with my shoulder, then I ricocheted out into space and plummeted the next 12 feet down to land on my back on the cement floor of the barn, followed by 2 hay bales, which landed on top of me.

    It all seemed to happen in slow motion, but my thoughts were super fast. What’s the best way to turn my body? Land on my legs? Flat? In a ball? Protect your head!!! BOOM! Am I really still alive? Nothing hurts too bad… If I can’t move, it will be days before anyone finds me. How will I get help? Am I going to die here? Hey, I wanted to die a couple of years ago, maybe I just got my wish. Nah, my elbow stings. Should I try to move now or just wait? Damn horses are laughing at me…

    So I stayed put for a few seconds and took stock of the situation, slowly moving one limb after another, made sure I hadn’t knocked any teeth out, etc. I’d been in some spectacular wrecks with horses over the years so I had some experience with recovering from nasty crashes. But still. After I sat up, and looked up at how far I had just fallen, THEN I freaked out.

    While in the process of falling and for a few seconds afterwards, I felt intensely focused, my thoughts were clear, I was super aware of my body, seemed to have super reflexes and control, and felt very clear, powerful energy. (Afterwards I was a trembling, freaked-out mush pot.)

    That’s pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum compared to what I experience that my therapist has identified as dissociation. From my perspective, in the “dissociation” my thoughts slow or seem to stop; my awareness and senses may be dulled or interrupted; and my energy seems to fade away.

    I could definitely see both of these types of experiences as “alterations of consciousness” as discussed in one of your previous posts. Not sure if the term “dissociation” really applies to both, though. I’ll leave that up to the experts. I don’t care what y’all call it. All I know is: it happens.

    • Hi dissociationstation!

      “Damn horses are laughing at me…” lol. You are a great story teller!

      Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience of a classic incident of evolution-prepared dissociation. And, like at least one other ‘insider’ expert on dissociation, you have characterized it as being very different (in fact, “the opposite”) from typical dissociative symptoms.

      I appreciate that you don’t care what we call this. You say: “All I know is: it happens.” One reason that evolution-prepared dissociation is important to me is that it is absolutely normal — and it is not the same as clinical dissociative symptoms (but some researchers have treated it as if it is the same). So, I appreciate even more your statement that you are “Not sure if the term ‘dissociation’ really applies to both.” Although I use the term “evolution-prepared dissociation,” I, too, am not sure if we should apply the same term to both. Thanks!

  7. I just read what Holly posted and started wondering about whether the very different experiences she and I both recognized as “evolution-prepared” vs “chronic” dissociation have more to do with different parts of the brain or the impact of different types of traumatic situations. Since I have no idea how a brain works (most peculiar, considering I’ve had one for nearly 50 years) I have no way of knowing what different areas of the brain are likely to do. But I have observed major differences in the circumstances that seem related to the two distinct types of “dissociation” being discussed in this thread.

    Every time I’ve had the “hyper focus” experience it’s been in a situation that was sudden, unexpected, and did not involve harm being caused by a family member. I’ve had it happen when a stranger threatened me, but never with a family member. I’ve had flashbacks on “hyper focus” events but I *knew* what they were about; I’ve had gut-wrenching feelings of fear in looking back at the event, but they faded on their own, and telling the tale of the experience to others seemed to help me feel better.

    Not so with certain other experiences, where instead of “hyper focus” I felt dulled, slowed, distanced, or at some point completely disconnected. Those are the experiences that seem tied to the “chronic dissociation”. With these there were no joyous moments of realization – Wow! I lived through that! – no release of being able to share the experiences with others and learn to laugh about them as adventures survived. On top of that there was long-term fear that the experience was likely to be repeated over and over again, inescapably, possibly getting worse and worse… forever.

    It may be that the different types of experiences are handled by different parts of the brain; I simply don’t know. But from my point of view, it seems pretty clear that something very different is happening with the “alteration of consciousness” connected to different types of situations and relationships.

    Thinking about that just made me wonder if maybe people who’ve experienced a lot of events that led to “chronic dissociation” might sometimes be better able to process “evolution-prepared” or “hyper focus” dissociative experiences because they have the perspective of I lived to tell the tale compared to I’m still not sure what the hell happened to me…

    It would be interesting to see if the others posting here who’ve had both types of dissociative experiences also have a sense that they may (at least sometimes) recover more quickly than “normal” people when it comes to “evolution-prepared” events. Other people have seemed to think I’m unusually resilient when they hear how I’ve bounced back from things like this. I’ve never really thought about this before, but I have a feeling it’s because compared to other things we’ve experienced, “hyper focus” events may be relatively easy to put in perspective – and put to rest.

    • I agree with you, D.S. about the circumstances and participants in the two different types of dissociation. We were slowly conditioned early on to withstand the fires of hell, while not really understanding that they were the fires of hell. We were always “on” as a result, and ready for the other shoe to drop. So could our continual hyper-arousal and our histories of never having had safe environments as children be partially responsible for the business-as-usual approach to handling spontaneous, non-familial traumatic events?

      Having said that, now that we have worked through most early trauma memories, and are aware of its severity, we are affected more by events that mimic the early trauma. For me even now after reaching the sixth decade, being in a car wreck or another serious accident can seem far less traumatic/triggering than being reclined and semi-restrained in a dental chair. It’s almost as if trauma is not on a continuum of generally thought of severity – but how we as chronic dissociators perceive severity in our worlds.

      Susa

      • Susa,

        Thank you for immediately picking up on a crucial point in DissociationStation’s comment. She has had hyper-focus ‘dissociative’ reactions to a potentially dangerous stranger, but never to a family member (who she presumably knew to be dangerous). Your question is whether a familial abuse survivor’s continual hyper-arousal and watchfulness makes him/her better prepared to handle non-familial dangers and traumas? Maybe so.

        My question is: When faced with a dangerous family member, why would a dissociative abuse-survivor never experience evolution-prepared dissociative hyper-focus? And by what mechanism does this occur? After all, several recent comments show us that dissociative abuse survivors retain their ability to have evolution-prepared hyper-focus/dissociative reactions to dangerous (survival-related) situations.

        • Dr. Dell,

          You asked, “When faced with a dangerous family member, why would a dissociative abuse-survivor never experience evolution-prepared dissociative hyper-focus?”

          I suppose it would depend on the definition of “a dangerous family member”, and on what they were attempting to do. For example, if the family member sought to inflict the same abuses as we had been conditioned to endure for years and years and to survive by dissociating, it would evoke the same effect: going away, and letting another part of my brain “take” the abuse.

          If, however, the same family member had attempted to use a deadly weapon to cause a totally different kind of bodily harm, and perhaps death, then the response might have been a evolution-prepared response. I can’t verify this, as I was never put in this situation as far as I know. Even though the early abuses were severely devastating and produced lifelong struggles, they were somewhat safe in their “sameness”. Same type of conditioned abuse > same type of dissociation. I would think that years of conditioning to repeated similar abuses might be the difference.

          Susa

          • Susa,

            These are interesting thoughts. Intuitively, I am drawn to your focus on the sameness of the abuse situation. That sameness, you suspect evokes a conditioned response (that triggers a dissociation during which you ‘go away’ and another part ‘takes’ the abuse.

            I am drawn to your focus on this because evolution-prepared responsiveness is located fairly deep in the brain (i.e., phylogenetically earlier than abuse-related dissociation that involves the neocortex). And yet, evolution-prepared dissociation is not triggered. Does this mean that abuse-related dissociation somehow inhibits evolution-prepared dissociation? Does it mean that there is something about abuse-related dissociation that triggers something even more primitive in the brain (perhaps conditioned learning?) than evolution-prepared dissociation? I really don’t know.

            • Even though in many instances the child is isolated within the “family bubble”, and has no outside knowledge of what is normal and was is abnormal behavior regarding abuses of her by the family of origin, she still appears to instinctively know – or otherwise, she would not dissociate, and compartmentalize these abuse events and within different parts of her brain.

              Warning: Potential Trigger follows

              Conditioned learning – maybe. Imagine a parent whacking a kid in the head with a 2×4 and simultaneously telling them “I love you”. The kid may say… “Wow, my head really hurts… but this person must love me to give me food, and a roof over my head. Now, I’ll just go away until the pain stops, and then things will be back to normal again.”

            • I apologize, Dr. Dell. Even though I related a fictitious event in my previous post, I realize that it could still have been triggering to some. Please either insert a trigger warning, edit my post, or delete it.

              Thanks,
              Susa

    • You deserve an award for the number of fertile thoughts and potential research ideas that you have included in a single comment! I hardly know where to begin.

      1. The more I think about it, the more I find your term “hyper-focus” to be an excellent one. My term, “evolution-prepared dissociation,” refers to a single component of a much larger ‘package’ of changes in information processing. Your term, “hyper-focus,” crisply characterizes the entire package.

      2. You articulate another way that evolution-prepared hyper-focus is different from abuse-related dissociation. Namely, it is much easier to process or work through the dangerous events that provoked the hyper-focus. In fact, even the intrusive memories and flashbacks of that dangerous event are much more easily metabolized than those of abuse-related dissociation. They are more easily put to rest.

      3. You note that, with the dangerous non-abuse event, you can say, “Wow! I lived through that!” versus “I’m still not sure what the hell happened to me…” with the dissociated abuse event.

      Interestingly, as therapy progresses and a dissociative person does deep (abreactive) work on dissociated traumas, he/she usually arrives at an entirely new ‘place’ with regard to each worked-on event of abuse: “Wow! I lived through that!” and “Damn it, I can deal with this next situation where “I’m still not sure what the hell happened to me.

      4. You hypothesize that people with chronic dissociative symptoms may be able to more easily process evolution-prepared dissociation/hyper-focus (than are people who have never experienced abuse-related dissociation).

      RESEARCH IDEA: This is an easily testable hypothesis for researchers. Dissociationstation asks for some preliminary informal data about her hypothesis. She asks: If you have experienced both kinds of dissociation, do you think that you handle/process the hyper-focus kind more easily than the average person does (who has not experienced abuse-related dissociation)?

    • Holly Gray says:

      Yes, yes, and more yes.

      I’ve been thinking about this same thing today, sifting through my experiences to try and isolate what some of the differences are between situations that provoke “evolution-prepared dissociation” and what I generally think of as dissociation. A couple differences jump out right off the bat:

      (1) In situations that provoke evolution-prepared dissociation there is no anticipatory anxiety. Or if there is, it takes place in a matter of seconds. You aren’t walking around with the knowledge that you’re going to fall off a cliff and there’s nothing you can do about it. You may, for a brief few seconds right before you fall, think, “Uh oh, I’m going to plummet to my death.” But you aren’t trying to get the mail, prepare dinner, talk to friends, etc. all with the knowledge that you’re going to get hurt very badly and any efforts to prevent it will be pointless.

      (2) In situations that provoke evolution-prepared dissociation there is no intimate connection to whatever or whomever is causing harm. A car accident, your fall from the loft, a natural disaster … none of these things carry with them betrayal of any kind. An earthquake isn’t deliberately trying to hurt you. A car accident is an accident.

      The situations that I believe are at the root of my dissociative disorder, on the other hand, do involve anticipatory anxiety and deliberation both. There are probably other differences, but those two leapt out at me right away.

      Also, I agree that processing and moving on from those events that cause evolution-prepared dissociation is far, far easier than processing and moving on from those that cause the chronic dissociation in people with dissociative disorders.

      It’s very interesting to think about the differences between these two very different types of dissociation and what those differences might mean for the generally accepted view that chronic dissociation is the result of life-threatening situations. I’m not arguing that it isn’t. But I am arguing, and have for some time now, that there’s a lot more to the roots of chronic dissociation than just severe trauma. I did a series on the contributing factors in the development of DID, what I identity as *my* contributing factors I should say, lest anyone think I’m suggesting it’s the same for every person with DID. And I’m thinking about that series now as I read and consider Paul’s post and the comments. There’s some resistance within the survivor community, I’ve noticed, to the idea that DID is caused by anything other than repetitive, highly severe trauma. But I remain, especially after reading this post and its comments, convinced that there’s more to the story.

      • Holly,

        Another very rich comment. I think I can feel you s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g your thinking about, and your understanding of, the difference between evolution-prepared hyper-focus reactions to impersonal danger and the dissociation that you experience in the midst of an abusive family. I will try to enumerate some of the key differences. Of course, the big question is: “Which differences make a difference?

        Note to survivors: Read on with caution. I mention no details, but even my relatively abstract characterizations of the differences may be triggering.

        1. Constant anticipatory anxiety/fear vs. almost none.

        2. Certainty that it is only a matter of time and that you can do nothing to stop it from happening vs. unawareness that something dangerous may happen.

        3. Betrayal by an intimate vs. impersonal danger.

        4. Extremely painful (emotional or otherwise) trauma that you know will not kill you vs. the sudden danger of being killed (by a fall, car accident, etc.).

  8. What an excellent discussion! So much to think about. It seems that Holly, Susa, and I see a lot of the same things, while Dr Dell offers a fascinating overview that may re-frame some of our experiences along the way.

    When faced with a dangerous family member, why would a dissociative abuse-survivor never experience evolution-prepared dissociative hyper-focus? And by what mechanism does this occur? After all, several recent comments show us that dissociative abuse survivors are still quite able to have evolution-prepared hyper-focus/dissociative reactions to a highly dangerous (survival-related) situation.

    After reading all of this it just kind of clicked: it makes perfect sense for evolution-prepared “hyper focus” events to have a rather different impact on our minds than relationship-abuse situations because nature obviously prepared us for the former… and maybe the latter is a relatively new “threat to our survival” that we don’t quite have a program worked out for yet.

    Maybe the importance of “family members” (or similar affiliations) was so crucial to human evolution that we have completely different natural brain programming for those we identify as “our people” vs “strangers”. Betrayal, as Holly pointed out, seems to make a big difference. Part of me has always said that we’re supposed to be able to count on certain kinds of people to help us in life. Another part says that’s obviously not true – you can’t count on anyone in this world, ever. It’s a painful sort of confusion that seems to cut right through your core being. If you can’t trust anyone, you are never safe. If you can’t have that sense of belonging and being valued in ways that make it likely others will help you should need arise, doesn’t that make you high-risk for evolutionary expulsion?

    I’m pretty sure animals have the hyper-focus experience. It makes sense – it’s about physical survival, and if you can’t kick it into overdrive when life gets wild: game over. But animals don’t often have the complex relationship issues that humans do. If there is an abusive animal in a group, abused animals are likely to leave, or if they stay you might see very different behavior in them compared to those who aren’t abused. Young humans generally don’t have the option of leaving their group, and don’t have the power to stop an abuser. So what are we going to do?

    • Seems to me that DissociationStation definitely ‘gets’ the difference between evolution-prepared dissociation and our reactions to betrayal and abuse by our intimates. We humans are highly dependent, for a long time, on our parents — in a way that other animals are not.

  9. Nancy Fair says:

    Hi All,

    I think Dissociationstation has it right about the familial connection and dissociation. This is where I see attachment theory fitting into the picture. I suspect that the need for attachment to people who are supposed to care for us trumps evolution-prepared dissociation, even when EPD would make sense. Thus, if we have been chronically abused by caretakers, we will respond with chronic dissociation in order to maintain the needed attachment. I think this is true for some adults, as well as abused children, as the domestic violence literature shows us.

    • Nancy,

      I think you are exactly correct when you say that chronic dissociation serves the need to maintain attachment. And within that pattern of dissociation are some fantasies that involve not knowing/denial of one or more realities of the person’s family situation. All told, that may explain why chronic dissociation happens (instead of any evolution-prepared dissociation). My intuition, however, leads to suspect that more than just attachment is involved in this. But, I could also be wrong about that.

  10. I think your intuition is finely tuned, Dr. I have some theories of my own but need to think how best to articulate them. Maybe this is a question for another post, but, have you seen cases of chronic dissociation where attachment was NOT an issue?

    • A nice precise question. My answer is, “No.” I have never seen a person with chronic dissociation where attachment was not an issue. I believe that chronic mistreatment by a caretaker necessarily warps a child’s developing attachment system so that the child cannot develop a Secure Attachment. Note that this is different from some people’s opinion that abuse and dissociation are inevitably associated with Disorganized Attachment, specifically.

  11. Karin Dyhr says:

    Warning, may trigger survivors.

    At a time when I had at lot of “chronic dissociation” I experienced a very clear example of “evolution-prepared dissociation”. I was in hospital at the moment (as I was mostly during the 17 years of trying to overcome severe abuse, with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. I dissociated a lot, but as no one knew what it was, it was either considered to be psychosis or “just trying to get attention”…), but on my way home for a day visit I was run down on my bicycle by a car. I clearly remember the apparently looong time I had to try and avoid smashing my head into the side of the car – the complete clarity of the whole situation, the absolute feeling of a here and now. Afterwards I was “appropriately shocked”, but nothing more than that, no traces of the “abnormal dissociation”, so to speak. I was able to tell friends and hospital staff about the incident in what I’m sure was a very normal way for somebody in that situation.
    However, that did not keep me from losing time when my mother (who had heard about it from my brother) phoned to ask if I was all right. My mother’s voice immediately triggerede the well-known dissociation response og numbness, followed by losing time (and eventually self-harm)

    This discussion has made me wonder whether perhaps the first (couple of) abuse events might have made me react primarily with evolution-prepared dissociation, but as the abuse kept going on, this was clearly not going to help me, so my brain decided that this wasn’t going to rescue me and came up with something that seemed to serve me better? I’m aware that this isn’t quite the way brains function, but if it’s true that repeated abuse leaves you with something which might be called a kind of brain damage, including an awful lot of stress hormones rushing around, is it then possible that an original subcortical response sort of “moves to” the neocortical part of the brain??
    (Also, the evolution-prepared dissociation would, in my case, run into the problem that I was far too young to have any chance of running away from the danger).
    In short, could my brain have reacted in the beginning with the e-p diss., and then given it up and changed to the chronic form?

    I hope I’m not writing a whole lot of nonsense! Also please excuse my English. I’m Danish, but doing my best 😉

    May I just end telling you that I have now for over 10 years been absolutely well – no trace of dissociation, psychosis, depression or selfharm, no medication, happily married and working full-time.

  12. Karin,

    This is a lovely sharing. You present us with a clear example of evolution-prepared dissociation occurring in a person (you!) who has a chronic dissociative disorder (and, therefore, has many non-evolution-prepared dissociative symptoms). You also provide encouragement to others by sharing that you have been well and happy for 10 years. Finally, you are trying to identify the roots of chronic dissociation. And you propose a hypothesis: perhaps, as an abused child, you began by using evolution-prepared dissociation, but quickly (and repeatedly) discovered that evolution-prepared dissociation did not help to stop the abuse. So, your brain resorted to ‘Plan B,’ which led to repeated episodes of defensive, avoidant dissociation. I think that you are probably right. The big question now, of course, is “What exactly is Plan B (i.e., defensive, avoidant dissociation) and how and why does it work?

  13. R Dicks says:

    Hi Dr. Dell,
    First I must say that I am very glad to have found your website. I can see I am going to be spending many hours here reading. But second, I am writing tonight for two specific reasons.
    1) Are you aware of any research that targets specifically PTSD and 911 Operators/Dispatchers? Meaning the call-takers and dispatchers who work for the various different emergency services, such as police, fire and ambulance. If yes, I would be most grateful for authors names or any sources you can provide me with. If no, is there any particular reasoning for the lack of focus on this group of people?
    I ask the above questions because I am one. I am Canadian, and have been unable to return to my profession due to chronic ptsd, in fact, I have been told by one professional (psychiatrist) that due to the damage in my brain I need to be medicated (to a complete state of numbness) for the rest of my life. I refuse this diagnosis, and have been medication free for 4yrs now, although I still struggle with coping during stressful times and I have to work diligently to manage these stressors. I recognize what they are, and have learned what I need to do to reduce or manage my reactions. I have not had a flashback in 3yrs now.
    2) I have been reading some of the above posts, avoiding the ones with warnings and a few others that simply became too descriptive for me and I have become confused. So, I am going to describe to you what I experience and hope you will be able to decipher it for me?
    To explain, I have gone back to university and am almost finished my BA – major in Criminology. I have one very understanding professor who is teaching first year students a course called, Interpersonal Relations, which is an entry level course geared towards ‘knowing thyself’ and learning how to both feel and show compassion and empathy to people they may have contact with during the course of their careers (they will mostly become police officers, and other professionals within the criminal justice system). Due to my background, it is very beneficial for me to speak with the class as a guest. During my talks I explain some of the atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man that occur on a daily basis in our city and how the accumulation of these experiences has affected me personally.
    During the talks I will begin to describe a call, and the hair on my arms will stand up on end and my arms and legs will vibrate. I close my eyes and feel the emotion. But when I open them it’s like my mouth (which is still speaking and telling the story albeit in slow motion) and my brain (which is going a hundred miles an hour telling me it will be okay, cause when this is done I will go to my car and drive home and life will be fine) are not functioning together. Meaning, the thoughts that are going through my mind at a hundred miles an hour are not the words that are coming out of my mouth. After the talk is over I generally have a cup of coffee with my professor and we talk about the session, she does tell me what I described and they are calls that I experienced…but over the span of the past two semesters there has only been one call that I have spoken about repeatedly – that first one I start with. However, other than that first call I start the talk with I can’t remember any of the others I spoke about… and I had been talking for an hour, plus answering students questions. I feel completely drained and in need of sleep. After coffee, I will head for my car and home, but generally don’t remember the actual act of driving home. The rest of my day is toast… usually spend numbing out staring at the television… and then I will sleep for 12-14hrs – without medication.
    On the flipside… I do wake up feeling refreshed, but still unable to really accomplish much that next deay. I am not experiencing night terrors anymore, or at least I don’t think I am, because I don’t remember dreams either – at all – whereas before I used to dream all the time. During the night terrors I would always wake up screaming and sweat soaked… terrified and can remember the content of it vividly.

    Anyways, I am hoping that you can give me some insight as to what type of dissociation this is, or if it even is dissociation.

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