Are Flashbacks a Dissociative Symptom?

Dissociation is generally considered to be a defense mechanism because it distances us from painful or unacceptable realities (e.g., depersonalization, derealization) or it makes a painful reality disappear entirely (i.e., dissociative amnesia). Today’s thought question is: “Are flashbacks dissociative?” Do flashbacks protect us from a painful or unacceptable reality?

Hmmm. This is definitely an interesting question. PTSD patients seldom celebrate the ‘comforting’ or ‘protective’ nature of their flashbacks. 🙂

The Current Draft of DSM5 Insists That Flashbacks Are Dissociative

In contrast to DSM-IV, DSM5 may claim that  flashbacks are a dissociative reaction. In the current working draft of DSM5, the list of intrusive symptoms for PTSD includes flashbacks — described as follows:

Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring (Such reactions may occur on a continuum, with the most extreme expression being a complete loss of awareness of present surroundings.)…” (, emphasis added)

Many dissociation experts have long argued that flashbacks are a dissociative symptom. These experts consider DSM5’s understanding of flashbacks to be a significant advance from DSM-IV. But is it? Is it an advance? Is it even correct?

Four Other Models of Dissociation


If dissociation protects a person from something painful or unacceptable, then flashbacks certainly cannot be an example of dissociation. On the other hand, according to several other descriptions or models of dissociation, flashbacks are definitely dissociative. For example, DSM-IV states that:

“The essential feature of the Dissociative Disorders is a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception.” (DSM-IV-TR, p. 519, emphasis added)

Yup, flashbacks are definitely disruptions of the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, and perception.

2. ICD-10

Clinicians in the United States are guided by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Clinicians everywhere else are guided by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). According to ICD-10:

“the common theme shared by dissociative (or conversion) disorders is a partial or complete loss of the normal integration between memories of the past, awareness of identity and immediate sensations, and control of bodily movements.” (World Health Organization, 1992, p. 151, emphasis added)

By this definition, flashbacks are unmistakably dissociative; they are a partial or complete disruption of normal integration.

3. Dell and O’Neil (2009)

OK. That’s what the two ‘Bibles’ say, How do other sources define dissociation? In 2009, John O’Neil and I published a large edited volume whose purpose was to bring clarity to dissociation and the dissociative disorders. In the book’s preface, we offered a three-paragraph definition of dissociation. That definition begins with this sentence:

The essential manifestation of pathological dissociation is a partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s psychological functioning. (Dell & O’Neil, 2009, p. xxi, emphasis added)

After reading what DSM-IV and ICD-10 had to say on this matter (above), the Dell and O’Neil definition has to feel distinctly familiar. And again, according to this definition, flashbacks must be classified as dissociative.

4. Dell (2006)

Finally, bear with me as I present one final definition of dissociation — my own definition from 2006:

“the phenomena of pathological dissociation are recurrent, jarring intrusions into executive functioning or sense of self by self-states or alter personalities.” (Dell, 2006, p. 8, emphasis added)

Note that this definition of dissociation has two parts. According to the first part, flashbacks are certainly dissociative because they are recurrent jarring intrusions into executive functioning. On the other hand, according to the second part of the definition, flashbacks are dissociative only if they are caused by self-states or alter personalities.

The difference between my 2006 definition of dissociation and the three preceding definitions is that my 2006 definition goes beyond description and phenomenology. Namely, it defines dissociation in terms of a specific mechanism — a self-state or alter personality that intrudes into conscious functioning.

This is where an annoying narrator would say: “The discerning reader will have noticed …”  I’ll try to avoid being that annoying, but there is an important point to be made here.

The point is this: In 2006, when I added that mechanism to my definition of dissociation, I added a structural model of dissociation to the DSM-IV and ICD-10 accounts of dissociation.

Translation: Disruptions of normal integrated functioning are dissociative if, and only if, they are caused by a self-state or alter personality (i.e., caused by a dissociative structure of the personality).

Aha! Now the fun really begins. We have a new question: Are flashbacks caused by dissociated structures?If they are — and Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, and Steele insist that they are — then:

(1) the flagship symptom of PTSD (i.e., flashbacks) is a dissociative symptom, and

(2) PTSD itself is a dissociative disorder.

The proponents of structural dissociation firmly insist upon both of these points: flashbacks are dissociative and PTSD is a dissociative disorder. But.. The Powers That Be in DSM5-land do not think that PTSD is a dissociative disorder — and I agree with them.

Worse, I think that both the structuralists and the DSM5 Powers That Be are wrong about flashbacks. Although some flashbacks seem to be distinctly dissociative, I think it is a big mistake to classify all flashbacks as dissociative.

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59 Responses to Are Flashbacks a Dissociative Symptom?

  1. Nancy Fair says:

    Interesting post about flashbacks. I tend to agree with you, Paul, about not all flashbacks being dissociative. Just a gut feel from working with clients who have flashbacks and are not folks who I believe have dissociative structures, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, lots of clients seem to have flashbacks, especially in session, that are apparently sent by alters as punishment or distracting tactics. For those folks whose flashbacks are (seemingly) not a result of dissociative structures, I generally encourage them to approach their flashbacks as important information about their own experience.

  2. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    I agree that all flashbacks are not dissociative. It is possible to have flashbacks and know that they are flashbacks, which means that the executive function still exists, and the person is having a complex experience of a flashback, known to be a flashback, experienced in present time. That’s where I see a difference. If the frontal cortex goes offline and the person loses track of present time completely, then that flashback would be dissociative, and people who don’t have a dissociative disorder would be having a dissociative episode. People with dissociative disorders may have flashbacks that are completely dissociative, or not. I’ve had clients with dissociative disorders have both kinds of flashbacks. I’ve also seen vets with PTSD who did not have dissociative disorders have both kinds of flashbacks. So, I think flashbacks are a symptom of psychic overload, manifesting as partially or completely dissociative, depending on the intensity of the flashback and the capacity of the person to remain consciously present under that kind of emotional charge.

    • Lynette Danylchuk says:

      typo – the third line should read, “the person is having a complex experience of a flashback”. Never hit ‘send’ before you finish your coffee. [Hi Lynette, I have fixed the typo in your insufficiently caffeinated earlier comment. — Paul]

    • Lynette,

      You have given us a thoughtful collection of ideas.

      1. You begin by introducing a well-accepted model that distinguishes between dissociative flashbacks and nondissociative flashbacks. According to that model, if the person is aware that he/she is having a flashback, then the flashback is not a dissociative one. Conversely, if the person completely loses track of here-and-now and is fully immersed in the there-and-then, then the flashback is definitely a dissociative flashback.

      2. You report that in your clinical experience, (i) clients with a dissociative disorder can have both dissociative and nondissociative flashbacks; and
      (ii) clients without a dissociative disorder can have both dissociative and nondissociative flashbacks.

      In making these claims, you almost (but technically do not) disagree with structural dissociation’s portrayal of flashbacks and PTSD. The issue in question is this. The proponents of structural dissociation contend that any person with PTSD has structural dissociation (and that flashbacks are a manifestation of that dissociated structure).

      Lynette, ultimately, it is not clear from your words whether you accept or reject the structuralists’ view of flashbacks and PTSD (see previous sentence). What is clear is that the field’s well-accepted clinical model of flashbacks seems to be at odds with the structural model of flashbacks and PTSD.

      3. From your perspective, flashbacks are “a symptom of psychic overload” whose manifestation (“as partially or completely dissociative”) depends on the intensity of the flashback and the capacity of the person to “remain consciously present under that kind of emotional charge.” This does not sound like structural dissociation to me.

      Lynette, thank you for allowing me this opportunity to (1) ‘surface’ the model(s) of dissociation that seem to underlie your comment, and (2) ‘force’ your answer to confront other models of dissociation. I am trying to be as clear as I can so that we are each ‘semi-forced’ to think more deeply about dissociation.

  3. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    You’re right, I agree and don’t agree, because I don’t think the boundaries are that rigid and clear. Even people with dissociative disorders may have a place in their consciousness that is aware of the flashback as a flashback. Then there are fundamentally non-dissociative people who completely fall into an EP space during a flashback.
    Do we really need the lines to be drawn so solidly? To me, that would not match really.

    • Well, Lynette, let’s see how this discussion plays out over time. At the moment, we are recapitulating the debate between Albert Einstein (“God does not play dice with the universe”) and Niels Bohr (‘We live in a probabilistic quantum universe’). Einstein wanted the lines to be drawn solidly. So do I. Then again, Einstein ultimately lost that argument. Maybe, I will too. But, for the meantime, as The Carpenters used to sing, “We’ve only just begun.” 🙂

  4. ken benau, phd says:

    my response will be somewhat circuitous, so please bear with me:

    i have been reflecting upon all these queries and responses in terms of a model of optimal, neurophysiological arousal. siegel, schore and several somatically oriented clinicians (p. ogden, b. bowen) use a model of optimal arousal, graphically depicted with two parallel lines:

    ____________________ hyperarousal

    ____________________ hypoarousal

    the upper limit represents hyperarousal, the lower limit hypoarousal, and between the lines represents “optimal arousal”, which others refer to as “the window of tolerance” or “the window of resilience”. over or below the top lines, and you are neurophysiologically dysregulated.

    now, to my response: flashbacks are clearly above the top line of hyperarousal. the person is over-activated, and the “mind/body system” cannot contain the overstimulation (experienced as physiologically, imagistically, emotionally, and cognitively intrusive). now, many people place “dissociation”, such as the out of body experience of a trauma survivor, as well as its associated numbing, below the bottom line of hypoarousal. i once asked alan schore at a group presentation of his where he put dissociation. he said (i believe i am remembering correctly) below the bottom line. i asked, “what about high freeze (immobilized and activated) responses?”, which are above the top line. he did not characterize that as dissociation, so my guess would be he would not characterize flashbacks as dissociative phenomena, either.

    to summarize, if you believe dissociation is about avoiding a painful reality (below the bottom line), than flashbacks which are about re-experiencing a painful reality (above the top line) are not dissociative phenomena. if you believe dissociations are manifestations of “system overload”, resulting in temporary loss of contact with present day reality, as in “a partial or complete disruption of normal integration”, then dissociation can reside in either hyper-arousal (along with flashbacks, and intrusive body memories) or hypo-arousal (along with numbing and out of body experiences).

    personally, i believe dissociation can occur above the hyperarousal line, and below the hypoarousal line, so i guess i believe flashbacks are dissociative phenomena, and thus several (though not all) ptsd symptoms are as well. i didn’t know i believed that until this moment.

    finally, i think this discussion gets confusing when we bring in “consciousness of the flashback”. to suggest one is not dissociating if they are at all aware that they are having a flashback (or for that matter a body memory resulting in numbing) seems a bit “all of none” for my tastes. i believe one can “have” a flashback, or a numbing experience, but not be entirely “had” by it to the point of complete loss of frontal lobe, reflective capacities. that, in part, is what is so frightening about flashbacks or numbing reactions for many: one part of them is observing another part of them, and the first part thinks, “i must be going crazy”.

    a small aside: “ptsd” currently seems to be a description of “what” (its symptoms) and “how” (its causes). “dissociation” is a more inclusive category that speaks, to my mind, primarily to “what” (its phenomenology). as this cite has beautifully shown, there are many “hows” that can account for dissociative phenomena, and “trauma” is only one of those.

    ps. as is probably clear by now, i think dissociative phenomena can be part of structural dissociation, but as in dr. dell’s description of evolutionarily-prepared dissociation, not always.

    Note from This very interesting comment by Ken got ‘scarfed up’ and sequestered by the blog’s spam filter. I don’t know why. I just found it today (10-5-10)

  5. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    Next question – does structural dissociation have to be permanent? Is it possible for the dynamics of structural dissociation to be activated in dissociative flashbacks and not remain in those individuals who are not dissociative? For people with dissociative disorders, the psyche is in a virtually permanent ANP/EP flux. There is little or no integrative function at work. For people who do not have a dissociative disorder, they may temporarily be thrown into that split but will usually move back out of it. If they fail to integrate sufficiently, then they will begin to show signs of PTSD and/or dissociation.

    • Lynette,

      When you ask if structural dissociation has to be permanent, I think you are bumping up against two separate, but related, questions.

      First, does PTSD ALWAYS involve structural dissociation? If so, this would mean that PTSD is a dissociative disorder. What is your opinion on this question? Yes or no? Do you think all cases of PTSD are dissociative (even those that do not also have DDNOS-1 or DID)?

      Second, do dissociative flashbacks generate some kind of (perhaps brief) structural dissociation? From my perspective, the key question here is: “Are ALL flashbacks a manifestation of structural dissociation?” That seems to be the contention of the proponents of structural dissociation.

      I’ll try to help with these questions by pointing out two crucial facts. First, every trauma/dissociation-savvy therapist encounters 2 broad kinds of trauma/PTSD patients: (a) those that are unquestionably dissociative (with parts and at least some amnesia); and (b) trauma/PTSD patients with no amnesia and no sign of parts. The structuralists claim that these Category b PTSD patients have secondary or tertiary structural dissociation, whereas the apparently nondissociative, Category a PTSD patients have primary structural dissociation. Thus, the structuralists insist that both kinds of PTSD patients have structural dissociation and that both kinds of PTSD patients are, in fact, dissociative. Do you agree with them?

      What do the rest of you think about these questions?

  6. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    Before I could answer the question of whether all flashbacks should be categorized as evidence of structural dissociation, I would have to have a clear definition of what was meant by ‘flashback’. As was stated, flashbacks occur on a continuum, and I have also seen and experienced somatic flashbacks which may be in a different category from what is being addressed here.
    Flashbacks where conscious connection to present time is broken would strike me as being reflective of structural dissociation, whether the person was otherwise DID or DDNOS, or not.
    However, many flashbacks, even in people with DID or DDNOS do not involve a complete break with current reality, so I don’t see how they could be known to be evidence of structural dissociation. They may be, but how would one know?

    • Lynette,

      You begin your comment with a very interesting word — “evidence.” As in: ‘What is evidence of structural dissociation in a flashback’ (or any other clinical phenomenon)? This, I think, goes right to the heart of the matter. Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, and Steele’s contention, that simple PTSD (and its flashbacks) are an example of “primary structural dissociation,” is a theoretical proposition, rather than an empirical one. We simply don’t know what might constitute evidence of primary structural dissociation. Frankly, I disagree with the structuralists on this point. I don’t think that all cases of simple PTSD are dissociative (structurally or otherwise).

  7. Holly Gray says:

    I know that flashbacks are common to those with dissociative disorders, but that doesn’t mean they’re dissociative. I think flashbacks are the opposite of dissociative. If dissociation is the structure – walls/compartments/etc. – that keeps disruptive, intolerable information out of conscious awareness, then flashbacks are the cracks in the walls, the ruptures in that structure.

    That’s how I see it for myself anyway.

    • Ahhh! Ya gotta love it when the insiders speak up. Thank you, Holly. Yes, indeedy, flashbacks seem to be very much the opposite of most things that we call “dissociative.” You say: “If dissociation is the structure…then flashbacks are the cracks in the walls, the ruptured in that structure.” I couldn’t agree with you more. There really is something odd about calling flashbacks dissociative. Flashbacks do exactly the opposite of everything else that we think is dissociative.

      What do others think about this?

      • I have experienced flashbacks wherein this body was physically transported to another time and place with wall color changing, furniture changing, and the person with me in the room changing to different person. When the flashback was over, I remembered some of it albeit a hazy recollection. Maybe a crack in the dissociative wall as Holly stated?

        I have also experienced flashbacks that I have no memory of… Other people who witnessed these flashbacks told me what was said [if anything], what the body posture was, and what emotions were expressed. I won’t be more explicit than this. I’m assuming that these are the flashbacks that could be labeled dissociative [as opposed to the first ones I described]?

        • Susa,

          Clinically, I consider both of these to be intense and vivid flashbacks. The second one is completely dissociated (i.e., you have complete amnesia for it). The first one is substantially dissociated (i.e., your memory of it is partial and hazy).

  8. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    I’d say they are sometimes dissociative, when they are a complete break in normal consciousness, and sometimes not, when they are a kind of split-screen experience.
    Flashbacks are sometimes experiences of the trauma as if it were now, and when they are that intense, they are an experience that is dissociated from present time.
    There are, however, flashbacks that aren’t fully dissociative, but, rather, an experience of the person feeling the past and still being aware of the present. Many of my clients have had that experience, and I know because they tell me, “I’m having a flashback”.
    I think there are dissociative, and non-dissociative flashbacks. That’s what I’ve seen in my practice.

    • Hi Lynette,

      You are certain, as are most (all?) trauma/dissociation-savvy clinicians (including myself), that some flashbacks are dissociative and others are not.

      Bottom line question: “How do we reconcile (1) our clinical/conceptual certainty that some flashbacks are dissociative, with (2) our general clinical/conceptual belief that dissociation is a protective, defense mechanism?” After all, it is hard to make a case that flashbacks are protective.

  9. Deborah says:


    I think that we may be looking at the process of flashbacks from too narrow of a lense. While the normal cognitive process is jarred and distanced from reality it is not pleasant. Many intursive cognitve processes are unpleasant. There is a whole sensory and emotional aspect to the experience that goes beyond protectiveness. Repressed feelings break into reality and flood rather than distance them from the person. These experiences also fall from mild to intense experiences.

    I think in the initial trauma the peron protected the self from dissociating from reality but the flasbacks are almost a dual process of blocking protecting from the past yet experiencing the past. A loop that the mind is not yet free from

    • Deborah,

      I don’t understand what you mean when you say: “flashbacks are almost a dual process of blocking protecting from the past yet experiencing the past.” I understand your idea that flashbacks are a process of experiencing the past. But how are flashbacks a process of “blocking protecting from the past?”

  10. IAmEchad says:

    Not meaning to muddy the waters, but I offer a different twist. I have DID and have found that sometimes during the course of therapy and working through memories flashbacks do occur. They are not dissociative to the extent that I am “grounded.” I have found that I have dissociated from the flashback. So is that dissociating from the dissociation?

    I agree with Holly that in some ways a flashback without complete dissociation is the opposite of a dissociative disorder. For me it’s actually a flooding of repressed or dissociated memories. It adds information to my awareness. The more I try to dissociate from the dissociation/flashback the stronger it comes back. It’s comparable to trying to hold a beach ball underwater. At some point it breaks the surface but with greater strength.

    With this app, I can’t review what I wrote so pls feel free to edit for length. It’s 12:41 a.m. and I know I’ve been redundant.


    • Thank you for this insider’s description of simultaneous (a) consciousness of an intruding flashback and (b) and awareness of your own dissociative reaction to it, which seeks to distance you from the intruding flashback (or seeks to push the flashback away). This, indeed, is my own outsider’s understanding of what often happens. I don’t know what proportion of dissociation-savvy clinicians understand this similarly (probably a large proportion), but I really don’t know because your comment describes an internal process that is rarely discussed. Thank you for documenting this by reporting your own personal experience.

  11. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    Actually, I think flashbacks are a kind of natural systematic desensitization process with intrusion of the trauma, followed by a return to the reality that the trauma is no longer happening in the present. With trauma that is not too severe or long-standing, with sufficient social support and intrapsychic strength, the trauma is integrated over time. With severe trauma, however, the process goes awry, the trauma is too severe to be assimilated, the intrusions are traumatic in themselves, and the person is often both overwhelmed and lacking in authentic support, so the cycle gets stuck. Then the flashbacks tend to become dissociative, blocked from consciousness as much as the mind can hold them back. Since the traumatic material is still unprocessed, however, the barriers can and do break down and people experience the kind of flashback that takes them out of the present completely.

  12. Lynette,

    You have said a lot here. I am going to stand back and say nothing for a bit. I want to see what others have to say about your ‘developmental’ account of flashbacks and dissociation.

  13. I’ve come to think of flashbacks as “associative” experiences, which at least for me tend to be related to “dissociative” functions in my system, but they are not the same thing as dissociation, to me.

    • Nicely said! Flashbacks are a form of memory. And memory is associative. Flashbacks are a little understood form of ecphory — a technical term for an associative memory that is triggered by some cue. Most ecphory is just a memory; flashbacks, however, have the additional quality of reliving the memory, often with partial or full sensory experience. As Holly suggested yesterday, flashbacks can be thought of as the leaking or collapse of a dissociated compartment of memory/experience. Collapse of dissociation can, indeed, be usefully thought of as association.

      • Thanks. I hadn’t put much thought into flashbacks before… other than that I’m not a big fan of them, lol. What strikes me, now that I’m actually thinking about it, is that flashbacks probably should be considered a defense mechanism in their own way. After all, if we were to remain totally blocked, at all times, to a danger encountered in past experience, we lose the potential warning lesson from that past experience and may be more vulnerable to future danger. Maybe the flashback is what happens when two defense systems collide. What’s more important for survival at that very moment? To protect against the memory or to use it to inform current/future actions?

      • Hi Dr. Dell,

        I have a question: What is your opinion regarding the differences in observing someone with D.I.D. having what is outwardly perceived to be a “flashback”, as opposed to observing that person switching to a part of her who virtually “lives” in a period of time maybe even decades ago, and is simply behaving as she normally does in that space and time?

        • Susa,

          The more I think about your question, the more interesting it becomes for me. In both instances, the person is not correctly oriented to the present time. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between the two. Only one of them (i.e., the person in flashback) is disoriented to time, place, person, context, AND is in immediate traumatic distress. Finally, an alter, who thinks it is still 1990 (but is not in flashback), may not be oriented to the present context (i.e., this is a therapy session), but usually will see me and the room around her accurately. The person in dissociative flashback usually does not.

          • Dr. Dell,

            Forgive me for going back to this blog thread, but I wanted to keep this in context of my prior question.

            I asked, “What is your opinion regarding the differences in observing someone with D.I.D. having what is outwardly perceived to be a “flashback”, as opposed to observing that person switching to a part of her who virtually “lives” in a period of time maybe even decades ago, and is simply behaving as she normally does in that space and time?”

            And you offered your opinion of, “Only one of them (i.e., the person in flashback) is disoriented to time, place, person, context, AND is in immediate traumatic distress.”

            So, flashbacks can ONLY be observably traumatic, and not pleasurable? If a brief transport to another time and place happens that is not abusive or traumatic, this would be 100% a sign of switching to another part of me and not a flashback?

            Although this has happened countless times… yesterday, I was walking in the forest, and suddenly smelled what seemed to be freshly mowed weeds… The odor transported me back to the mid-fifties and I was in a vacant field behind our neighbor’s house with a bunch of other kids, making trails through the tall weeds. We were having fun, and it was a pleasurable experience. I’m not sure how long this lasted, but would guess only minutes.

            So, this episode would be classified as dissociative (i.e., switching to another part of me) instead of a flashback since it was not traumatic in nature?

            Here is another episode for your consideration regarding my initial question – What if another household member finds what appears to be an non-verbal infant (although in an adult body of a person who has D.I.D.), curled up in a fetal position in a closet, who is whimpering/crying. Since this person/infant seems to be in distress, this would be classified as a flashback and not as a dissociative episode (switching to a part of her who virtually “lives” in a period of time maybe even decades ago, and is simply behaving as she normally does in that space and time)?

            • Susa said:

              “So, flashbacks can ONLY be observably traumatic, and not pleasurable? If a brief transport to another time and place happens that is not abusive or traumatic, this would be 100% a sign of switching to another part of me and not a flashback?”

              This certainly is not a traumatic flashback. I don’t know if it involves a switch to another part. I suspect that you are highly hypnotizable and have a superb capacity for imagery. Do you have any memory of such an event in your childhood?

              Your said:

              “What if another household member finds what appears to be an non-verbal infant (although in an adult body of a person who has D.I.D.), curled up in a fetal position in a closet, who is whimpering/crying. Since this person/infant seems to be in distress, this would be classified as a flashback and not as a dissociative episode (switching to a part of her who virtually “lives” in a period of time maybe even decades ago, and is simply behaving as she normally does in that space and time)?”

              Some flashbacks reside mostly in a part (other than you). When that happens, it is not uncommon for a switch to occur (and the part in flashback comes ‘out’ — in flashback). Your infant is probably a part in flashback. When ‘inside,’ the infant may sometimes be ‘asleep’ and other times be awake and in flashback. Or… we don’t know.

            • Hi Dr. Dell,

              Yes, the playing in the field of tall weeds did happen back in the fifties, but this was WAY more than a memory – I was there. Maybe, there is more to that…

              Just trying to sort out switching and flashback differences… seems to be a thin line with my system.


  14. giolio says:

    Interesting discussion. It seems to have begun with the following sillogism:
    1) Dissociation is a defense against mental pain
    2) Flashbacks are painful
    3) Therefore flashbacks are not dissociative

    This reinforces me in my Janetian belief that dissociation is not a defense against mental pain (Freud, equating dissociation and spaltung [splitting], would agree). Dissociation is a breakdown of the integrative activity of the higher levels of brain/mind functioning (e.g. mentalization capacity), brought on by the activation of the fight-flight-freezing-faint system in the reptilian brain (R-Complex, in Paul MacLean’s terms). Usually after a traumatic event is over the activation of the 4f system is terminated by the activation of the care-seeking system (also called the attachment system) and hopefully, some comforting response from bystanders, friends, lovers, etcetera (sometimes even parents). But if attachment is insecure or disorganized, then the activation of the 4f system goes on and the metacognitive impairment becomes even worse. Maybe flashbacks, depersonalization, and detachment features of dissociation (as opposed to compartmentalization) are a subjectively-felt consequence of this failure of the highest level of mental functioning, as Hughlings Jackson would have called it. Compartmentalizatin (structural dissociation) could be understood as the long term consequence of cumulative trauma and repeated activation of the 4f system.

    If dissociation is not a defense, then flashbacks, frightening derealization or depersonalization and many other painful features of human post-traumatic suffering could after all be thought as dissociative, I guess?

    • Steffen says:


      I’m wondering if you’d care to elaborate a bit on the model you sketch out above (and below)? I’m uncertain if you consider the process of compartmentalization to be explained by the model that you propose. If so, I don’t see it, but perhaps I just missed it.

      As I read you, you seem to propose that compartmentalization will occasionally arise along the way, due to incomplete memory processing, via prolonged 4f activation, in turn due to dysfunctional attachment schemas. First off, wouldn’t this assumption predict that the compartmentalization was closely linked to irreversible amnesia?
      As far as I know, that does not appear to be the case. If, as I’d assume, you are not suggesting such a prediction, I’m just unclear as to how you propose compartmentalization could arise in the first place.

      Also, I’m puzzled by the fact that all parties seem to equate ‘dissociation as a defense’ with ‘dissociation as a defense towards pain’. The syllogism you stated seems to be an accurate depiction of this reasoning.
      But pain serves the purpose of survival (in causing a motivated defense of homeostasis), and as such it seems a stretch to assume that all genetically coded strategies of avoidance would need to be filtered through pain (mental or otherwise), before they’d be allowed to work.

      As both dissociation and flashbacks (of both varieties) entail the singularity of particular foci of attention, it would apparently make at least as much sense to declare dissociation to be a ‘defense of sustained attentional/working focus’.
      Both during traumatic events, and later, when ‘everyday’ workingmodels are needed to cope, but will then invalidate traumatic memories, to some degree.
      It might even be argued that flashbacks, in their own reversed way, serve the same purpose, but in terms of not missing valuable info, as Lynette suggested.
      To me ‘dissociation as a defense’ [of needed workingmodels that will perish without it] is still a valid suggestion.

      Either way: using pain as an argument for or against the defensive nature of Dissociation, flashbacks, or any other natural human response for that matter, seems misconceived to me. Is there some major point to it that I’m missing, here?

      • giolio says:

        Dear Steffen, your remark is in my opinion accurate insofar as you regard “defense” as ‘defense of sustained attentional/working focus’. In my criticism, I was considering only the current idea of dissociation as an intrapsychich defense against mental pain, that IMO is untenable.
        As to compartmentalization, I think that it has roots not in exposure to trauma per se, but in the disorganization of early attachment. Support to this idea comes from two prospective longitudinal studies (Ogawa et al., 1997; Dutra et al., 2009), evidencing that infant disorganized attacchment is a much more powerful predictor of dissociation from childhood to young adukthood than trauma. Exposure to trauma, according to a theory based on attachment research, causes the collapse of the disorganized/ controlling strategies that keep a brake on the compatimentalized Internal working model of disorganized attachment. This model then comes temporarily to influence subjective experience and behavior in a compartmentalized way. Non-integrated representation of self-with-othere are then progressively constructed because of the effect of cumulative trauma during personality development, and may finally appear as the well known clinical realities of dissociated ego or personality states. If you are interested in this theory, you may look at my paper “A model of dissociation based on attachment theory and research” (Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 2006, Vol. 7, pp 55-73).

        • Steffen says:

          I see, thanks…

          So, to make sure I’m understanding you correctly: according to this theory: the coping challenge of trauma (and re-trauma, via repeated 4f activation) can influence the psyche conditioned into disorganized attachment to perform a ‘special trick’, supposedly unseen with secure attachment (and perhaps ‘ordinarily’ insecure attachment as well); where the ambivalent/hesitant workingmodel is repeatedly ‘pushed’ into more ‘decisive’, singular patterns/workingmodels by the 4f activation, until compartmentalization has stabilized as new way to acchieve and sustain organized coping?

          • giolio says:

            Dear Steffen, how attachment disorganization affects the dissociative response to trauma can be put, in my opinion, in simpler terms (or at least terms that seem simpler to me). The 4f defense system is normally deactivated, after exposure to trauma, through the operations of an attachment system regulated by a secure enough internal working model (IWM): soothing is asked for and accepted when received. In attachment disorganization, asking for soothing, needing it, accepting it may involve the activation of the defense system because the IWM conveys memories and representation of danger from the caregiver. Thus, the disorganized attachment system not only does not inhibit the defense system after the exposure to trauma: it may even enhance, from the inside (memories of attachment interactions), the activity of the defense system when the traumatic event is over. A protracted activation of the defense system hinders those higher order mental functions that yield integration among mental representations of the self (i.e., it hinders cortical connectivity, or as Janet called it, personal synthesis). This may explain compartmentalization as failure or deficit of the integrative functions of memory and consciousness. And this was of course Pierre Janet’s basic view of what nowadays is called structural dissociation (compartmentalization): the consequence of a failure of “personal synthesis”.

            • Steffen says:

              ok, thanks!
              As theoretical explanations go, it does seem a little tenuous, imho.
              (By way being so dependant on prolonged dysfunctional caregiver attention.)
              But it does at least provide an interesting idea why compartmentalizations would mostly appear with children, I think.

              A control question:
              If a traumavictim with disorg. attachment does not seek out (or quickly drops) caregiver attention for comfort (having had the opportunity to learn, under less dramatical circumstances that such contact mainly makes her feel worse); and, having the freedom to do so, avoids it and finds another way to comfort herself (such as eating/absorbing herself in books/movies etc.) sufficiently to deactivate the 4f system, then according to this theory, compartmentlization should not arise, right?

            • giolio says:

              The theoretical explanation may be tenuous, but not because of a prolonged dependence on the primary caregiver’s attention, that the explanation does not suppose to be there. Attachment theory and research merely assert that the representaions constucted during the interacion with the primary caregivers influence, throughout the life span, the expectations concernig the response of significant others to one’s need to be soothed when suffering from intense mental pain. The expectations of people wit early disorganized attachment may predict that such responses may cause further danger.

              My answer to your control question is: yes, from very abstract point of view. In real human life, however, it is almost impossible to focus attention on other ways to comfort oneself (e.g., alcohol or food or drugs) when the attachment motivational system is strongly acitivated by persisten mental pai, without developing a substance abuse disorder — which by the way is not an uncommomn evenience in chronically traumatized patients.

            • Steffen says:

              Hi Giovanni

              I’ve posted my response to your answer today, with what might be a final question, at the bottom of the page. Thanks.

  15. Hello Giovanni,

    Welcome to! In the space of a single comment you have covered so much scientific and intellectual territory (i.e., Freud, Janet, McLean, Hughlings Jackson, animal defenses, mentalization, your own definition of dissociation, compartmentalization vs. detachment, and the role of the attachment system in dissociation) that I hardly know how to respond!

    So, I will limit myself to a single thought. The ‘deep issue’ in my recent posts, and perhaps in your comment, is: “What is the relationship between evolution-prepared dissociation and the chronic dissociative symptoms that are suffered by persons with a dissociative disorder?” Your thinking seems to suggest that attachment experiences (that shape a person’s attachment style) determine whether a trauma will generate structural dissociation. There is so much material in your comment that I may not have understood you correctly. If so, I apologize.

  16. giolio says:

    You did understand my confused post, Paul. Thank you.
    It is a pleasure to meet you here.

    Maybe you could begin a new thread with a reflection on the assumption that dissociation is primarily a defense against mental pain? This assumption at a first glance seems to make a lot of sense, but I believe that a critical reflection on it casts serious doubts.

    As to the “deep issue” you mention: I agree. I have posted a comment in the thread on evolution-prepared dissociation that may clarify what I think on the relationships between two evolved systems (fight-flight-freezing-faint and attachment) in the genesis and maintenance of post-traumatic dissociation.

    • Giovanni,

      When you question dissociation as a defense against mental pain, are you resuming the original debate between Freud (repression as a defense against unacceptable or unpleasant reality) and Janet (disaggregation as a breakdown in the person’s ability to metabolize or take in the stressful reality at hand)?

  17. giolio says:

    Yes, Paul. In a sense I do.
    We have some hints now from neuroscience that in my opinion support Janet’s view in this debate with Freud. When people are shown pictures or other reminders of a traumatic event, neuroimaging studies evidence a strong inhibition of the left fontal lobe (particularly in the Broca’s area). It is arguable that such an inhibition is operated by the 4f system deep in the brain. The evolutionary advantages are obvious: when you have to fight or flight for life, better not to talk either to others or to yourself in that inner dialogue between I and Me (James) that is higher order consciousness.
    This seems to me much closer to Janet’s disaggregation than to Freud’s repression.

    • Hi Giovanni,

      I think that I disagree with you, but we have exchanged so few details of our thinking that I’m not really sure. As I understand it, you think Janet was right about disaggregation and that Freud was wrong about repression. Your reason for preferring Janet’s idea of disaggregation is that neuroimaging studies indicate that people (which people, by the way? Trauma-exposed? Those with PTSD? Those with a DD?) “evidence a strong inhibition of the left frontal lobe” when exposed to reminders of their trauma.

      If I am tracking you correctly, you are referring to what I consider to be THE fundamental neuroimaging finding in the PTSD literature. When exposed to a script of their trauma (and imagining as best they can what happened them), most persons with PTSD undergo an acute incident of hyperarousal and re-experiencing (i.e., flashbacks). This reaction is accompanied by an abnormal inactivation of the prefrontal cortex and a corresponding activation of the limbic system, especially the amygdala and the insula.

      If this is what you referencing, then you are saying (maybe?) that hyperarousal and flashbacks are an example of Janetian disaggregation (dissociation). But, as I have been saying, flashbacks look rather different from most dissociative symptoms. And, as I noted in my post, “What Are Flashbacks…,” 30% of PTSD patients respond to the same experiment with acute dissociative distancing (which looks much more like most dissociation than hyperarousal/re-experiencing does). And, this kind of reaction is accompanied by an abnormally activated frontal cortex and a correspondingly suppressed limbic system.

      Finally, I think I am clear about one thing. I believe that midbrain, evolution-prepared dissociation (and other animal defense mechanisms) are important, but I don’t think that animal defense mechanisms are suppressing the prefrontal cortex during flashbacks and hyperarousal. I may have misunderstood you, and you may not be saying that, but I don’t think that evolution-prepared responses have anything to do with flashbacks or clinical dissociative symptoms.

    • Jaco says:

      Or maybe, Broca’s area is suppressed because the person is suppressing the flashback! The visual stimulus activates other parts of the brain and this can’t be suppressed because the person is actually looking at the picture. Are the subjects also played a sound clip at the same time? If not this is an obvious flaw in the methods of the study and I would assume the patient is trying to suppress the thoughts hence less activation in Broca’s and it can be suppressed because there is only visual input!

  18. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    There’s a lot being said here, and I just have time to make a comment on one aspect of this discussion. I don’t think that flashbacks and clinical dissociation operate in the same way as animal defense mechanisms. Animal defense mechanisms seem to incorporate the frontal cortex in an unusual way – by some kind of mechanism that is experienced as being completely present in a slowed down way, so that deliberate actions can be taken to insure survival. An example would be my car rolling over and me carefully reaching over to turn off the ignition, having thought about it in that altered space/time place. A flashback, in contrast, can and often does remove a person from present time and does not involve behavior to correct the experiences but is a replication of an old event, unresolved and still upsetting.

    • Lynette,

      I like your ideas very much. Your reasoning about why animal defenses are not the same as either flashbacks or clinical dissociation is basically the same as mine. As you note, in evolution-prepared dissociation (i.e., an animal defense) the functioning of the problem-solving prefrontal cortex is greatly facilitated. Flashbacks, on the other hand, incapacitate the prefrontal cortex, and clinical dissociation involves the prefrontal cortex operating to distance itself from what is happening (as opposed to the crystal-clear hyperfocus on what is happening that is produced by evolution-prepared dissociation).

  19. giolio says:

    Paul and Lynette
    Of course I admit in advance that I may be wrong in interpreting the results of the study on PTSD patients we both, I believe, are referencing here. In summarizing the findings of this study, we are both mentioning the “abnormal inactivation of the prefrontal cortex”. I think that the silencing of the Broca’s area during flashbacks interferes with the inner dialogue we use to create those explicit meaning structures that connect memory of different experiences in our higher order mental functions. This interference, I believe, causes lack of integration, i.e., dissociation.
    We seem to disagree on whether or not such an interference with the integrative functions of the left frontal cortex are caused by the activation of the midbrain fight-flight-freezing-faint system during flashbacks. While I believe so, you and Lynette have a different opinion.
    I’ll be grateful if you would explain a little bit more why you think, if I understood your post correctly enough, that traumatic memories do not activate the 4f system, or that it is not the activation of this evolved system what silences the Broca’s area during flashbacks.
    You and Lynette say, in explaining why you do not believe that the evolved midbrain defense system hampers the higher order (integrative) mental functions during exposure to traumatic events, that “in evolution-prepared dissociation (i.e., an animal defense) the functioning of the problem-solving prefrontal cortex is greatly facilitated”. Do you have any evidence for this assertion? Lynette and you seem to think that since the animal defense system produces, in humans facing extreme danger, very quick, accurate and effective motor responses, then these must be mediated by the problem-solving prefrontal cortex in a sort of computation process similar to the one we use when we solve a complex, difficult problem by thinking on it at our desk — and of course this we do thanks to our big prefrontal cortex. Very quick, accurate and effective motor responses, however, are mediated by the midbrain defense system in animals that do not have any great amount of prefrontal cortex. Could it not be that also in humans these effective responses are mediated by neural systems lower in our brain, that do not involve the frontal cortex?

  20. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    Ok, having read people’s responses, and thinking about my own experiences, I think there are two types of animal defense mechanisms, one that uses the pre-frontal cortex, like my experience of turning off the ignition when my car rolled (I did that on purpose, knowing the car could catch fire), and another, purely physical-reflex mechanism. I had the second kind when I was crossing a street and was hit by a car, flung high in the air, cartwheeling and coming down head first. There was no thought of any kind, none. What happened was pure reflex – spin, pull my head up, and tuck my knees under me. That was the combination of natural reflex and a learned reflexive response from having been a competitive gymnast. I was aware after that event that there had been no time to think at all, and if I hadn’t been trained to land safely from an out of control flight, I wouldn’t be here.
    So, I’m now thinking we may also be talking about different kinds of flashbacks that utilize different mechanism, depending on immediate need. Some involve the frontal cortex, and some don’t. I think the ones without frontal cortex involvement are most likely the ones where the physical threat is at its peak, when a purely physical response is essential to survival. The ones where the frontal cortex is activated are most likely the ones where that is an essential part of survival.

    • Lynette and Giovanni,

      As I understand it, animal defenses are shaped by evolution so that, when in danger, we immediately undergo the most helpful shifts of attention, perception, sensation, and thinking. Automatic survival behaviors when in danger are essentially instinct-driven (i.e., evolution-prepared, hard-wired, no thought).

      Humans, however, have a large prefrontal cortex (as opposed to animals). The best accounts of the experience of humans of imminent threat to life report that they feel amazingly calm and are able to think quickly and clearly. This clear, facilitated state of mind is central to the human evolution-prepared response to danger (which also includes acute perceptual sharpening, highly focused attention, slowing of time and feeling quite depersonalized, but not being impaired by that depersonalization). The effect of flashbacks, however, as Giovanni has noted, is to substantially inactivate the left hemisphere (including Broca’s area). We do not yet have any neuroimaging studies of evolution-prepared hyperfocus + dissociation. We only have the first-hand accounts of those who have experienced evolution-prepared dissociation. Those descriptions are very different from descriptions of the experience of flashbacks. Giovanni has suggested that the midbrain shuts down Broca’s area during flashbacks. I don’t think so, In evolution-prepared, animal defense, I think that the midbrain (probably the periacqueductal gray) inhibits the amygdala (so that the animal or human is not impaired by massive fear).

      Bottom line: I don’t question the fact that Broca’s area is inhibited during flashbacks. But I do not think that the midbrain does that. On the other hand, I think that an uninhibited amygdala might do that.

  21. giolio says:

    Thank you for this clarification, Lynette.
    I agree with what you wrote about traumatic events that may or may not activate the frontal cortex together with the evolved defense system in the midbrain. Quoting your post: “I think the ones without frontal cortex involvement are most likely the ones where the physical threat is at its peak, when a purely physical response is essential to survival”. Yes. This is the core of the definition of psychological trauma, is it not?
    I would add that also recurring, cumulative traumatic events where you have learned that you are utterly impotent to prevent them, to cope with them, and even to predict the moment they wil re-occur (i.e., complex developmental trauma) are likely to deactivate the integrative functions of the frontal cortex. If the part of the cortex that is able to create integration of memories and meaning in an otherwise quite modular brain is impaired, then IMO only the evolutionary older, modular and non-integrative brain systems try to deal with the consequences of traumatic encounters with the world, both when these events are re-experienced and whe they are re-enacted in fashbacks.

  22. Paul Rieker says:

    There maybe additional facets missing… which I’d like to add.

  23. Lynette says:

    So, add them.

  24. Steffen says:

    Dear Giovanni

    Thanks a lot for clearing this up! (above)
    So: According to attachment theory, it’s the neurotic conflict in expectations following trauma (longing for someone to soothe her, but equating such interactions with aggrevated emotional disaster) that makes the disorg. attached psyche particularly vulnerable to the highly damaging 4f ‘loop’, with or without any further dysfunctional contact. The IWM drives the psychic reality into the loop. Where such a painful loop comes into effect, it may result in compartmentalization.

    That kind of process could conceivably happen even to a otherwise securely attached person (say, someone in a deep social-emotional slump after a bad breakup) who’s unfortunate to encounter traumatic events at a particularly bad emotional time. Or ‘fail’ to happen in a person with disorganized attachment, who’s somehow become highly skilled in calming down on her own, without compartmentalizing. (Perhaps a ‘zen master’ with a bad childhood?) But such eventualities are probably unusual, and as such wouldn’t really shake attachment theory as a solid theoretical approach in general.

    Now. The crucial theoretical point (of how compartmentalization DOES happen, according to attachment theory) just still seems unclear.

    From what you’ve suggested here, I’m inferring that:
    It’s assumed NOT to happen as a desperate instinctive effort of the psyche to regain mental calm (which would conceptualize it as a defense against mental pain, I think?), but as a mental cave-in, of sorts: a failure to refrain from a (phobic?) mental retraction from the entire issue, supposedly.

    So accordingly: The mentally painful upset is there, either way. You also appear to have acknowledged the idea of ‘dissociation as a defense’ (of IWMs), in an earlier response to me. The distinction in theorized genesis of compartmentalization, then, appears in whether we assume it to be a defensive response (against mental pain) or as a failure to achieve higher order processing of the traumatic event, by way of defending/clingning to a (dysfunctional) IWM. Did I get that right?

    • giolio says:

      Dear Steffen, yes, you got that right (although I would say that nobody clings to a piece of early implicit knowledge, as the IWM is, more than one could be said to “cling” to his/her mother tongue). I do not think that the concept of ego defense applies to every aspect of human learning concerning self-with-others.
      Of course, there are many aspects of contemporary scientific knowledge that could clarify how compartmentalization may take place, but I cannot deal with them here. They would need a book. I hint at two. (1) Polyvagal theory and the effects of the activation of the 4f system (located in the brain stem) on cortical connectivity are supposed to play a key role in the process that leads to compartmentalization. Alan Schore provided a clear and reasonably concise rendition of polyvagal theory in relation to dissociation in his chapter for the book “Dissociation and the dissociative disorders” (edited by Paul Dell & John O’Neil, 2009). (2) You may find it interesting to read the book “The haunted self” (van der Hart, Nijenhuis & Steele) for a clarification of the role of attachment disorganization in compartmentalization. According to the Authors – and to me – comparmentalization is based on what they call the opposite phobias of internal states generated by early attachment disorganization and reinforced by later trauma suffered at the hand of the primary caregivers: phobia of attachment closeness and phobia of attachment loss. In a sense, the simultaneous presence of these two phobias of inner states may be regarded as conflict, but not as form of splitting meant as a defense against a Kleinian conflict between Eros and Thanatos.
      Thank you for this discussion!

      • Steffen says:

        Dear Giovanni, thank you for taking the time to discuss it, and teach me something new.

        It’s an interesting analogy you suggest between the attachment IWM and the mother tongue. I’d certainly agree that people (esp. children) arguably have no perceivable alternative to using the IWM ‘as is’ at any given moment.

        But what I’m inclined to think and to suggest, is that the psyche does have the inherent ability to approach any IWM (of attachment magnitude or less) with greater or lesser conservative rigidity/creativity.
        Ie: ‘the mother tongue’ can be approached conservatively, regressively, exploratively or downright inventively (in variations from the healthy to the psychotic inventiveness).
        Likewise, I think it is possible to let a trauma, or any other challenging event, contribute to develop/influence the structure of your attachment IWM, for better or for worse.
        In a sense, I take it, this happens by default in the described attachment theoretical account for compartmentalization. But, I’d suggest: this default ‘collapse’ occurs via a ‘temper tantrum’ defense of the IWM ‘as is’, as understandable as the response may be.
        On the other hand, a fear of closeness, or of loss, could in principle be challenged/rebelled against and even abandonned, in more or less instinctive creativity, under pressure from haunting memories. Such an event would supposedly entail a somewhat new structure of repressions and social attitude (for better or for worse), and in turn a development in IWM implications, subtle or not-so-subtle, that would, at the end of the day, just tackle and dissolve the loop differently from the compartmentalization ‘default collapse’.

        I like attachment theory a lot as an inspirational and reasonable basic interpretation. From my previous brushes with it, I just think it tends to appear a bit simplistic/convenient in its suggested gestalt dynamics, as inspirational as they are. But again, I appreciate that there are several ways to approach a given construct/WM/gestalt, be it this theory or that, for every one of us making use of it.
        I’ll be sure to look into the suggested readings. Thanks again!

  25. Marty says:

    Very interesting thread all this, only chanced upon it tonight out of pure mid-life crisis curiosity (I’m 50) re one thing which constantly recurs in my life which I’ve chosen to refer to as “fragmentary flashbacks”. I simply searched this very term on YAHOO and your link seemed to be the nearest solution.

    Fragmentary Flashbacks. What are they ? For me at least: while the big game of life moves irrevocably on socially, domestically or professionally, the mind chooses to hopscotch, without warning, back to the distant past for 30 seconds or so.. I’ll state categorically now, to my knowledge, I ‘ve suffered no great trauma, certainly no more or less than anyone else in this life, so I don’t think they’re “cover memories”, yet seemed to be plagued by endless replays of the most trivial and meaningless incidents and events in my life over and over ? It’s as if life’s playing at two different speeds: the everyday present linear which we all try to keep up with (with varying degrees of success), then suddenly the mind takes an over the shoulder look at some occurrence 5-10-15 maybe 20 years ago more often than not, re someone I probably haven’t seen since the incident, which may be a meeting in a café, an event in the office, an ex friend now stranger, a chance meeting on a bus journey which had no particular importance or relevance to any other part of my life other than…so much has happened since then…what happened to THAT particular episode in time now lost forever in the mists of the past ? It could be something as trivial as a particular object or meal. Certainly nothing deep or meaningful. Chaos theory maybe ?

    Why should the mind ( mine or anyone’s) bother rummaging through the “filing cabinet” of events long since yellowed and crumbling ? It’s a bit like driving a car , all’s going smoothly when suddenly the thing wants to reverse a few hundred miles in the past . WHY ? Any ideas ?

    • Steffen says:

      Hi Marty

      Why? Good question.
      My best suggestion, I think, would be to seek out therapy if you happen to have the opportunity.
      Not because there’s anything alarming in what you wrote (there’s not, as far as I can see) but on the other hand… the fact that some old (and seemingly inconsequential) memories are regularly triggered in a rather intense way (judging from how you describe it, and the metaphors you’ve chosen to apply) COULD suggest that your psyche is trying to process something tricky by way of associating your experiences now with old memories, supposedly holding meaningful implications and/or emotional content.
      In a manner of speaking, the most interesting thing about these ‘popups’ is that they do, after all, manage to capture your attention, seemingly without you recognising any meaningful content in them.

      There are different ways to explore such content. You could obviously do it yourself via unguided free association- but then you seem to be presently stuck in that regard. Which is fine.
      If it’s a matter of a subjectively important issue (existencial, perhaps) beginning to surface, I’d expect your psyche to eventually ‘turn up the volume’, so to speak, making it easier for you to explore any presently vague implications, if there are any to be found. But as it does seem to be bothering you, I think seeking out therapeutic aid would be a valid choice. Since this therapy would supposedly be exploring your past as compared to your present day to understand the triggers better, and aim at examining the potential meanings, I’d suggest seeking out narrative therapy, specifically. Psychodynamic approaches (traditional approaches of psychiatrists) are another way to go, but tend to presuppose and fixate upon themes of hidden conflict, and indeed, trauma, almost regardless of what else you’d like to explore. This could be regarded as a strength or a weakness of the approach, but I think it depends on how intensely conflicted the client really is to begin with.
      In some cases I for one would regard it as a rather dubious thematic detour, without this neccesarily implying that the client has no real use of therapeutic assistance.

      As far as written exchanges goes, it could never replace the face to face exploration of therapy, of course. Intonation, bodylanguage, etc are all invaluable sources of communication, especially when the aim is to explore something supposedly hidden from the minds conscious eye. And perhaps there’s really nothing troublesome to be found.
      That too is impossible to detect with any certainty via mere text.
      Which would just leave you with the why.

      Best wishes


  26. Marty says:

    Hi Steffen,

    Many thanks for that very interesting response…some useful ideas there…

    Ewww…that word “therapy” has connotations all of its own !! My life is progressing normally as ever, as I stated my engagement on this thread was more through idle curiosity than anything else !

    Also I may be coming at this from a different angle…my background is a literary one ( college lecturer in English) . Not sure if you’re familiar with the works of English playwright JB Priestley
    writing during and after WWII his plays explore the problem of ‘time’ and how we perceive it.
    “I Have Been here Before” “Time and The Conways” “Long Mirror” “The Linden Tree” all look at Deja Vu, precognition, ESP etcetera (in particular flashbacks) .Would recommend his work to
    everybody on here. Far from being a writer of sensationalist sci-fi, he was a pioneer in addressing these often unspoken conditions in the everyday common (wo)man. He in turn was influenced by another pioneer JW Donne “An Experiment with TIme” (non fiction) . A retired Boer War Officer, Donne proposed a scientific theory re dream sequences by keeping dream journals and suggested that they are a composite of past , present and future which has already happened and that the human mind in hypnogogic and hypnopompic states ( just when you’re dropping off to sleep/ or waking) is unconstrained by our linear perception of time. If you Wikipedia either of these two guys it may give you a clearer picture.

    Both writers engaged in exploring what goes on “in the corner of the mind’s eye”.

    If you can ever get hold of a copy of “Man and Time” ( non fiction) by JB Priestley I earnestly implore people on here to read it. He devotes an entire chapter to around 2,000 correspondents he had after placing a newspaper advert inviting response from any one who had had bizarre experiential encounters with time as mentioned on here. The results from people from all walks of life were quite astounding.

    This has ben an overriding interest throughout my life.

    Taking it a stage further I have also read several books about alleged UFO abductees who nearly all report “missing time” scenario and subsequent inexplicable ‘flashbacks’. I’m not suggesting the aliens have got me but I do find such accounts very intriguing when it comes to our understanding and perception of time and I think may have some relevance to some posters on here.

    (Apologies. End of lecture..very boring all this…once a teacher… etc !!).

    Best Wishes


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