We have no idea where our animal defenses end and our dissociative symptoms begin. The more that I immerse myself in this area, the more I am surprised that the dissociation literature hasn’t thought more deeply about animal defenses. Animal defenses are mentioned here and there in the literature, but they are seldom subjected to a rigorous analysis vis-à-vis clinical dissociation. Probably the best existing discussions are those of Ogden, Minton, and Pain (2006) and Van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Steele (2006).
Let’s begin with a central distinction: Animal defenses are survival-oriented; clinical dissociation is not. Animal defenses protect our survival, our biological existence. Clinical dissociation protects our mind and our self. True, there are times when protecting mind or self may result in saving our lives, but biological survival is not what clinical dissociation is all about. Now let’s examine a second crucial distinction.
Dr. Livingstone, I Presume
In 1871, British explorer and national hero, David Livingstone, had been in Africa and out of touch for seven years. The New York Herald sent a reporter, Henry Stanley, to find him. After an 8-month search, Stanley found him. He greeted Livingstone with the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
David Livingstone wrote an articulate account of his own tonic immobility during a near-lethal encounter with a predator:
I heard a shout. Starting and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was on a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death. (Livingstone, 1957, p. 12, emphasis added)
The crucial point in Livingstone’s account is that this state of mind took away all pain and fear, but it did not take away his awareness of what was happening. Livingstone remained “quite conscious of all that was happening.”
We saw this same mental awareness a few weeks ago when we examined evolution-prepared dissociation (e.g., what happens during a sudden fall from a great height). During the fall, time slows down and mental and sensory acuity become quite pronounced. Some of you described this sudden change of consciousness as a “hyperfocus” and as “the opposite of dissociation.”
The literature on tonic immobility in animals emphasizes a similar point:
“it is now well established that…subjects in TI [tonic immobility] continue processing information and remain aware of events occurring in their immediate vicinity.” (Gallup & Rager, pp. 59-60)
It takes but a moment’s thought for us to realize that an evolution-prepared, animal defense must PRESERVE awareness and the ability to process what is happening. Your survival is not helped by being unaware of what is happening when you are being attacked by a predator.
Clinical dissociation, on the other hand, does not have the same ‘regard’ for our ability to think while we are dissociating. In Depersonalization Disorder, the disconnect from our normal emotional contact with self, body, and world is so profound that it impairs concentration and thinking. Similarly, many other forms of clinical dissociation impair the person’s ability to reason and problem-solve while he or she is dissociating.
If we were to speak of clinical dissociation as having a “mission,” it would certainly be the opposite of the mission of the starship Enterprise (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”). The mission of clinical dissociation is to avoid, block, or escape from pain and distress. And, because its priority is to escape from pain, both awareness and the ability to think are readily sacrificed when doing so provides an escape from pain.
Freud once said something similar about repression:
The psychical apparatus is intolerant of unpleasure; it has to fend it off at all costs, and if the perception of reality entails unpleasure, that perception — that is, the truth — must be sacrificed. (Freud, 1937, p. 237)
A Plea For First-Hand Accounts
There is much more to consider about the relationship(s) between animal defenses and clinical dissociation, but I think that this is a good stopping place for today.
Our earlier discussion of evolution-prepared dissociation was greatly facilitated by your first-hand accounts. Your personal stories highlighted the clear state of mind that accompanied your falls and car accidents.
Today, I leave you with another request for personal accounts — of dissociation during maltreatment. Specifically, would you be willing to describe (1) the nature of your awareness of what was happening (i.e., clear, fuzzy, unaware, gone away, out of body, etc.), and (2) the extent of your ability to think clearly during the dissociative event(s).