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Primal Therapy, Alice Miller, and Antonio Damasio

Psychotherapist Alice Miller says that “It is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness, but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered.”

In previous blogs I’ve described an imprint as a complete recording of the unconscious survival reactions generated during trauma. Left unprocessed, this information is stored in it’s original, pristine state, as a fear-conditioned memory. Given the right environmental cue, the re-energized information moves toward consciousness, creating anxiety. When the system represses this information once again, we begin to suffer. Suffering can be understood, here, as information being held back. Because the memory is invisible, the cause of our anxiety and suffering is unknown to us. And, because an imprint is a memory, the process described above can happen over and over again.


In the language of Fear Memory Integration: the 'unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair' that Miller speaks of is the enduring anxiety and suffering that is brought on by the cyclically activated and repressed imprint.


Continuing with the Miller quote: ‘not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered’ should not be thought of as ONLY a verbal expression, or story-telling, of what one has endured. Telling the story is only the beginning of the healing process.


A primal therapist tries to arrange the ‘experiential expression’ of what one has endured. When this occurs we are re-experiencing the original survival reactions of the trauma. But, this time, we stay with and observe those reactions. Somehow, we bring them into what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes as image space. He uses the term 'images' to mean "mental patterns with a structure built with the tokens of each of the sensory modalities - visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and somatosensory". The imprint is made up of the unconscious survival reactions to the trauma. The information each reaction contains are the 'tokens' that Damasio is talking about. When activated, they present information to consciousness as sensory images.


The various anxiety-related behaviors are being driven by the unconscious re-experiencing of those reactions. In a primal session we are 'dipping into' the activated information stream and holding pieces of this information 'in suspension' ... in image space. Image space is, most likely, working memory. Working memory refers to a hypothetical cognitive system responsible for providing access to information required for ongoing cognitive processes. Since working memory's capacity is small, only so much of the activated imprint can become conscious at any one time. This means that the energy of the act out is incrementally diminished in direct proportion to how much trauma information is made conscious.

Miller’s wise statement may be better understood if stated this way:


“It is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness, but the lifelong, unconsciously endured re-enactment of the survival reactions to the trauma. The unending distress caused by this process leads to hopeless despair…Pullaro.


Healing from our traumas involves experientially expressing those survival reactions in a conscious way. Janov called this ‘feeling the feeling’.


This is what ‘primaling’ is. A primal describes an unconscious survival reaction gone conscious… information has finally made it to high-road information processing, where it can now be appropriately controlled by the medial prefrontal cortex.


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