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Primal Therapy, Trauma, and Memory

What is trauma?


Peter Levine defines trauma as being any event that is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) as being life threatening. The perception is based on a person’s age, life experience, and temperament. For example, a baby can be traumatized by loud yelling, thunder, etc. Although yelling and thunder may not be life threatening, the critical factor in this example is the baby’s perception of threat and it’s incapacity to deal with it.


Bessel van der Kolk believes that for an event to be traumatic, not only must a situation be highly stressful, but the person enduring the event must feel helpless to change the outcome.


Arthur Janov said that “overload” requires a certain threshold of intensity of the traumatic event and that there can be no option for escape.


All three men recognize two requirements for trauma: it must be an overwhelming and inescapable experience.


How does trauma get imprinted?


To understand primal process, we must explore memory making. Here, we find ourselves at the cutting edge of science. While memory is still a mystery, we do know a lot about the fundamentals of memory systems.


Joseph LeDoux tells us that “The conscious memory of the past experience and the physiological responses elicited … reflect the operation of two separate memory systems that operate in parallel. ….these are different kinds of memory rather than one memory with multiple forms of expression.”(1)


Let’s call these two kinds of memory hippocampal memory and amygdalic memory.


The Hippocampi are major limbic structures that connect to our high-road information processing system. “…hippocampal circuits , with their massive neocortical interconnections, are well suited for establishing complex memories in which lots of events are bound together in space and time.”(2) We “see” hippocampal memories.


The amygdalae are major limbic structures that are a part of our low-road information processing system. “…the amygdala is more suited as a triggering device for the execution of survival reactions. Stimulus situations are rigidly coupled to specific kinds of responses through the learning and memory functions of this brain region. It is wired so as to preempt the need for thinking about what to do.”(3) We “feel” amygdalic memories.

“Once the amygdala is programmed to remember particular sounds, smells, and bodily sensations as dangerous, a person is likely always to respond to these stimuli as a trigger for fight or flight reactions.” (4)


Under normal circumstances, these two memory systems…and the dual information processing circuits, of which they are a part…operate seamlessly. That is, information moves from low to high road processing automatically. Traumatic experience interrupts this seamless flow of information.


It is believed that the interruption is accomplished in this way: during fight or flight activity, blood flow gets directed away from non-essential areas of the body to the areas that are essential for survival. The low-road of information processing gets supplied, while the functions of the high-road of information processing get shut down. Also, since the situation is very stressful, cortisol production increases. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that breaks body cells down to acquire the excessive energy demands of a fight or flight reaction. It also has the effect of interfering with hippocampal memory making, while strengthening amygdalic memories. It has been shown that chronic stress actually shrinks the hippocampi.


Fear conditioning experiments have demonstrated that amygdalic memory making can be successfully accomplished after only one trial. And, since trauma shuts down hippocampal memory making, the traumatized individual records little or no visual memory of the experience.


To summarize: when the two conditions of dissociation are met, blood flow is shunted from the cortex to the body’s core functions. This, and stress-induced cortisol interferes with information processing in our hippocampal memory system. Since blood flow and stress hormones are autonomically controlled chemical processes, we may assume that dissociation occurs progressively. This results in a continuum of memory making , from some, to no visual memory at all. This means that during a primal, where sensorimotor amygdalic information is offered to consciousness, that information might connect with a few fragmented visual memories of the event. Or, there may be no high-level memories with which to connect.


It appears that the Freudian model of repression, where a mental barrier is thrown up between the conscious and unconscious minds is false. There is no screen to lower, which would make the repressed memories of trauma conscious. Movies, being a visual medium, falsely portray reliving the trauma in the Freudian way.

Rather, few if any, high level memories are actually made during trauma. Therefore, there may be little or nothing to connect to, visually, during a primal. What is of the essence is getting the sensorimotor survival reactions… which got made and trapped in the low-road of information processing…into consciousness. This allows the high-road of information processing to do what it does automatically: collect, collate, analyze, associate, and formulate accurate responses to…information coming from the low-level of information processing. If fragmented high-level memory occurred during the trauma, those bits and pieces of “flashbulb memory” will be associated with the newly conscious sensorimotor “images”, along with any other high-level , non-traumatic memories associated with the feelings being generated by the low- level. This may be a description of how insight occurs after a primal.


A caution about the bits and pieces of visual memory that pop up during a primal. It may be best to resist thinking about them too much. The connection, itself, will reduce the energy of suffering. The danger involved in working with conscious images is that the brain tends to fill in empty gaps. If your Uncle Pete’s image pops up while you’re processing a piece of your trauma, it is not necessarily the case that he was the source of that trauma. The false memory syndrome is real and must be taken into consideration. We know that high-level memories are constantly being modified, in a way that low-level memories are not. Janov reminds us of this when he states that the imprint continues to exist in its original, pure, and unaltered state until it is primaled. This is why I prefer working with sensorimotor memory.


1. J. LeDoux (2005, February). LeDoux Laboratory. Available: http://www.cns.nyu.edu/home/ledoux/overview.htm

2. J. LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1996, P.224.

3. Ibid.

4. B. A. van der Kolk and R. Fisler (2002, June), Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Available: http://www.trauma-pages.com/vanderk2.htm


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