What’s the ONE THING that STOPS you THINKING STRAIGHT, guaranteed?
PSYCHIATRY today is in a muddle. Ever since Freud told us, loudly and unmistakably, that bits of your mind are unknowable — we ‘lost’ it. Freud argued volubly and cogently that we act without thinking, that dark demonic pressures push us where we don’t want to go, that forces we can’t think about drive us bonkers — he called it, in English, the “id”. Most odd. However, for all we call ourselves homo sapiens, we do do the most crazy, thoughtless, unthinking things, all the time — often to our own gross personal disadvantage, things that no ‘right-minded’ person would ever dream of doing. Why? What really lurks behind these copious irrationalities? Where and why does the human species go so conspicuously and so consistently wrong?
So let’s keep this beautifully simple. We all know we need our frontal lobes to think with, to plan ahead, to avoid our own self-damage. We’ve known this ever since that unfortunate mining engineer survived an iron rod shot through his temples — he lived, becoming a circus act, but sadly his life went inexorably down hill — he could no longer solve his everyday problems, at least not in any healthy way. His social life went to pot, and he died a broken man. The loss of his frontal lobes didn’t kill him, but it did end anything resembling sensible social skills — a lesson for us all.
Ask any primatologist, and the main thing that distinguishes us from our fellow species is the vastness of our frontal lobes, our so-called neocortex — new, neo, because other primates are materially less well endowed. Even primitive brain scans show that’s where the action is, once we start cogitating, thinking, sorting through our mental furniture, planning our future. And, on a more sinister note, leucotomy (lobotomy) was once wildly popular as a psychiatric treatment, because, unsurprisingly, people were noticeably calmer afterwards. And there is considerable brain evidence that that’s what today’s psychiatric drugs actually do — they also cut off the frontal lobes, so whatever is troubling you, troubles you less. Alcohol works the same way. Hardly the most intelligent approach to an already beleaguered mind.
Then along comes Professor Bessel van der Kolk. He did pioneering work on brain scans, and he too found a sure fire way to turn those species-distinguishing-lobes, off. Trauma. In the 1980s he had access to brain scan equipment, and while his subjects were being scanned, he played them first benign tapes, and then explosive ones, ones which they had already confided triggered their earlier traumas. The impact was dramatic. In his splendid phrase, the frontal lobes “went off-line”. The trauma triggered leucotomy. There were no functioning frontal lobes — cogitation, rational consideration went out the window — the traumatised individual was ‘brainless’, literally.
What had he found? You want to stop the world — get drunk. You want a sure-fire way of turning off troubles ahead — disable the forward planning department. At one primitive level, it makes a kind of sense, rather nihilistic, but if you get relief — why not? It’s actually the ‘Ostrich Syndrome’ in action — don’t like what you might see, stop looking. Not a terribly sensible, mature nor winning approach, but entirely understandable, especially when you are very small (which we all were to begin with). But for now, let’s take Bessel’s findings as gospel — trauma disconnects the frontal lobes. This is such an important finding, it is crucial to carve it in stone — the human organism suffers trauma badly. Trauma causes all sorts of havoc — what’s left of homo sapiens once the frontal lobes abscond?
In everyday life, this comes as no surprise. Trauma, by definition is painful and therefore fear-inducing. “I was paralysed by fear” — “I panicked, and stopped thinking straight”. Surely we don’t really need brain-scans to confirm this regular human occurrence? But take it further — trauma, with its associated fear or terror, stops forward planning. Social skills depend on functioning frontal lobes — who can dispute that? So now let’s switch it round and look at the converse — negative social skills come directly from absent frontal functioning. You cannot socialise, if your neo-cortex is disabled — you don’t need to become reptilian, but you certainly forfeit human. So, in my book, if you find anti-social behaviour, anywhere, you, or at least I, look for frontal paralysis. And what’s more, if you can reverse it, you regain it — at least I did in Parkhurst Prison.
So watch how leucotomy works. You can drive a metal bolt through your temples, you can inebriate yourself with alcohol or other mind blocking drugs, you can zombify yourself with psychiatric medications, you can re-expose yourself to your worst recurring trauma — all stop you thinking straight, all disable your forward planning, all stop your social skills from getting off the ground. Whichever mode — all frontal lobes close down.
Now for the tricky bit. Trauma arises exclusively from undefended wounding, or about-to-be woundings. Bear with me, while I transpose the conversation to infancy — infants are small, they are vulnerable to many things — they depend on bigger humans around, else they cease. They know this. Sometimes the ‘contract’ of continuous adult life-support wobbles, occasionally deliberately so — what’s to stop an infant resorting to frontal lobe cut off? It happens in later life, as Bessel proved — why put a backward age limit on it? Why not transfer what happens to adults, to mini-adults, namely children. Nothing illogical about this transfer — everything to gain, as it happens.
Because just as a drunken man cannot calculate the most realistic pathway to safety, so a frontally-hobbled individual cannot solve what’s ailing him or her. That’s what the frontal lobes are for — to plan an escape route. But if they are the first casualty in the war to keep alive, what then? If your command headquarters are blitzed, your chances die with it. And, worse, if your communications centre, your coordination point closes down, how are you to even become aware it’s gone? Off-line in data processing is dead, void responses could take you a life-time to find out. Something ‘unthought’ becomes that way for a reason (a traumatic reason) and remains that way, until re-educated or otherwise ‘sorted’.
So, for the purposes of this argument, trauma causes cerebral mayhem. But a particular sort of mayhem, toxic mayhem. This is because the way you sort out all the other problems in your complex life, has itself gone off-line. It no long responds. It no longer suggests solutions, indeed, worse, when you come to think about the trauma and its associations, then frontal close-down happens before you even know it, and your thought process stops dead in its tracks. You cannot think through a solution if the problem is you cannot think. You might not even be able to think you cannot think. And for all the conundrums, what it mostly does is disable your problem solving skills, your social skills — you become ‘brainless’. In the worst cases, even half-hints of the trauma themselves induce cerebral ‘absence’.
So instead of concentrating on solving the problem of the trauma itself, you become deflected onto, even preoccupied by, an infinite number of other (‘safer’) issues. This is elemental. Your frontals are not troubled by non-trauma related issues, so you can trundle along with them just fine. It’s when you begin to wonder about your black hole, your blind-spots, your ‘hangovers’, then when you need them most, your cogitating frontals vaporise, as if they’d never been.
If this argument is water-tight, then its resolution is too. Trauma only persists because it, itself, disables its own solution — what you cannot think about, you cannot change, anymore than when you are in a coma. So in this sense Freud was correct — there are areas in your mental world that are cordoned off, for, initially, excellent life-saving reasons. Those reasons, and the trauma that drove them, are now over — they are obsolete, they no longer apply. But in order for this healthier reality to percolate through, you, yourself have to turn off the disconnect. You have to use whatever bits of ‘off-line’ frontal activity you can still access, to undo the rest that, unaided, you cannot (so far).
I’ve applied this ‘toxic memory’ model to the full gamut of psychiatric disease, from psychosis, psychopathy, violence, and through innumerable emotional pitfalls — underneath every troubled mind, there is a tortured adult trying to get out. Give them a lifting hand, the healing hand of kindness with insight, and there’s no limit.
I divide psychiatric treatments into three bins: poor, mediocre and good, i.e. — (1) those that further disable the frontal lobes, either by drugs, scalpels, electricity, or more tragically, any number of potent psychoactive medications (sedation, yes, zombification, no); (2) those that stumble on the toxic effects of trauma, but only indirectly, such as EMDR, art therapies and a host of similars; and (3) those which put their cards on the table, and by Truth, Trust and Consent go through the front door — sit your traumatiser down there in the empty chair, and tell him/her to stop, to behave him/herself — you are now too big for the trauma to threaten you. Don’t try this unaided, it’s a total non-starter, unless you know precisely what you’re doing — re-traumatisation can be lethal, and not only to the sufferer as I found with those murderers in Parkhurst Prison. But, if at least the logic and the realism behind it makes sense, then we are already ahead of Freud. [HEALTH WARNING: — never discontinue any psychiatric drugs abruptly — your brain tissue has got used to them, and needs weaning off them, carefully]
Let’s apply this to global politics. “Sensible social skills” around the globe are deteriorating almost by the month. Could this be because trauma remains unrecognised as the social and mental poison it is? If you were running the richest country in the world, would you increase spending by 10% on health care or on traumatising equipment? If this account of trauma as detrimental to mental and social health applies globally, then it becomes less rational to flood the world with ever more sophisticated traumatisers — bombers, bullets, drones — you name it, and we humans have used it, not to ensure an easy life, but to traumatise.
We may think we’re only traumatising others — our glorious armed forces — but the reality is sadder, if not tragic. Trauma is toxic, especially to those human beings delivering it — it poisons them, and according to Bessel, their loved ones. Every war that ever was, says Bessel, kills more people back home than on the battle field. More returning warriors kill themselves as ever the ‘enemy’ does, and as many wives lose their lives at the hands of their ‘loved’ ones, as victims die on the battle field. The trauma they see or deliver is still trauma — we are none of us made of steel — it’s still trauma, and its inescapable mayhem is no respecter of persons: we all need frontal lobes, all of us, all the time — that’s what being human entails.
And, there’s a wider biospheric issue — no species is evolution-proof, all are liable to extinction, if they become too unrealistic to adapt to ever-changing reality. There’s always an inescapable biospheric penalty in the offing. Alterations in the environment, as the dinosaurs found, need adept responses. Homo sapiens does this, by thinking things through, planning ahead, taking all aspects into rational consideration, except where trauma puts us all at risk.
Dr Bob Johnson www.DrBobJohnson.org Saturday, 4 March 2017