We are a naming, categorizing, ordering species. We do it automatically, unconsciously, and constantly. We are compelled by the structure and function of our brain to make sense, to make meaning out of every experience. This demand had been termed the "cognitive imperative" (Laughlin, McManus, & D’Aquili, 1979). All new information must be mentally organized into a category that we have been establishing since birth. These categories are based on words and requires that our brain-particularly our dominant, verbal hemisphere, is working properly. When anything interferes with this categorization process we experience unpleasant feelings. One of the words for this is "cognitive dissonance:' In experimental situations, when people receive anesthesia on the dominant side of the brain alone, thus preventing this normal organization of experience, they feel guilt and unworthiness, worries about the future, and a sense of loss of mastery over the environment. Overwhelming trauma appears to interfere with this organizing capacity as well. When this happens, our minds will not let us rest (D'Aquili, Laughlin Jr. C.D., & McManus, 1979). The unresolvable nature of the conflict continues to arouse bad feelings and this draws our attention to the contradictory information until the mind has managed to put the confusing information into a more comfortable mental "box."
Conditions of high stress may impair the capacity to order reality normally due to the profound effects of stress hormones on the verbal capacities of the brain. When the stressed individual appraises the dangerous situation and finds it inescapable then he or she is quite likely to avoid reality, often by reordering and redefining reality entirely (Janis & Mann, 1977; Schumaker, 1995).
A certain amount of denial and avoidance of reality is healthy. Were we to focus constantly on our mortality we could easily become nonfunctional. There is an entire field of study known as “Terror Management Theory” that proposes as its basic assumption, that fear of mortality underlies most human behavior (Pyszczynski, 2004; Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003). Fear of dying can prevent us from living. Similarly, in the presence of life threat, avoidance of reality is a very good-often lifesaving-idea. To some extent we understand this phenomenon in its acute form. The lay term for it is "shock;' the clinical term is "dissociation." After a one-time, consensually validated traumatic experience such as an earthquake, people are likely to be understanding of someone in "shock." Over the next few hours, days, or weeks the environment will provide many opportunities and cues providing the affected person with opportunities to gradually get back in touch with what has really happened and begin to integrate the experience with the overwhelming emotions.
Problems arise, however, when the trauma does not stop, or when it is too severe for anyone to deal with, or when it is a secret trauma that no one else is allowed to know about. In cases like these the gap between everyday reality and traumatic reality can continue to increase. The individual cannot deal with the traumatic experience because it continues to pose some kind of life threat and the culture cannot or will not help the person come to terms with the experience. The person is unable to establish a coherent and consistent sense of identity because the traumatized self is directly in conflict with the normal self. He or she is unable to establish a comprehensive and flexible meaning system or philosophy of life because they harbor too many internal contradictions. Under these circumstances dissociation becomes a way of life and the disintegration of the person continues.
In ways vastly more complicated than any computer, the human organism is designed to function as a unity, an integrated and interconnected whole. Unfortunately, our ability to think clearly, logically, and in an integrated way is vulnerable to a multitude of stresses. These stresses can be biological, psychological, social, or moral, or any combination of these. Regardless of the kind of stress, our capacity for clear thinking is constantly jeopardized by physiologically based bodily and emotional reactions over which we have little control and about which we often have little awareness. Any kind of overwhelming stress produces fragmentation, and, like Humpty Dumpty, the pieces often elude reunion.
Any kind of overwhelming stress produces fragmentation, and, like Humpty Dumpty, the pieces often elude reunion. It is this fragmentation, or loss of normal integrated functions, that is at the heart of understanding the impact of overwhelming stress. Once we understand that the brain – not just the mind – is overwhelmed at the time of an event and does not perform its normal integrative processes, then all else begins to fall into place. It is when we are severely stressed, when the expected routine of daily life is disturbed by traumatic events, that our bodies respond in primitive ways and we find ourselves in the midst of a storm of emotional and physical reactions that we cannot understand or control. In many ways, we are not the same people when we are terrified as when we are calm. Our bodies change in remarkable ways, as do our perceptual abilities, our emotional states, our thought processes, our attention, and our memory. When under this kind of stress it is as if we become another person, no longer able to respond to others as we would under less threatening circumstances.
Compared with other animals, humans are astonishingly vulnerable to their environment. We cannot run very fast, our fingernails are poor substitutes for claws, our skin offers little resistance to the vicissitudes of weather, we have no poisonous fangs. We are, however, "set" internally to respond to situations of danger more readily than situations that evoke feelings of contentment, satisfaction, or joy. Like other animals, we are biologically equipped to protect ourselves from harm as best we can. But even with our superior brains, an early human standing alone against a dangerous foe had very little defense. Our ability to form attachments to each other and form social groups has been our best defense and has guaranteed our survival. Attachment to our social group is a deeply ingrained structure that derives from our primate heritage.
D'Aquili, E., Laughlin Jr. C.D., & McManus, J. (Eds.). (1979). The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.
Janis, I., & Mann, L. (1977). Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice and Commitment. New York: Free Press.
Laughlin, C. D., McManus, J., & D’Aquili, E. G. (1979). Introduction. In E. D’Aquili, Laughlin Jr. C.D., & J. McManus (Eds.), The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.
Pyszczynski, T. (2004). What Are We So Afraid Of? A Terror Management Theory Perspective on the Politics of Fear. Social Research, 71(4), 827.
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). Terror management theory: An evolutionary existential account of human behavior In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. (pp. 11-35). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.
Schumaker, J. F. (1995). The Corruption of Reality: A Unified Theory of Religion, Hypnosis, and Psychopathology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus books.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies, 2nd Edition. New York, Routledge.