How Deeply Do We Appreciate the Complexity of Our Amazing Brains?

Recently a participant in one of our classes asked for clarification about the whole subject of how the brain can be triggered and what the brain dynamics are when that triggering takes place. I thought readers might appreciate some information to help explain the instantaneous process when a memory is triggered for someone who has a significant trauma history.

According to Dr. Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, the part of the brain called the amygdala is the primary storehouse for sensory memories, especially related to experiences involving fear. The amygdala is operational before a baby is born, recording memories in a sensory way from about the seventh month of pregnancy. This means if the mother experienced some kind of abuse or in any way was flooded with fear, her unborn baby is recording that fear and any of the sensory cues related to it: raised voices, other loud sounds, or any other intense stimulation. When something similar occurs as part of that baby, child or adult’s life experiences, the amygdala leaps into action to flood the person with a variety of neurochemicals such as adrenaline that prepare the person to react with fight, flight, freeze or submissive behaviors. Cozolino reports that the amygdala’s reaction to a memory of fear occurs in 1/12 of a second!

The participant in our workshop was exploring the various ways a person can be triggered, wondering if words or feelings can be triggers. My response was that any triggering of a memory in whatever form that occurs can set off a chain reaction of a trauma response.

In considering how the brain can have trauma-based responses to experiences, it is essential to consider the enormous complexity of the brain and its functions. According to Google, “The human brain has 1015 connections and contains roughly the same number of neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way, around 100 billion.” To create a human understanding of the brain, we often think about it as being an organ of thoughts, feelings and sensations but all of these are intertwined into many complex processes in our very complex brains. We need to start with this appreciation. 

Secondly, triggers and flashbacks have to do with our complex memory systems and how traumatic memories can be experienced. Peter Levine in Trauma and Memories states that, “…in contrast to ‘ordinary memories’ (both good and bad), traumatic memories are fixed and static. They are imprints (engrams) from past overwhelming experiences, deep impressions carved into the sufferer’s brain, body and psyche.…’traumatic memories’ tend to arise from fragmented splinters of inchoate and indigestible sensations, emotions, images, smells, tastes, thoughts and so on.” He shares that “… jumbled fragments cannot be remembered in the narrative sense per se but are perpetually being replayed and reexperienced as unbidden and incoherent intrusions or physical symptoms.”

I shared with the participant that words can be triggering when they tap into traumatic memories as can thoughts, feelings and sensations. The key is that it is the traumatic memories, both implicit and explicit, that underlie what, when and how a person is triggered.

Whenever I pause to consider the amazing complexity of the human brain, I am in awe of how dynamic and functional it is. Through all the research around trauma I now deeply appreciate how we have all been designed to be able to protect ourselves, even when what was once a very important adaptive reaction becomes a maladaptive reaction that leads to unhealthy fear, anxiety and stress.

As a person of faith, all the research on the intricacies of brain growth and development affirms for me yet again the brilliance of our Creator. The science of trauma has taught me that our amazing brains do the best they can to manage those traumas that cause us ongoing pain through our memories, flashbacks and triggers. Our brains are capable of being changed primarily through loving relationships that tenderly invite us to help our brains overcome the impact of early trauma. We can help our overstimulated amygdala to learn how to stand down when triggers come along. We still may have to endure the initial triggering reaction but can quickly use our higher brain functioning abilities to remind us that we are reacting to something that happened in the past and no longer holds any danger.

Sometimes we are the ones struggling to manage our trauma-related reactions to the world as we can be triggered in so many ways, and sometimes we are the ones who make ourselves available to walk beside loved ones who continue to struggle with the propensity they have to be triggered. I think it is important to never underestimate the power of human relationships to bring comfort and healing to others. We each can play a part in promoting healing within ourselves and within others. How beautiful is that?

Invitation for Reflection

  1. As you read the facts about the neuroscience of the brain, what thoughts come to mind? How does this understanding increase your admiration for just how amazing the human brain is?
  2. How can you use this information to help yourself if you still struggle with significant unresolved trauma?
  3. How can you use this information to help when you engage with someone who is struggling with significant unresolved trauma?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute