Respect for Trauma Begins with Respect for Neuroscience

Abstract brain wave concept on blue background technology

In recent years, the subject of trauma has become extremely popular, receiving more and more publicity for the impact it can have on human lives. Newscasters talk about how intense events like earthquakes can lead to PTSD, many organizations are focused on becoming trauma-informed and even the political world is taking an interest in incorporating trauma information into legislation (For more information, check out the Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice). New articles and books are hitting the Internet on a daily basis. If you google “Articles on Trauma,” 190 million items pop up and Amazon offers over 20,000 books on the subject of trauma! All this emphasis on trauma fuels an ever-deepening respect and appreciation for trauma’s complex power and how it impacts people’s lives.

In becoming a student of trauma one needs to first gain respect for all the information generated about the brain over the last few decades. This reference to neuroscience includes the exploration of the nature of the brain, how the brain grows, develops and interacts, the plethora of neurochemicals it generates and dispenses. This happens as a person’s mind stimulates the release of complex chemical cocktails that can be at least if not even more powerful than opioids creating an epidemic of drug addiction throughout our society.

fMRI’s, which stands for “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” is responsible for much of what neuroscience has learned. It is in these fMRI machines that scientists and researchers can study the living brain, what areas “light up” under certain circumstances and how different parts of the brain interact with other parts. fMRI’s became a part of medical practices in the late 1990s, providing an amazing window on brain functioning that in turn has shaped and continues to shape knowledge about trauma’s impact on the brain.

When we consider brain facts that have been uncovered in recent decades, respect for the amazing complexity of the brain can be almost overwhelming. I attended a conference a few years ago that featured Dr. Bruce Perry, child psychiatrist and neuroscientist, author of hundreds of articles on trauma and neuroscience, founder of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston and creator of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. He shared the following facts about the brain:

Silhouette of a man's head. Mental health related, Scientific medical designs.

The human brain consists of about 84 billion neurons

• Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, which means the human brain has more than a trillion connections.

• There are one billion synapses in a cubic inch of brain tissue

• There are 403 billion glia cells in each brain. According to Medicine Net, glia cells differs from neurons in that they do not conduct electrical impulses but rather surround neurons and provide support for an insulation between them.

• There are 420 trillion synaptic boutons (junctions across which nerve impulses pass from axon terminals to other neurons or muscle and gland cells)

• There are 8.4 quadrillion synaptic proteins                                                         

• Per minute there are 2.5 quadrillion neuronal/brain cell interactions (electrical “conversations”) This should give us all pause as we think about how in the last minute our brain produced this astronomical amount of electrical interactions across the vast network of our billions of brain cells.

 In addition:

3D Illustration of Human Brain Neurons structure.

• The brain’s memory storage capacity is around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes).

• For a comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

There are new sciences that neuroscience has inspired:

•  epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression that looks beyond the genetic code itself

• psychoneuroimmunology – examines the interactions between the central nervous system and the immune system

• poly vagal theory – being explored by Stephen Porges that examines how the poly vagal nervous system impacts the way the body functions

•  interpersonal neurobiology – developed by Dan Siegel that considers how the brain functions as a social organ and can be impacted by mindfulness

neural plasticity – the science that looks at how the brain is capable of many changes and neurogenesis and how the brain can generate new brain cells throughout the lifespan

If you are someone interested in studying the nature of trauma, it is essential that you grow in your respect for the awesome nature of the brain, its complexity, its power to shape who a person is and how a person interacts within themselves and the world. It is only after you have this deep appreciation for the brain’s complexities that you can more fully understand the nature of trauma, which exists within the brain and is impacted by the many ways the brain functions.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. What are some of your first reactions to the scientific information about the brain contained in this blog? Do you notice your level of respect increasing? Would you even say you are now in awe of how the brain grows, develops and functions?
  2. Consider why it is essential for anyone who is a student of trauma to begin by first growing in their knowledge of and respect for neuroscience.
  3. In what ways might you enhance and increase your knowledge of and respect for the brain?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute