[Content note: discussion of trauma, child and sexual abuse, sexual violence, lack of self-worth, dissociation, PTSD, flashbacks, DID, personality disorders; some mildly graphic examples of abuse and trauma mentioned in text form]

I have spent over two years doing emotional support for people who had survived long-term childhood trauma, and in these cases spawning agents to deal with unbearable suffering while having no escape from it is basically a standard reaction that the brain/mind takes. The relevant psychiatric diagnosis is DID (formerly MPD, multiple personality disorder). In these cases the multiple agents often manifest very clearly and distinctly. It is tempting to write it off as a special case that does not apply in the mainstream, yet I have seen more than once the progression from someone suffering from CPTSD to a full-blown DID. The last thing that happens is that the person recognizes that they "switch" between personalities. Often way later than when others notice it, if they know what to look for. After gaining some experience chatting with those who survived severe prolonged trauma, I started recognizing subtler signs of "switching" in myself and others. This switching between agents (I would not call them sub-agents, as they are not necessarily less than the "main", and different "mains" often take over during different parts of the person's life) while a normal way to operate, as far as I can tell, almost never rises to the level of conscious awareness, as the brain carefully constructs the lie of single identity for as long as it can.

-- shminux

As the above comment suggests, the appearance of something like distinct subagents is particularly noticeable in people with heavy trauma, DID being the most extreme example.

This post will interpret the appearance of subagents as emerging from unintegrated memory networks, and argue that - as shminux suggests - the presence of these is a matter of degree. There’s a continuous progression of fragmented (dissociated) memory networks giving arise to increasingly worse symptoms as the degree of fragmentation grows. The continuum goes from everyday procrastination and akrasia on the “normal” end, to disrupted and dysfunctional beliefs on the middle, and conditions like clinical PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder on the severely traumatized end.

I will also argue that emotional work and exploring one's past traumas in order to heal them, is necessary for effective instrumental and epistemic rationality.

This post is largely based on what I understand to be relatively standard trauma theory (e.g. van der Kolk, 2014; Shapiro, 2017; Baldwin, 2013; Schauer & Elbert, 2010; Forgash & Copeley, 2007) and should not contain any particularly novel or original claims, except maybe for drawing some connections to topics and framings which I have been discussing previously in my sequence.

Emotional regulation as an approach-avoid tradeoff

In Building up to an Internal Family Systems model, I talked about “protector” subagents (subdivided into managers and firefighters), whose purpose was to keep negative emotions and memories (“exile” subagents) out of consciousness. If they predicted that entering some situation would trigger a negative memory, then they would try to prevent the person from going to that situation, because a situation triggering a negative memory correlates with such situations being dangerous. Thus, my explanation suggested that the only purpose of protectors was to keep a person out of concrete danger.

However, something like protectors is also a necessary component for emotional regulation. There are a number of difficult tradeoffs implied by the following facts:

  • In detecting possible threats, it is usually better to err on the side of too many false positives. Mistaking a tree branch for a snake is less costly than mistaking a snake for a tree branch.
  • At the same time, false positives which trigger automatic fight-or-flight-or-freeze responses do also have a cost; once an alarm has been shown to be false, there need to be mechanisms for winding it down.
  • Sometimes a situation is dangerous and unpleasant and costly, and going into it is what you need to do anyway. There has to be a mechanism for overriding the alarms when it is necessary.
  • A special case of this is when trying to flee a dangerous situation is by itself dangerous. If you’re wounded and there’s an enemy nearby, you may have better odds trying to play dead than running away. You may also be someone’s slave with poor chances of escaping. For those cases, you need a mechanism specifically for shutting down the fight-or-flight response.
  • At the same time, an organism which had too easy of a time overriding its alarms would not take them sufficiently seriously, and would be killed or otherwise hurt by constantly going into dangerous situations and not trying to escape them.

In humans as well as other mammals, brain areas controlling evolutionarily ancient defense state responses become active when danger is detected. While the “higher” cognitive functions of the frontal cortex are to some extent capable of regulating these emotional responses when they are mild, the emotional brain can and will override the frontal cortex in dangerous situations. In situations of sufficient distress, rational thinking and the ability to regulate emotional responses shut down entirely.

Furthermore, sensory inputs are constantly scanned by the amygdala for patterns which have been associated with danger in the past. The time it takes for the amygdala to process inputs is shorter than the time it takes for them to reach consciousness, and the amygdala may trigger an emotional response before higher cognitive systems even become aware of the situation.

Thus, if the emotional brain detects something it considers threatening enough, it will react, regardless of whether or not the cognitive brain considers it a good idea. If particular cues tend to co-occur with particularly serious danger states reliably enough, then the brain will build up an associative network where detecting any of those cues will automatically trigger threat responses, with no opportunity for cognitive overrides. This can become a serious problem for normal functioning, as any of the cues in the fear network may trigger an emergency response, even in completely harmless situations.

Example trauma network (Schauer & Elbert 2010).

Many of the elements of the pictured trauma network - neighbors, motorbikes, the smell of alcohol - are ones that would ordinarily have plenty of connections to other concepts in daily life. In order to prevent extreme responses, the associative network related to the trauma needs to be compartmentalized and isolated from the rest of a person’s memory networks, or risk anything activating the network and triggering an emergency response.

Thus, the role of protectors is not just to avoid situations which would be actively dangerous: they also need to manipulate the contents of consciousness so as to avoid triggering the trauma network otherwise.

Even if someone’s life circumstances have changed, and the original situation which created the trauma is no longer an active issue (such as if someone is an adult and has moved away from their abusive parents), the trauma network may remain too strongly charged to allow its contents to be reprocessed. Reprocessing would require the use of higher cognitive functions to put the experiences in a new context, but any activation of the network will trigger an immediate emergency response, shutting down those very cognitive functions. In such a situation, all that protectors can do is to try to bury the network and suppress all memories related to it. To rephrase that in less intentional language, the brain’s Turing machine may come to learn that suppressing particular memories produces beneficial results, reinforcing the behavior.

Memory loss has been reported in people who have experienced natural disasters, accidents, war trauma, kidnapping, torture, concentration camps, and physical and sexual abuse. Total memory loss is most common in childhood sexual abuse, with incidence ranging from 19 percent to 38 percent. This issue is not particularly controversial: As early as 1980 the DSM-III recognized the existence of memory loss for traumatic events in the diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia: “an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by normal forgetfulness.” Memory loss has been part of the criteria for PTSD since that diagnosis was first introduced.
One of the most interesting studies of repressed memory was conducted by Dr. Linda Meyer Williams, which began when she was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. Williams interviewed 206 girls between the ages of ten and twelve who had been admitted to a hospital emergency room following sexual abuse. Their laboratory tests, as well as the interviews with the children and their parents, were kept in the hospital’s medical records. Seventeen years later Williams was able to track down 136 of the children, now adults, with whom she conducted extensive follow-up interviews. More than a third of the women (38 percent) did not recall the abuse that was documented in their medical records, while only fifteen women (12 percent) said that they had never been abused as children. More than two-thirds (68 percent) reported other incidents of childhood sexual abuse. Women who were younger at the time of the incident and those who were molested by someone they knew were more likely to have forgotten their abuse. (van der Kolk, 2014)

However, as I will soon discuss, a downside of this process is that the more that associative networks get disconnected from each other, the less consistent a person’s responses to different situations become. If a person is drawing on different memories in different situations, then in some situations they may seem like an entirely different person than in others. Another way of framing is that, if we define a subagent as decision-making entity that has access to its own set of beliefs and goals, then different subagents are in control at different times.

A few words on the “memory wars”

This post discusses suppressing traumatic memories, drawing on the theories of clinical practitioners, who have disagreements with clinical researchers about whether memory suppression is a thing (Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, & Loftus, 2014).

Much of the criticism about repressed memories is aimed at a specific concept from Freudian theory, and/or on the question of how reliable therapeutically recovered memories are. Several of the critics (e.g. (Rofé, 2008)) acknowledge that people may suppress or intentionally forget painful memories, but argue that this is distinct from the Freudian concept of repression. However, memory suppression in the sense discussed in this post is not related to the Freudian concept, and also includes intentional attempts to forget or avoid thinking about something, as the examples will hopefully demonstrate.

In fact, the memories being hard to forget is exactly the problem, which is something that many critics of the standard Freudian paradigm are keen to point out - traumatic memories are often particularly powerful and long-lasting.

I do make the assumption that conscious attempts to forget something may eventually become sufficiently automated so as to become impossible for the person themselves to notice; but this seems like a straightforward inference from the observation that skills and habits in general can become automated enough so as to happen without the person realizing what they are doing. A recent experiment (unreplicated, but I have a reasonably high prior for cognitive psychology experiments replicating) also showed that once people are trained to intentionally forget words that are associated with a particular cue, the cue will reduce recall of words even when it is paired with them in a form that is too short to consciously register (Salvador et al. 2018).

I make no strong claims about the reliability of memories recovered in therapy. It has been clearly demonstrated that it is possible for therapists to accidentally or intentionally implant false memories, but there have also been cases of people recovering memories which have then been confirmed from other sources. Probably some recovered memories are genuine (though possibly distorted) and some are not.

Mild disconnection: unintegrated considerations and ugh fields

In my previous post, I mentioned the hypothesis (Shadlen & Shohamy, 2016) that in choosing between several options, we sample memories related to our past experiences with those options. This sampling may draw from several memory networks, located in physically distinct areas in the brain. I also mentioned how particularly negative memories or consideration may draw one’s attention, so as to make it hard to integrate those concerns with the concerns in other networks. And in Integrating disagreeing subagents, I talked about how akrasia might be interpreted in terms of conflicting and unintegrated beliefs pulling in opposite directions.

In the very mildest form, there isn’t necessarily any trauma at all: just two different associative networks pointing in opposite directions, with concerns that have not been integrated. This might cause different kinds of behavior in different situations, depending on which network happens to become activated. However, once the discrepancy is detected, integration may happen automatically or assisted in a relatively straightforward fashion with techniques such as IDC.

The next level is when a concern is not serious, but still feels somewhat unpleasant to think about - the territory of everyday ugh fields:

For example, suppose that you started off in life with a wandering mind and were punished a few times for failing to respond to official letters. Your TDL algorithm began to propagate the pain back to the moment you looked at an official letter or bill. As a result, you would be less effective than average at responding, so you got punished a few more times. Henceforth, when you received a bill, you got the pain before you even opened it, and it laid unpaid on the mantelpiece until a Big Bad Red late payment notice with an $25 fine arrived. More negative conditioning. Now even thinking about a bill, form or letter invokes the flinch response, and your lizard brain has fully cut you out out. You find yourself spending time on internet time-wasters, comfort food, TV, computer games, etc. Your life may not obviously be a disaster, but this is only because you can't see the alternative paths that it could have taken if you had been able to take advantage of the opportunities that came as letters and forms with deadlines.
The subtlety with the Ugh Field is that the flinch occurs before you start to consciously think about how to deal with the Unhappy Thing, meaning that you never deal with it, and you don't even have the option of dealing with it in the normal run of things.

As the post notes, your brain is automatically trying to avoid thinking about things which would trigger the “ugh”. (I’ve certainly noticed in myself a tendency to just conveniently forget about lots of mildly unpleasant things I should get around doing.) Plans which would involve engaging the ugh are ranked low in your preference ordering so are never even generated as options. Except that some of your networks do know that you need to engage with the ugh eventually, so they keep annoyingly reminding you about it whenever something happens to activate them.

Assuming that the ughs are something that you do need to deal with, that is. They could also be something else, such as past upsets and embarrassments that you would prefer to forget, and then keep pushing away until nothing reminds you of them anymore. In that case, the memory network might be successfully locked away and compartmentalized - but still exerting a subtle influence in the form of the now-automated mental motions aimed at making sure that it remains hidden. Those same motions would also prevent the beliefs associated with it from coming up and being re-evaluated.

A relevant question here is: if a negative memory is suppressed from consciousness, to what extent does it influence decision-making? After all, one might think that if it remains suppressed, then it should not have any effect. But it seems likely that even if the memory itself does not influence decision-making, the hoops that the brain has learned to jump through to keep it suppressed do affect one’s decisions. (Under a subagent framing, those hoops in question would be thought of as a protector.)

To take a minor example not involving memory suppression, for some reason I did not learn to tie my shoelaces as a child. Instead I just used shoes which did not have laces. After a while, it became kind of embarrassing to not know how to do that, so I developed an identity and preference for using shoes without laces. This lasted well into adulthood, despite the fact it would have been pretty trivial for me to just finally learn how to do it. Yet the thought of asking someone to teach me would have felt embarrassing, so my brain continued using the structures it had developed for avoiding shoelaces. Even if I had somehow suppressed the knowledge of these structures existing because of my embarrassment - something of which I was on some level aware all the time - I very much doubt that that alone would have changed the structures, or reduced my resistance to using shoelaces. It might plausibly even have made things worse, as I would no longer even realize that my identity was a justification constructed to guard against embarrassment. (Eventually I looked up a YouTube video called something like “easiest way of teaching your child to tie their shoelaces” and figured it out.)

Eliezer says that “If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy” - maintaining one incorrect justification for your behavior may require your brain to contort itself to quite a lot of weird shapes. We all probably know examples of people who seem reasonable and rational on most issues, but then on some they are oddly forceful about their positions, or otherwise do not quite seem to be thinking clearly. (But that’s just other people being irrational, of course. We would never do such a thing.)

A “big T” trauma (Criterion A event necessary to diagnose PTSD), such as rape, sexual molestation, or combat experience, clearly has an impact on its victims in terms of how they behave, think, and feel about themselves, and in their susceptibility to pronounced symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts. These victims will have self-attributions such as “I’m powerless,” “I’m worthless,” or “I’m not in control.” Of course, clients who have not experienced such traumas may also have dominant negative self-attributions, such as “I’m worthless,” “I’m powerless,” or “I’m going to be abandoned.” Many of these clients seem to have derived their negative self-statements from early childhood experiences. [...] Like “big T” trauma victims, they see the event, feel it, and are profoundly affected by it.
Such clients were not, of course, blown up in a minefield or molested by a parent. Nevertheless, a memory of something that was said or that happened to them is locked in their brain and seems to have an effect similar to that of a traumatic experience. In fact, by dictionary definition, any event that has had a lasting negative effect on the self or psyche is by its nature “traumatic.” Consequently, these ubiquitous adverse life events have long been referred to in EMDR practice as “small t” traumas to keep in mind the nature of their impact [...]. A wide range of adverse life experiences can be the basis of pathology, because of their emotional impact. For instance, while being humiliated in grade school cannot be designated a “trauma” for the diagnosis of PTSD, on an emotional level, such an event can be considered the evolutionary equivalent of being cut out of the herd. The impact can be affectively devastating, with long-lasting effects. (Shapiro, 2017)

Moderate disconnection: unintegrated core beliefs

Sometimes a belief network is in some sense too central to just be pushed away: life circumstances force it to be active despite being negatively laden, but that negativity also prevents it from being integrated with other networks. Beliefs about ourselves are a particularly common candidate for this category.

Imagine that a little girl is walking beside her father and reaches up for his hand. At that moment the father deliberately or inadvertently swings his arm back and hits the child in the face. The child experiences intense negative affect, which might be verbalized as “I can’t get what I want; there is something wrong with me.” [...] The affect, perhaps intense feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness, and the images, sounds, and the pain of the blow are stored in the child’s nervous system. This experience becomes a touchstone, a primary self-defining event in her life; in the Adaptive Information Processing model we call it a node. [...] the next event that represents a similar rejection is likely to link up with the node in the ongoing creation of a neuro network that will be pivotal to the girl’s definition of her self-worth. Subsequent experiences of rejection by mother, siblings, friends, and others may all link up with the node in channels of associated information. Even before language is adequately developed, all the different childhood experiences containing similar feelings of powerlessness, despair, and inadequacy are stored as information linking into a memory network organized around the node of the earlier touchstone experience. Positive experiences are not assimilated into the network because the node is defined by the negative affect.
When there is sufficient language to formulate a self-concept, such as “I can’t get what I want; there is something wrong with me,” verbalization is linked associatively with the network by the affect that the meaning of those words engenders. In essence, once the affect-laden verbal conceptualization is established in the neuro network, it can be viewed as generalizing to each of the subsequent experiences stored as information in the network. The process continues in adolescence, such as when, for instance, the girl in our example experiences a rejection by a teacher or a boyfriend. Thus, all subsequent related events may link to the same node point and take on the attributions of the initial experience. Therefore, the assessment associated with such an event is not limited to a function-specific statement (e.g., “I can’t get what I want in this instance”), but is linked to the dysfunctional generalized statement “I can’t get what I want; there is something wrong with me.”
What happens when the girl reaches adulthood and something happens that seems like—or even threatens to become—a rejection? This new information is assimilated into the neuro network, and the concept “I can’t get what I want; there is something wrong with me” and its affect generalize and become associated with it. Over time, the accumulated related events produce a self-fulfilling prophecy; thus, any hint or chance of rejection can trigger the neuro network with its dominant cognition of “There is something wrong with me.” This person’s consequent behavior and attributions in the present are dysfunctional because what motivates and fuels them is the intense affect, fear, pain, and powerlessness of that first experience, now compounded by all of the subsequent experiences. (Shapiro, 2017)

Despite the prevalence of the negative affect, there is still a strong need to push it away, in order to be able to function normally and experience positive feelings. This leads to something like unstable fluctuation of at least two distinct memory networks taking turns being active. One is loaded with all the negative examples, while another might contain all the positive ones which have not been successfully integrated into the negative ones.

Also, the person in question might understand on an intellectual level that there is nothing actually wrong with them, that this is a negative cognition created by trauma, and so on… but this belief also resides in its own network, separate from the one which is causing the negative experience.


The examples so far have largely assumed that one is capable of somehow - in principle at least - avoiding the unpleasant situation or trigger. But what if one is not?

While “fight or flight” are the most commonly known defensive reactions, there are actually several defensive states. Exactly how many and how they should be classified is somewhat disputed, but one model has the following in increasing order of threat imminence: freeze-alert (stopping still and paying attention when noticing something potentially threatening), fight, flight, freeze-fright (if the fight and flight options are unviable), and collapse (feigning death):

A simple thought experiment illustrates these five defensive options. Imagine that you surprise a large bear while alone in the wilderness. Your immediate stillness is the freeze-alert state. If the bear moves off, you can return home with an exciting story for your family. If the bear approaches, your danger deepens. Neither flight nor fight offers a viable option in this and many other cases of extreme threat, where active defenses increase the risk of death. The best option here is freeze-fright, although your chances are slim unless a hunter is nearby. Finally, when the bear has you in its mouth, you are out of options. You go limp in a state of collapse [...] Collapse reduces the likelihood of continued violence, while preparing the individual for injury or death (release of endogenous opioids decreases pain; [...]). Immobility is the most effective response during attack because quiescence eliminates auditory and visual cues that elicit or maintain aggression. All of these defense states survive in us from our evolutionary past because each has enhanced the odds of survival. (Baldwin 2013)

Dissociation” is a broad term with several meanings; in reference to states of consciousness in particular, it refers to states such as ones in which a person feels detached from the world, up to the point of their experiences feeling unreal, them being unable to see or hear anything, or feeling like they are someone else and watching events which are happening to some stranger.

Schauer & Elbert (2010) conceptualize dissociative states of consciousness as ones which are related to the freeze and collapse stages of the defensive progression. In global workspace terms, one might frame it as a workspace state which helps - as a part of a wider physiological shutdown - prevent the kinds of more active defensive responses which would put the person in more danger. Many rape and abuse victims describe having had dissociative episodes during their experience.

The milder, non-pathological forms of dissociative states include e.g. daydreaming, which may help keep the person still in situations such as boring lectures with obligatory attendance, suppressing desires to move elsewhere. The more serious forms may kick in during e.g. repeated abuse a person does not have a chance to escape from, and to protect against memories of such incidents. (Schauer & Elbert also hypothesize that forms of self-harm, such as cutting, may act as ways to self-regulate by escalating one’s defensive state to one of shutdown, calming down stressful memories and responses.)

If someone is forced to live with their abuser, dissociation may help them remain functional in the abuser’s presence rather than trying to uselessly flee; as dissociative states frequently involve memory deficits, this may further lead to fragmented memory networks.

Extreme disconnection: PTSD, personality disorders, DID

An extreme case of incomplete memory suppression is PTSD, where the trauma network may be so intense as to completely overwhelm the person whenever it is activated. As a result, cognitive analysis may shut down whenever the network is triggered. The person may become completely flooded with the memory, to the point of reliving it as if they were experiencing the event again.

Because the overwhelm is so strong, they may afterwards have little memory of what even happened - the cognitive shutdown may suppress the ability to form new memories of the event or to express it in language, leaving the experience completely in a world of its own.
The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed. [...]
… many people may not be aware of the connection between their “crazy” feelings and reactions and the traumatic events that are being replayed. They have no idea why they respond to some minor irritation as if they were about to be annihilated. Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse that the trauma itself. A traumatic event has a beginning and an end—at some point it is over. But for people with PTSD a flashback can occur at any time, whether they are awake or asleep. There is no way of knowing when it’s going to occur again or how long it will last. People who suffer from flashbacks often organize their lives around trying to protect against them. They may compulsively go to the gym to pump iron (but finding that they are never strong enough), numb themselves with drugs, or try to cultivate an illusory sense of control in highly dangerous situations (like motorcycle racing, bungee jumping, or working as an ambulance driver). Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary. (van der Kolk 2014)

There is debate about whether or not DID is a real phenomenon. I do not have the expertise to have a strong opinion on this, but to the extent that it is, it could be considered a more extreme version of the dissociative responses described in the previous sections. Forced to live for an extended time in extreme circumstances with contradictory demands - such as being required to be happy and obedient while also being the subject of regular extreme abuse - a child may develop extreme amnesiac walls between different memory networks, to the point of having an entirely different personality depending on which network happens to be active. This allows for feelings of fear or panic that would otherwise arise in the company of an abusive parent, to be kept away as the memories associated with the abuse cannot be accessed.

Several clinicians also consider borderline personality disorder to be a PTSD-like response to trauma, with symptoms such as extreme fears of abandonment, alternation between idealization and devaluation, and poor emotional regulation being caused by the kinds of mechanisms that I have been describing.

In cases of sufficient trauma, an extreme form of dissociation seems to happen, where protectors extensively shut down access to bodily sensations and emotional awareness, turning off any systems which might cause emotional reactions that would be too strong for the system to handle:

While Sherry dutifully came to every appointment and answered my questions with great sincerity, I did not feel we were making the sort of vital connection that is necessary for therapy to work. Struck by how frozen and uptight she was, I suggested that she see Liz, a massage therapist I had worked with previously. During their first meeting Liz positioned Sherry on the massage table, then moved to the end of the table and gently held Sherry’s feet. Lying there with her eyes closed, Sherry suddenly yelled in a panic: “Where are you?” Somehow Sherry had lost track of Liz, even though Liz was right there, with her hands on Sherry’s feet.
Sherry was one of the first patients who taught me about the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience. [...] Once I was alerted to this, I was amazed to discover how many of my patients told me they could not feel whole areas of their bodies. Sometimes I’d ask them to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands. Whether it was a car key, a quarter, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding—their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working. [...]
In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive. (van der Kolk, 2014)

Takeaway: emotional healing as a prerequisite for rationality

In this post, I have covered ways in which painful experiences - anything from “big-T Trauma” to mildly unpleasant thoughts - seem to shape our thinking. Everyone has a built-in desire to avoid painful thoughts and experiences, which reinforces cognitive patterns aimed at keeping those kinds of thoughts hidden and buried. Often this is functional, as keeping them suppressed allows us to remain more functional in situations where it would not be useful for old and non-relevant memories to come up, causing fear and avoidance responses when we need to be doing something else.

At the same, these kinds of processes control that which we can think; and as they become automated, they nudge our reasoning to take weird contortions, keeping our belief networks fragmented and our behavior less than coherent, operating in ways that keep themselves hidden. They also limit us with regard to instrumental rationality, as options which we could otherwise have taken - anything from wearing particular kinds of shoes to taking up new careers which challenge our chosen identities - are judged as categorically unacceptable.

To actually change your mind, you need to be able to dig up and address your past traumas. Fortunately, there are various tools available for that purpose.


Baldwin, D. V. (2013). Primitive mechanisms of trauma response: an evolutionary perspective on trauma-related disorders. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), 1549–1566.

Forgash, C., & Copeley, M. (Eds.). (2007). Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy (1 edition). Springer Publishing Company.

Patihis, L., Ho, L. Y., Tingen, I. W., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Loftus, E. F. (2014). Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory. Psychological Science, 25(2), 519–530.

Rofé, Y. (2008). Does Repression Exist? Memory, Pathogenic, Unconscious and Clinical Evidence. Review of General Psychology: Journal of Division 1, of the American Psychological Association, 12(1), 63–85.

Salvador, A., Berkovitch, L., Vinckier, F., Cohen, L., Naccache, L., Dehaene, S., & Gaillard, R. (2018). Unconscious memory suppression. Cognition, 180, 191–199.

Schauer, M., & Elbert, T. (2010). Dissociation Following Traumatic Stress. Swiss Journal of Psychology: Official Publication of the Swiss Psychological Society Schweizerische Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie = Revue Suisse de Psychologie, 218(2), 109–127.

Shadlen, M. N., & Shohamy, D. (2016). Decision Making and Sequential Sampling from Memory. Neuron, 90(5), 927–939.

Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (Third edition). The Guilford Press.

van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (1 edition). Viking.

New Comment
4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I find the existence of a "big T" vs. "little T" trauma distinction interesting. To me it suggests a kind of desire to moralize trauma, as if some of these are the real traumas that matter and these other ones are the made up ones that don't really matter. But the finding seems to be that there is no difference between them to the person who experiences them; the distinction is one to make us feel better about saying getting picked last in gym is functionally the same as being molested if we react to those situations in the same way. As the patient we may feel bad about comparing our "little" trauma to a "big" trauma that others agree is morally bad whereas ours was morally less bad and want to reject even the implied equivalency of using similar techniques to resolve both. But our brains don't seem to be able to tell these apart or care about the moral aspect, so at least from the perspective of treatment it makes a lot of sense to consider them the same.

I've often thought of dissociation as an extreme form of unblending, and basically find myself in a dissociative state when I unblend from everything (I think there's a name for this state in IFS). I consider it an exceedingly useful move to be able to control and work with dissociating. I recall someone on the Tim Ferriss Podcast (maybe Jocko Willinck) talking about mastering dissociation as a tool to use in a firefight, to dissociate from the immediate feelings of the battle and be able to get a broad overview of the troop positions and movement in a battle. I've used it in a similar way in the context of rationality - dissociating from my immediate feelings in a situation, to get a more objective sense of what's going on.

From this perspective, dissociation isn't the thing to get rid of when healing trauma, as that would be discarding a useful skill. Instead, the thing to get rid of is your need to be in either a dissociated or associated state in any given situation.

I just got around to reading this; thank you for writing it!

I hadn't thought much about the role of memory in trauma and emotional stuff until pretty recently, possibly based on some kind of present-moment-experience-focused thing I inherited from circling culture. But my experiences using the bio-emotive framework were memory-based in a really important way, and reading this helped something click into place for me about integration being literally integration of memory networks, parts as memory networks, etc.

Using bio-emotive to examine the relationship between an emotional reaction I'm having now and a related memory has given the phrase "being present" a meaning it didn't have for me before; often when we aren't present it's because we're in a real sense in the past, possibly way back in the past depending on what memories are being activated.

Using bio-emotive to examine the relationship between an emotional reaction I'm having now and a related memory has given the phrase "being present" a meaning it didn't have for me before; often when we aren't present it's because we're in a real sense in the past, possibly way back in the past depending on what memories are being activated.

This reminded me of this bit (not sure if I agree with all of it, but it's an interesting perspective):

The purpose of memory is not to maintain veridical records of the past so much as to guide future behaviour on the basis of past experience. The purpose of learning is, in a word, to shape predictions, predictive models of reality, predictive models of how we can meet our needs in the world.

That is why memory functions implicitly for the most part; it serves no useful purpose to be consciously aware of the past basis of your present actions, so long as the actions in question bring about the predicted (desired) outcomes. In fact, conscious reflection upon an automatised motor programme undermines the intended behaviour because it destabilises the underlying programme. It becomes necessary to bring past experience to consciousness only when predicted outcomes fail to materialise, when prediction error occurs. Friston (2010) calls this “surprise.” Prediction error renders the basis of present actions salient again – and deserving of attention (of consciousness) once more – precisely because the prediction that was generated by the past learning episode is now in need of revision. [...]

Biologically successful memories are reliable predictive algorithms – what Helmholtz (1866) called “unconscious inferences.” There is no need for them to be conscious. In fact, as soon as they become conscious they no longer deserve to be called memories, because at that point they become labile again. This seems to be what Freud had in mind when he famously declared that “consciousness arises instead of a memory-trace” (Freud 1920, p. 25). The two states – consciousness and memory – are mutually incompatible with each other. They cannot arise from the same neural assemblage at the same time. [...]

...the affective core of consciousness attributes meaning to experience, within a biological scale of values: “Is this new experience (this surprise), good or bad for my survival and reproductive success, and therefore, how do I respond to it?” The affective basis of consciousness explains why it (consciousness) is required to solve the biobehavioural problem of meeting our needs in unpredicted (or unpredictable) situations, and why it is superfluous in relation to successful predictive algorithms. [...]

Unconscious cognitive processes do not consist only in viable predictive algorithms. Although it is true that the ultimate aim of learning is the generation of perfect predictive models – a state of affairs in which there is no need for consciousness (Nirvana) – the complexity of life is such that this ideal is unattainable. Real life teems with uncertainty and surprise, and therefore with consciousness. That is to say, it teems with unsolved problems. As a result, we frequently have to automatise less-than-perfect predictive algorithms so that we can get on with the job of living, considering the limited capacity of consciousness (Bargh 2014). Many behavioural programmes therefore have to be automatised – rendered unconscious – before they adequately predict how to meet our needs in the world. This applies especially to predictions generated in childhood, when it is impossible for us to achieve the things we want – when there is so much about reality that we cannot master.

The consequently rampant necessity for premature automatisation is, I believe, the basis of what Freud called “repression.” I hope this makes clear why repressed memories are always threatening to return to consciousness. They do not square with reality. They give rise to constant “surprise,” for example, in the transference. I hope this also clarifies why the repressed part of the unconscious is the part of the mind that most urgently demands reconsolidation, and therefore most richly rewards psychotherapeutic attention.

-- Mark Solms. Reconsolidation: Turning consciousness into memory. Commentary on Lane et al. (2015).