A 2011 study suggests there may be a connection between creativity and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research conducted by Robert Miller and David Johnson revealed PTSD correlates with a greater capacity for symbolic representation, which is necessary for artistic as well as scientific endeavors. The study compared 56 Vietnam combat veterans with 14 veterans who lacked combat exposure. Originally, Miller and Johnson thought their research would show PTSD diminished a person’s competence with manipulating symbolic material. However, when participants were asked to portray and act out an imaginal scene,
“The PTSD group when compared to the non-PTSD group were better able to represent the boundary between reality and the role-playing, to immerse themselves in the scene, to enact identifiable characters consistent with their setting, and produce complex and interactive scenes that told a coherent story. The non-PTSD ‘normal’ group in general showed more constricted, stereotyped, and unimaginative scenes, despite their higher education level and greater role-playing experience.” [Miller, R. J., & Johnson, D. R. (2011). The Capacity for Symbolization in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.]
Given that PTSD is also characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive imagery — all symbolic representations of actual events — the results of the study seem supported by what is known about the experience of PTSD: it increases the psyche’s likelihood of generating and interacting with symbolic representations. Yet why is this the case? Why does the psyche produce symbolic (and imaginal) material as a response to traumatic experiences? How could traumatic experiences increase a person’s capacity for ‘playing’ with symbolic representations?
Sigmund Freud described trauma as a breech to the natural stimulus response barrier that protects against overwhelming environmental stimuli. An event is likely experienced as overwhelming when 1) it exceeds a person’s natural capacity for processing incoming stimuli (e.g., combat or sexual assault); 2) it is unexpected and there is no time to establish alternative defenses (e.g., automobile accident or natural disaster); and 3) it is a chronic occurrence that inhibits healthy self-protection (e.g., repeated childhood abuse or neglect). When threatened, the body’s instinctual defenses become activated. Depending on the circumstances and the person, the brain becomes primed for fight, flight, or freeze response. Increased activation in the brainstem and limbic regions of the brain occurs, along with a dampening of activity in the frontal lobes, thereby reducing a person’s ability to think as the entire body becomes organized for quick reaction and basic survival.
Since thinking about the situation might slow down response time, the brain pares back its reliance on the frontal lobes during traumatic experiences. This region of the brain is also responsible for cognition, comprehension, and language processing, among other higher-level mental functions. Without their full operation, the trauma survivor is often unable to form a coherent narrative for what has occurred. What is experienced as overwhelming — be it in the form of thoughts, images, emotions, or body sensations — still registers, albeit unconsciously. These haunting remembrances of the trauma lack integration with self-narratives and memories formed when the person was not threatened or overwhelmed. They can become parts of the self split off from conscious awareness that can be triggered by stimuli in the environment reminiscent of the original trauma.
Split off aspects of traumatic experiences can haunt the survivor long after the threat has ceased. Perhaps like a toothache the tongue constantly probes, through symbolic representations such as flashbacks, fantasies, nightmares, and intrusive imagery the psyche continually searches for the split off parts of the psyche. One outcome may be the trauma survivor’s increased propensity for ‘playing’ with symbolic representations, resulting in an increased agility with imaginal material, and hence creative expression.
Having the ability to relay to others a coherent account of traumatic events can be crucial for overcoming trauma’s impact. By connecting with others and feeling supported in the wake of trauma, the sense of threat is diminished and healthy boundaries can be reestablished. Trauma by its very nature isolates a person, both from a holistic sense of self and from feeling safe in community — a common response that can ensure boundaries are not once again overwhelmed. Recovery from trauma involves both regaining aspects of self that have been lost as well as regaining connections with others. Symbolic representation may be the bridge to both.
Symbolic representation may be particularly necessary for regaining the capacity to express emotions that are avoided due to their potential for activating posttraumatic stress. Having a full emotional repertoire is important for both self-awareness and connecting meaningfully with others. The sense of self, rather than generated primarily through self-referential thoughts, is likely equally influenced by what sociologist Jonathan Turner described as the “self-feeling.” Through the continual process of tagging thoughts with emotions — thereby weighing certain experiences and relationships as more desirable, repulsive, etc., than others — a self-feeling emerges according to one’s unique emotional responses to life events. By tagging thoughts with feelings, an emotional sense of self is gained in terms of tastes, attractions, comforts, values, and the like. The splitting off of emotional experience likely contributes to the sense of meaninglessness, lost identity, and low self-esteem this is common to people suffering from PTSD. Without a felt sense of self, it is also difficult to establish a strong feeling connection with others.
Despite that returning to the social fold is what will be most healing, traumatic experiences can leave a person defended against social connection. This defensive stance mirrors the defensive reactions the trauma survivor often has towards the split off contents in the psyche. This is a posture that must be respected. As mentioned, experiences are traumatic when they threaten to overwhelm. Warding off remembrances of the trauma is a healthy strategy until the person is safe enough to comprehend in a meaningful way what caused the separation from self and others. Symbolic representations and imaginal material may be an opportunity to ‘play’ with the split off parts. Art that arises from traumatic experiences can be seen as an attempt to dialogue with isolated parts of the psyche as well as communicate to others what cannot otherwise be expressed. Through the imaginal, the trauma survivor comes nearer to what was split off, in effect ‘playing’ with what once threatened survival without risking becoming overwhelmed once again. Through symbolic representations, emotions are approached without the threat of envelopment, and the feeling tone of selfhood has an opportunity to re-emerge.