“Being Human” from a trauma-informed perspective

Photo: "Being Human" Sign at the 2012 Event.
Photo: “Being Human” Sign at the 2012 Event.

I spent Saturday, March 24 at the Being Human 2012 conference with over 900 people who, like me, are preoccupied with the question, What does it mean to be human? Scientists, scholars, and artists addressed four areas where human experience is being redefined:

• Perception | Sensations
• Mental + Self-Representations | Decision Making
• Individual + Society | Morals + Culture
• Conscious Experience

Given my current focus, I was looking for how the ideas shared at the conference related to the biological, cultural & psychological impact of trauma. We can’t understand what it means to be human without also looking at how we deal with threats to our survival. While the focus of Being Human 2012 was not this darker side of human nature, I nevertheless saw many connections that suggested the human response to trauma is not an outlier on the spectrum of human experience, but rather exists on a continuum with our more integrated and compassionate moments. Here are just a few connections:

  • Harvard psychologist Richie Davidson identified the ability to envision alternative ways of being in the world as a uniquely human trait. I agree. We are a migratory species, and our capacity for imagining alternative worlds has allowed us to alter our environments to fit our needs (and whims), as well as move on to richer resources when old habitats no longer suit us (or disappear due to climatic changes). However, the story of human survival is also a tale of love. We need our attachments and emotional bonds to keep us alive. When love is not forthcoming, the imagination sometimes creates the sense of connection that is longed for. I have written about the power of longing and the role of fantasy for people whose childhoods involved emotional neglect. Longing is also a central aspect of bereavement. Although fantasies can sometimes distance the pain of longing, they can also interfere with connecting meaningfully with one’s self, others, and precious Earth. I wonder: Rather than surviving drastic climate changes (and inventing stone tools), was the impetus for our well-honed imaginative skills the need to keep a sense of attachment alive in the face of death, abuse, or neglect, as well as across distances? (Farfetched, maybe. But I am optimistic about the power of love.)
  • Neuroscientist and artist Beau Lotto (and “Head Misfit” at Lotto Lab) gave a convincing argument for why perception is the basis of our humanity. Lotto shared pictures of optical illusions to support his point that when it comes to perception, information is entirely meaningless. Instead, all we ever see are the meanings we derive from our perceptions. (For an example used in his presentation, visit the Rubix Cube on the Lotto Lab website.) Consequently, all perception is riddled with uncertainty–there are no “truths” when it comes to what we perceive–and the best we can do is have compassion with ourselves and others as we go about the world creating meaning. Lotto concluded his talk by saying, “Either there are no illusions or everything is illusion, so you might as well chose your delusion.” His chosen “delusion” is compassion, which he thinks is best served by the practice of observing ourselves as we create meaning from our perceptions. Interestingly, a similar approach can reduce traumatic stress responses. So-called “flashbacks” of traumatic events are often sparked by visual perceptions, but they can also be ignited by smells, body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and memories. Mindful awareness of the body’s response to trauma– “seeing yourself as you see” –allows for new interpretations of past events and a greater sense of compassion with oneself for the powerful “delusions” triggered by reminders of traumatic experiences. The ability to witness one’s efforts at meaning making rather than continually reacting to traumatic memories (and meanings) requires being more compassionate with oneself. And as we know, with greater compassion with ourselves, comes greater compassion for others.
  • Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran shared how he and his colleagues are using a simple “$2 mirror” to end phantom limb pain as well as restore movement to paralyzed limbs. They call their work “Mirror Visual Feedback,” which creates the visual illusion of a healthy limb in the place of an injured or phantom limb. Based on changes in his patients, Ramachandran concluded the brain can unlearn “learned” pain and immobility when the brain “perceives” the injured limb as healthy. Ramachandran’s Mirror Visual Feedback reminded me of ideas first introduced by psychiatrist Pierre Janet about how the body remembers traumatic events. According to Janet, stored with memories of a traumatic event are actions that the body wanted to enact (e.g., fight), yet because of the need to submit to terrifying circumstances in order to survive, they were not performed. As a result, there are what sensorimotor psychotherapists describe as “acts of triumph” stored within the body (and brain) that the trauma survivor needs to complete to fully integrate traumatic memories and thus end “phantom” reminders of the traumatic event.

    Photo: "Mirror Virtual Feedback" Slide Shown By Dr. Ramachandran.
    Photo: “Mirror Virtual Feedback” Slide Shown By Dr. Ramachandran.

These are just a few of the connections that could be made between the topics discussed at Being Human 2012 and the universal aspects of the human response to trauma. A Being Human 2013 is in the works, and hopefully the significance of trauma for defining what it means to be human will be on the agenda.

Below is Tiffany Shlain’s crowdsourced short film and touching vision of our shared humanity, Declaration of Interdependence, that she shared at the conference.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.