Dioramic visions of a forgotten past

Photo: Diorama of Gorilla in Jungle.

Do you remember childhood field trips to science museums, gazing into dioramas of our distant ancestors? Perhaps you saw artistic renditions of Homo erectus huddled around a fire, or sitting near a faux cave carving stone tools, a nod to our ancestors’ fledgling cognitive capacities and more human-like traits. Saber-tooth cats or woolly mammoths were sometimes painted on the diorama walls, a chilling reminder of the need for a cunning mind when living in a world filled with danger.

Despite their kitschy feel, dioramas have insinuated their way into our imaginations. They also prejudice our theories about human nature — or so I thought while reading Richard McNally’s book, Remembering Trauma. McNally denies any evolutionary value to forgetting trauma. On the contrary, he argues natural selection would favor remembering traumatic events. Remembering would have allowed our ancestors to anticipate potentially life-threatening circumstances. According to McNally:

One can easily imagine that natural selection would have favored a capacity to remember trauma. Our ancestors who remembered life-threatening situations they had survived would have been more likely to avoid similar dangers in the future than those who failed to remember them. Indeed, what is difficult to imagine is how something as maladaptive as a mechanism for repressing, dissociating, or otherwise forgetting trauma could possibly have evolved throughout the course of natural history. (p. 62)

Generally speaking, this is a reasonable explanation. The stress hormones released when overwhelmed by threat are the same ones that contribute to learning when stress is more manageable. Furthermore, McNally’s assumptions make perfect sense if human evolution follows a trajectory that parallels increased cognitive abilities.

However, perspective and context greatly influence what is remembered as well as what is forgotten. This point is an important one, particularly when we consider the differences between natural disasters (I’d include being eaten by a Saber-tooth cat in this category) and subjugating a child to physical or sexual abuse — for it is the latter that ignited the controversy around remembering trauma.

There is a social advantage to forgetting abuse, since often the child depends on the perpetrator for survival. Constantly remembering the abuse — and defensively reacting to a caregiver — would not be a successful survival strategy. Rather, in such circumstance forgetting abuse would be adaptive, especially if the body were able to unconsciously remember telltale signs that abuse was once again immanent, signaling the need for self-defense, even if the only defense available was to emotionally shut down. At such moments, psychological defenses like dissociation are often activated, along with unconscious body memories. Depending on the level of perceived danger, activity in the frontal lobes (responsible for thinking and creating coherent narratives of events) decreases as energy is diverted to parts of the brain necessary for implementing survival-based responses. Thus, to understand the relationship between remembering and trauma, defenses like dissociation, and the role of forgetting, must be considered.

Dissociation is a property of all mammals and likely evolved with other defenses such as freezing in the face of threat and tonic immobility (or “feigned death”) that are activated by predatory attacks. Yet dissociation is also a response to nonthreatening, albeit emotionally unpleasant situations. Mild to moderate levels of dissociation make possible continued functioning by ignoring emotional needs. Dissociation thus ranges from mild states, such as driving to work with little awareness of the morning commute, to the state of total psychological escape during life-threatening events, such as combat, rape and other brutal experiences. In severe conditions of distress, people in dissociative states may have out-of-body experiences, such as viewing an attack as if it were occurring to someone else.

According to psychiatrist Horacio Fabrega, dissociation evolved in a new direction during the Upper Paleolithic Era over 40,000 years ago, when artistic expression, protolanguage, and protoculture began to flourish throughout the world. As dependency on complex social groups became a prerequisite to survival, dissociation likely evolved into a psychopathological state and defense against social-based threats, especially threats of alienation and abandonment. For social animals, loss of connections can feel as precarious as being attacked by a predator.

Why would creativity and dissociation co-evolve, and no less, to include psychopathological states? To make sense of this connection, Fabrega looked at two experiences that are synonymous with the Western expression of dissociation: trance and possession. Fabrega described trance and possession as:

  • ways to self soothe, and
  • ways to communicate social-related distress when threatened by social alienation and vast inequities in power.

Fabrega wrote:

“States of dissociation provided inner spaces or psychological arenas in which those stresses tied to psychopathology could be worked out by channeling psychological experience in a positive, conflict-alleviating direction and by producing scenarios of behavior that communicated the distress and played out ways that were safe and culturally understandable, and capable of eliciting sympathy and support.”

Dissociation became a creative way of relaying the stress of social-based threats without directly challenging the aggressor, which could be dangerous.

When dissociation becomes a psychopathological state (or mental illness), it creates a reprieve from the obligation to prioritize social relations. Instead, the person can attend to feelings of distress, as well as hopefully discover alternative ways for adapting to a threatening world. The signs of dissociated states also communicate the need for support and opportunities to reintegrate into the group. States of dissociation can be seen as a silent plea for help by the weakest members of society. These benefits of dissociation have an implicit understanding about how best to deal with trauma: eventually, in order to move on and into something new (and hopefully better), we need to ‘forget’ trauma in the sense that we are no longer obsessively consumed by its memories, or alternatively, spending our energy trying to avoid them.  Otherwise, we risk being stuck in fear, addictions, compulsive repetitions, resentments, and sometimes, fantasies of revenge.

Even without conscious awareness, trauma survivors are remembering what happened to them, although such unconscious remembering occurs in bodies and emotions rather than thoughts. When these memories are unconsciously triggered by reminders of the traumatic past, they can lead to states of hyperarousal and high anxiety. Dissociation is one way of shutting down the experience of high arousal that often accompanies unconsciously remembering a traumatic past.

One of the primary stages of healing from a childhood history of abuse involves actively remembering the past, making sense of it, and mourning the losses that are an inevitable aspect of all types of traumas. At this stage, there is a need to remember what happened, although preferably after the body has “forgotten” its well-worn reactions to traumatic reminders. Once the body forgets the trauma, a sense of calmness and resilience can become a new norm. The present moment more often becomes the focus, and with this change, opportunities for growth and joy recommence. I believe this is just the kind of forgetting we evolved to have around trauma — a forgetting that relinquishes ties to a troubled past.


Fabrega, Horacio. 2002. Origins of Psychopathology: The Phylogenetic and Cultural Basis of Mental Illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

McNally, Richard J. 2003. Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


  1. Mette says:

    when we dissociate do we then forget what happened 100 % like it never existed? Or does dissociation mean that we just avoid thoughts about what happened? If you ask a person, who is dissociating, about the abuse he went through will he be able to remember it or does he literally forget everything? I hope I’m making myself clear, English is not my first language,

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      These are really interesting questions. For some people, they do completely “forget” the traumatic event. For example, someone might be in a car wreck, and remember one moment they were driving and the next moment they are in the hospital, and not remember anything about the accident.

      For other people, they know the traumatic event happened, but perhaps only remember a small bit of the entire event.

      Still others, especially people with histories of chronic childhood abuse, or who were exposed to ongoing atrocities like war, may only remember one or two particular incidents of abuse or violence, yet nevertheless know what occurred was ongoing.

      Some lack any conscious recollections, especially if the trauma occurred when they were very young, but nevertheless get triggered by sights, smells, sounds, even emotions that on an unconscious level are associated with the early life trauma.

      And yes, people do avoid reminders of traumatic events, including avoiding thoughts, sensations, or emotions that might bring up memories of a past traumatic event. And dissociation plays a central role in this process.

      A good way of approaching the topic of dissociation is through the nature of memory. If you are interested, visit the link below. It will connect you to a post I wrote about how the brain responds to traumatic events. Our brains function differently when we feel under threat, and this impacts both how we remember and what we can remember.


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