Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

Doris Brothers, author of The Shattered Self, spoke in Tampa March 10, 2012 on trauma,and briefly alluded to intergenerational transmission of trauma. I would like to elaborate on some of the neurobiological mechanisms that might illuminate how intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs. To that end, I utilize Alan Schore’s Advances in Neuropsychoanalysis, Attachment Theory, and Trauma Research: Implications for Self Psychology.(2002). Psychoanal. Inq., 22:433-484.

As we are aware from infant research and neurobiology, an infant requires the presence of an attuned other for its optimal development and to optimally organize its experience. Winnicott said there is no such thing as a baby, that is, there is a mutual (interdependence) influence (regulation) between infant and mother in which the two function as a unit, including unconscious communications that serve to develop the brain of the infant. [This bulwarks the relational theories which take psychoanalysis from a one-person (intrapsychic) to a two person (intersubjective) psychology.] The 'good enough' caregiver helps the infant maintain its homeostatic equilibrium and facilitates the emerging self. Instead of the Cartesian mind-body duality (or of self from the environment) regulation of physiological functions builds the brain (the mind, the self) in particular ways.

A mother who may herself utilize dissociation as a result of her own childhood trauma, or due to depression, may be unavailable to regulate her infant. The 'good enough' caregiver helps the immature (as yet unformed neuronal connections, and unmyelinated peripheral nerves) infant regulate through her gaze, soothing voice, etc). Ruptures in regulation affect the infant’s homeostasis, and negatively affect attachment. They may even threaten the infant’s survival. Additionally, the infant is unable to acquire experience for self regulation and restoration of its equilibrium. In an attempt to restore homeostasis, the infant must divert energy away from needed growth, development, and learning (sometimes leading to failure to thrive, to lower IQ, and lower socio-emotional learning). Because brain growth is experience-dependent, experience with dysregulation negatively impacts the developing brain, the self, and the sense of self in relation with others, particularly during the brain’s growth spurt in the first three years of life. It can lead to later psychopathology, e.g. affect dysregulation commonly found in certain psychiatric disorders.

The right hemisphere, larger in the first two years, and, more than the left, processes and stores early infant experiences. Resonant attachment experiences involve “synchronized and ordered directed flows of energy” in the primary caregiver’s brain and the infant’s brain. The right hemisphere, more than the left, also has extensive connections with the limbic system. The limbic system is the emotional processing center which helps to guide emotional expression and behavior and organize new, procedural learning. The right brain is central to “integrating and assigning emotional-motivational significance to cognitive impressions” and “the association of emotion with ideas.” The right brain, with its connections to the right prefrontal cortex, allows the sense of self continuous through time. The right hemisphere, with its bodily connections, analyzes signals from the body, and helps regulate appropriate survival mechanisms, through the autonomic nervous system (ANS)which, in turn, help maintain a cohesive sense of self.

An infant responds to traumatic chronic misattunement by hyperarousal or by dissociation. When attuned response is not forthcoming, a distressed infant initially increases its attempts (e.g. by crying) to engage the mother. Should this fail, the infant, hopeless to effect the other, conserves energy, and seems to implode, go limp, itself dissociate, becoming helpless. The ANS lends a physiological explanation for hyperarousal and subsequent hypoarousal. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work to maintain homeostasis. The sympathetic ANS prepares the body for fight-flight (increased heart rate, increase blood flow to the skeletal muscles, etc); and the parasympathetic, responding to elevations in stress-induced cortisol, is energy-conserving (going quiet, staring off in space, and becoming limp).

As Winnicott noted, “ If maternal care is not good enough, then the infant does not really come into existence, since there is no continuity in being; instead, the personality becomes built on the basis of reactions to environmental impingement.”
We know that dissociation affects one’s sense of subjectivity. A mother, or grandmother, who has suffered herself with unresolved trauma conveys her terror and dissociation to her infant via infant matching of the mother’s right corticolimbic firing patterns, inadvertently transmitting to the next generation her, or her mother’s, experience of trauma. Mother’s “regulatory strategy of dissociation is inscribed into the infant's right brain implict-procedural memory system.”

Maltreatment in childhood, then, is a growth-inhibiting environment for the developing brain and results in “structural defects of cortical-subcortical circuits of the right brain, the locus of the corporeal-emotional self.” “[D]issociation is associated with a deficiency of the right brain” and “early relational trauma is particularly expressed in right hemisphere deficits”. The untoward consequences include disorders in attachments, regulation of affect, and subjectivity and sense of self, with threats to going-on-being.

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