Dissociation – Association Part 2
Is dissociation both a defense system and a lack of learned skills of association?
Most things I read about dissociation is about how it is/can become a maladaptive coping strategy and later a defense system to handle trauma (or possibly everyday stressors, e.g. boredom or feelings of powerlessness).
But dissociation is so much more – as is its counterpart association. So how do we understand “normal dissociation”? How do we understand how maladaptive dissociation emerges and becomes a pattern of coping (outside the range of “normality”)?
If we start with association – as a learning mechanism, association help you connect dots. Associative learning is about connecting events, situations, impressions/perceptions, feelings/emotions, beings etc – with each other. Many mammals (horses included), are very good at associative learning. Associations form chains of actions that then can be predicted (or deducted) once you have learned a particular chain of actions. They can also form grids – with lower predictability – just because the possible outcomes grow in numbers.
Dissociation puts and end to those chains and grids. The dots stay un-connected – or disconnect already connected dots. But each dot on their own can still act as triggers… and will then appear to come out of the blue. Often the trigger-dot is connected to one other dot – like a sensation of smell to an emotion, but not to something that explains e.g. the felt overwhelming fear.
So – this is usually how we think of dissociation when it comes to trauma – it disconnects from the full memory, the full sequence of an event. When triggered you feel part of the fear – but not all of it and do not remember “more than you need to know to keep away from those kind of situations”. But in this way – dissociation also keeps you in your trauma – you cannot access enough of the information to work with it. And you keep on getting scared and triggered in “the now”, in everyday life – which also give you a feeling of a perpetuated state, and even possibly a sense of that this is impossible to overcome, a sense of powerlessness. You can end up spending your days managing and coping with your triggers and have very little time left to actually live and grow.
I do think it works this way. And I do think dissociation is triggered internally (by the process of neuroception), that is from a bottom-up perspective. Your sensory system (inner and outer – set your nervous system up to become triggered – over and over – makes you stay in hypervigilance. And in this the vagus nerve plays a big role. But… the vagus nerve is bidirectional – and also goes the other way. Sensory information comes in and goes to the parts of the brain designated to process them. We know that sensory information often comes in via 2 pathways at the same time – one “newer” and one “older”. The older pathways do not end up in the neocortex. It ends up in the mid- or lower part of the brain (and is also usually faster). And According to Panksepp it can even be that that the two pathways with incoming sensory information then splits up in even more paths and thereby reaches many more regions of the brain, almost like a cascade of incoming stimuli (which makes sense if we look at research on the amygdala neurons e.g. – where new research shows that the amygdala neurons probably are involved in predicting other people’s intentions and decisions.) The information would then travel via the vagus nerve and down to “our physiology” – and become “behavior”).
In this way I do not think physiology (via Neuroception) is the only way we “make decisions” about e.g whether we are safe and have protection or not – we also do in from the sensory input we get – that then ends up in different parts of the brain and travels “downward” – in a top-down way. Not necessarily, on the contrary – via the prefrontal cortex, so not in a conscious, aware way.
The younger we humans are -they more these bidirectional process goes on, without consciousness being involved.
If this “cascading” takes place – and unfiltered travels around in the unity of MindBody – and the prefrontal cortex at no point gets involved – that would explain a lot of feelings of sensory overload.
But as we grow, get older and can use more of our cognitive abilities – more and more information end up in our prefrontal cortex – and we can also make moral, ethical and value based judgements, analyze and hypothesize in a more conscious manner. Then we can weigh different options and make conscious and cognitive choices.
For this development to occur, a child needs to feel enough safe and secure to leave the more unconscious state they live in. So, a child actually NEEDS to learn NOT to stay unaware or to dissociate – but to associate on a level where also their cognitive and conscious awareness takes part in the process. Panksepp hypothesizes that when we grow up, it can be that the “higher” parts of the brain, the neocortex, with the prefrontal cortex more and more take over the decisions making, problem solving, evaluating and analyzing (or comparing) that has so far taken place on a more unconscious level – in the mid- or lower part of the brain.
So apart from dissociation being a trauma response, a protective solution, our proneness to dissociate can also depend on how “mature” our brain functions. And here is where the secure enough attachment plays a part. Because this development will not take place if the child is not, does not feel safe enough to leave instinctual and habitual ways of reacting. Which is NOT a choice. The brain is simply occupied with keeping the child safe and does not have the time or energy to do so (and probably no role models either to learn from – imitatively). And since the child also learns by “inheriting” their primary caretakes ways of perceiving the world (I wrote about that last week… https://www.mimercentre.org/index.php/blog/the-imitation-game-part-2 - it also grows up learning from the beginning about how the world functions, not only by its own experiences, but also from their care-takers experiences and world view).
So we can work with a persons proneness to dissociate by working with their traumas – and by teaching grounding/coping skills that helps both in that work and in everyday life, but we also need to help them switch world view – and to help them mature the part of their brain that so far has not had the time or energy to be involved – the thinking, more cognitive part of the brain. And this involves learning to associate things on a conscious level that still appears as dissociated dots to a dissociative person.
If I look at my own way of dissociating and associating. I am very good at associating – as long as there is no stress or pressure involved. As soon as I feel stressed, I am prone to lose it (but am much better these days on applying grounding skills 😊). But there is also a part of me that simply do not understand how some things are connected. Which makes me at times feel like an alien (non-human). I simply do not understand how people think. I can observe their actions and have a pretty good idea where they are heading emotionally and reactively, but once they apply cognition – I am much more lost. This made me – years ago – think I was autistic. I could simply not understand what people were doing in social settings. They seemed incongruent to me. I was very good at picking up their emotions and “drives” – but then they could end up acting in a way that looked like the opposite to me. And I felt totally lost. I reacted on a feeling WITH level (do not use empathy or sympathy here – because there are so many different definitions of those terms – and the often contradict each other) – I could “feel them” – but I could not understand their logic. Which in itself is a funny way of functioning – my logic works fine when people are not involved….
So, this makes me think that dissociation again – appears on so many different levels. There is research that points to that maladaptive dissociation often is combined with poor attachment patterns. But I also read the other day – that plasticity of the brain does not only allow for growth and “re-patterning” and re-arrangements of pathways – but also allows for different versions of attachment. Not only is a person capable of having different attachment patterns with different people (which was what I read about), but also, I think, different parts of a dissociative person can have different ways of attaching – with the same outside person.
It seems as if dissociation to function is relaying on “old brain systems” – subcortical ones. That incoming information is not reaching – keeps being dis-connected/un-connected with higher cortical areas? So if you (your brain) never has gotten trained (had the chance to develop the skillset to) connect – associate incoming information from the sensory system, but also internally transferred information (Neuroception) to cognitive, and more often, conscious memory processing, problem solving, decision making etc – you can not really use your cognitive abilities fully? No matter how smart you otherwise are – intellectually?
This might just be another way to say that trauma keeps you in your sub-cortical areas? – keeps your thinking brain off-line? Or at least, in an unconscious state – you are still thinking, you just don’t know how – and why you then end up making certain decision and actin in certain ways. And you need your prefrontal cortex to properly asses and understand situations as a mature, grown up, adult – to be capable to emotionally regulate yourself?Make it all conscious? This also explains why intense feelings makes you prone to act. If you only experience your feelings in your sub-cortical areas – they are experienced as more intense. When we learn to give these emotions access to higher cortical areas and processing – they lose in intensity. Like e.g. Super joy becomes contentment. Extreme fear becomes lighter worry, overwhelming sadness becomes softer melancholia, rage becomes irritation, despair becomes feeling a bit low… etc? And if you feel this lighter version of feelings – they would of course also be much easier to regulate…
Again, the problem of dissociation seems to take place on many levels in an individual, as the associated problem with emotional regulation.
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Text and Picture are copyright protected ©Katarina Lundgren, Live the Change, MiMer Centre 2020