The subject of Birth Trauma has been dealt with in numerous works of art, texts, myths and psychological accounts. Birth Trauma is not always evident due to the extent to which it remains unconscious, supressed and without cultural legitimacy or recognition.
Biology, Consciousness & Culture:
The three defining domains of Human Existence
Copyright Daniel Waterman, Feb. 2018
In this article I define Biology, Consciousness and Culture and the ways these three domains intersect as the three pillars of human life. In brief, this ideas refers to the ways our physical bodies and senses immersed in a material world and all its conditions, shape and are shaped by the fact that we possess consciousness, which I define as an ability to perceive, reflect, imagine, project, predict and so forth. All of the aforementioned also produce cultural artifacts through interaction with others, communication, creation, organisation and so on. All of these processes and domains have been described by Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela as elements of the most basic biological organisation. They argued that a living system such as a cell has an autopoietic organization, that is, it is ''self-producing'' and went on to explore the manifold ways in which more complex living systems emerge through self-organising principles that effectively allow them not only to exercise a degree of 'mechanical' reflexiveness, but also to invoke processes that allow them to 'transcend' their own physical and mechanical boundaries. In effect, Maturana and Varela appear to describe the emergence of rudimentary forms of consciousness at the most basic cellular levels, even in single celled organisms.
Mind and Body or Mind versus Body?
The idea of consciousness and biology as an integral whole has important implications for our understanding of human behaviour. That understanding has been heavily burdened by mind-body dualism. Mind-body dualism conceives of mind and body as distinct, categorically different and separate phenomena and as such, it burdens us with the problem of having to explain how these phenomena are constituted and how they relate to each other. But findings from consciousness research appear to demonstrate that consciousness is a function of the brain. Amongst others, findings demonstrate that consciousness and cognition can be significantly altered by changing brain chemistry. To all extents and purposes, mind and body are not different or separate things, but different ways of describing the structure and processes of a single whole, e.g. describing it from within or from outside.
Obviously, this idea that mind and body are one, rather than functions of different categorically separate domains (material and non-material) has important implications, and will at the same time raise objections from anyone who believes anything else. If you are someone who believes in a 'soul' or in consciousness as a property of some other, as yet unproven domain, you may nonetheless wish to follow the arguments presented below as hypothesis, and see where they lead. The importance of the notion of consciousness as an 'emergent' property of biological processes is namely its implications for our understanding of human psychology and behaviour and the relevance thereof to our understanding of 'ethics' and ethical behaviour in particular. Thus, a correct understanding of the ways in which our biology shape our perception and understanding resulting in particular developments could conceivably have momentous implications in obstetrics, medicine, parenting and education, mental health, spirituality, policy and law, amongst others.
Mind in Body in Material World
In The Spell of the Sensuous author David Abram explores the many ways in which our immersion in a sensual world shapes development. These ideas are perhaps most important when considering the earliest phases of human life, the intrauterine phase when the brain and nervous system develop inside the mother's body and gradually begin to form the processes to which we refer as consciousness. From a historical perspective, awareness of the importance of the intrauterine phase and the relationship to the mother is very ancient. References can be found in some of the most ancient religious texts and probably predate writing and the institutionalisation of religion by many thousands of years. For example, the allegory of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge can be read as a reference to intrauterine life and birth. It can also be read as a metaphor for the dramatic change of existential circumstances and its subjective impressions and impact on consciousness that occur around the moment of birth.
A Blank Slate?
It is only relatively recently in Western culture that researchers, almost every one of them men, began to doubt the idea that the child in the womb actually possesses consciousness and a capacity for cognition. Before this time, understanding of the relationship between mother and child was mainly inherited from 'folk-lore' which acknowledged the notion that the mother's experiences could shape the child. But the misconception that the child in the womb is a 'blank slate' became so deeply ingrained that operations were still being performed on newborns and inside the womb without anesthetics in the 1970s. Many scientists and doctors were unaware or simply denied the possibility of newborns being able to experience pain, let alone remember it. Their 'authoritative' opinions clash however with the experiences of mothers, and with bountiful evidence that intrauterine experiences are recorded, not only remembered but implicated in the organisation and structure of the brain, nervous system, autoimmune system and body, and also retrieveable under certain conditions.
Among the most eminent writers to recognise the importance of the physical bond with the mother, intrauterine life, birth and separation we should note the work of Joachim Heinrich Campe, Johan Karl Wezel, Adam Bernds, Martin Buber, Sando Ferenczi, Otto Rank and even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who later appears to have gone into denial about the significance of birth. Interestingly, Freud reputedly picked up on the idea that the unborn child might have some awareness of its own circumstances when a midwife told him she believed that the presence of feces in the amniotic fluid signal the baby is 'frightened'. However, Freud later repudiated suggestions that the intrauterine phase might be of more importance than the newborn phase and had Otto Rank expelled from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society for publishing a theory (in The Trauma of Birth) that he viewed as competing with his Oedipus Theory.
The above exemplifies the extreme vulnerability of our understanding of birth to distortions that arise, amongst others, due to the dominance of males in the medical and scientific professions. However, when experimentation with the therapeutic application of LSD began in the 1950s, one such male expert, Stanislav Grof, had the good sense to reexamine the case for considering at least some of the behaviour his patients displayed under the influence of this substance as relating to badly integrated pre- and perinatal experiences. Since the 1950s, Grof's fundings appear to find generous support in thousands and thousands of studies and therapeutic application of his ideas appears to enable people with a wide range of mental disorders to achieve some degree of integration and resolution. In addition, evidence suggest that there are important correspondences between the psychodynamic processes described by people in altered states of consciousness, mystical states, traditional religious and healing practices, mythology and so on, thus suggesting an ancient awareness of the importance of birth and the psychodynamic processes that lead to integration and a sense of 'spiritual liberation'.
Why are pre- & perinatal memories difficult to recall?
One reason why pre- and perinatal memories seem so inaccessible may be due to the power of language to bind memories into a logical sequential narrative, thus allowing us to understand the relationship between images, symbols, feelings and emotions to actual events and to map them accurately onto our bodies, our situation and history. This may be why denial of, e.g. sexual abuse, creates deep and painful dissacociations in identity. It may also be that each level of language acquisition corresponds to a greater level of cognitive and psychological organisation. A return to a pre-linguistic state of mind is in this sense also a dramatic break with the world as we know and experience it in adult life. It is literally a different realm profoundly imbued with meaning and a magical sense of wonder, or dread: telephones ring and speak as if possessed, shadows on the wall talk to us, people appear and disappear as if by magic. This magical imagery and symbolism is literally the substance of our nightmares and dreams, of fairy tales and myth, of thousands of horror films, paintings, poems and songs.
There can be little doubt that this experience of the magical world imbued with meaning is very welcome to some whose early experiences of the world and those close to them were predominantly positive, and terrifying to those who experienced significant pain and insecurity.
The resulting positive and negative integrations lay the foundations for our sense of self and our relations to others and the world. As Huxley observed, we each bear heaven and hell within us. By considering the pre- and postnatal phases as continuous in our psychological development we can therefore hypothesise how a thorough re-membering (literally reassembly) of our most primary experiences (and acknowledgment of their reality and of what they actually were) might lead to dramatic transformation of our beliefs and values, our sense of self and our way of relating to others and the world.
Not surprisingly, such integrative experiences are intrinsic to a host of religious and healing practices that aim to produce profound and enduring transformation of the individuals ethical outlook and behaviour. We might even posit that these efforts are a primary concern of religious life, explaining the close links between religion and healing. This suggests not only that the original significance and purpose of many religious and healing traditions has been lost, but also that our understanding of our intuitions and memories may be significantly mediated by society and culture, for example when religious ideas or intuitions become subservient to ulterior aims and interpretations, e.g. to the interests of authority and power.
This may explain what happened to our understanding of the allegory of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge as women were displaced as priests, storytellers, healers and seers by a male priestly caste whose interests were aligned with power and authority. Indeed, Augustine's interpretations of Original Sin and the Fall of Man distort our understanding of the 'primordial garden' as a metaphor of the uterus and of pre-natal life and of the Tree of Knowledge as a metaphor of the existential change that occurs at birth and through separation, into a nonsensical moral tale about the innate sinfulness of man. That interpretation became the de facto pretext for the Christian church's persecutions. Because of our innate sinfulness, we needed to be guided, by force if needs be, toward good.
Consciousness, Biology .... and Culture
Up until now, I have discussed mainly the idea of a relationship between mind and body as the primary source of a great deal of experience, memory and behaviour. However, as my references to the impact of psychological theory suggest, culture constitutes a third very important domain where ideas about who we are, meaning and purpose tend to shape our understanding of our experiences and memories in very fundamental ways. To understand our experience, and even to believe they are real, requires some form of 'reality affirmation' from the cultural domain: parents, people who we love or who care for us, teachers, and the culture and society into which we are born and that surrounds us and provides us with the tools we need to reason and interpret our feelings.
As an example, consider the way in which the early infant begins to explore the world, gradually acquiring a sense of self, and through language, a means of expression and discernment not available to it within the confines of its intrauterine relationship with the mother. While the child in the womb is still an appendage of the mother's body, its sense of self may still only be very rudimentary. For the sense of self to properly emerge, a tangible 'separation' must occur, as it does when the child is physically separated from the mother and the umbilical cut after birth.
Language, Symbols and Narrative
One problem that we have had to overcome in attempting an integrative understanding of the relationship between mind and body is that of explaining how exactly 'subjective' processes within the brain translate to physical states such as movement. This problem, which all religious traditions and philosophies can only resolve through a leap of faith as long as they accept the fundamental premise that mind and body as categorically different structures and processes can be overcome if we accept that they are precisely the opposite: just different ways of describing a single structural and functional whole. The question we can then attempt to answer is whether and how sensory data can be 'processed' by our senses and our brains to produce the outcomes we conceive of and experience as products of our own volition.
Interestingly, this problem may be resolved when we stop thinking of our senses and our subjective minds as separate from each other and as separate from our surroundings and other people. Language can thus be conceptualised as a highly abstracted system for processing sensory input and translating it into output. We can hypothesise that the ability to allocate 'cognitive processing' to different parts of the brain and nervous system that can operate independently allows for a great deal of rapid processing. For example, evidence suggests that the nerves themselves do at least some rudimentary processing of sensory information and brain imaging techniques clearly show a large distribution of cognitive processing. Even the sense of 'self' appears to be a product of such continuous and distributed processing with no central point in the brain that can be identified as 'I'.
The power of language and symbolism thus arises from the way it provides a bridge between mind, our subjective experience of ourselves and the world, and body, a structure that is deeply immersed in the sensory world. What is important about this system is that the structure of language itself provides important clues to the way our brain and nervous system make sense of the world and organise themselves for action. In The Structure of Magic, Richard Bandler and John Grinder argue that the structure of language can be explored yielding both insights into the ways our nervous system and brain process information and therapeutically applicable insights about the way we 'construct' reality to allow us to function.
These ideas about the role of language and symbols are relevant to understanding one of the fundamental illusions or deceptions with which we start out life, namely the sense of ourselves as separate. This state is variously described in e.g. Christian theology as the 'fallen state of mankind' and as dualism in Buddhism, but it refers to a cognitive condition that is closely related to the development of our senses and cognitive faculties under the influence of language and other symbolic systems that tend to narrowly delineate objects, boundaries and spaces that our senses need to negotiate. This appears to suggest that religious texts dealing with origins were originally inspired by a strong awareness of the subjective experiences of the newborn. If this is true, then many origin myths are less concerned with understanding the de facto origins of the universe than with understanding the origins of consciousness. And indeed, they make far more sense that way.
Development and Integration
Psychological and biological development are similar in that both can be characterised as processes that require integration of new experiences and structures with preceding ones. As a consequence, disturbances in the healthy integration process will produce more dramatic changes at later stages of development. This idea allows us to conceptualise mental disorders as not only products of early childhood but as grounded in beliefs and experiences from the intrauterine phase. This may be why many mental disorders are difficult to treat without attempting to address the relationship of an apparent 'traumatic' event from remembered childhood, to beliefs and memories from a much earlier, pre-linguistic phase.
If we attempt to extend this understanding to problems of society, itself a construct of individuals and their beliefs, then it appears we need to account for the ways in which beliefs about ourselves, that arise not merely in response to objective social, cultural and economic conditions but also in response to beliefs and values inherited from a phase of life that we can barely remember, shape collective behaviour and give rise to cultural institutions such as religion.
So, let us now turn our minds to the subject of 'birth trauma' and consider how this idea might explain some of the problems and challenges that individuals face as well as how these give rise to 'cultural responses' and how we, collectively, might implement awareness of the importance of birth and the conditions that ensure healthy and happy passage into the world as a basis for social and cultural reform of our institutions that could quite conceivably lead to significant improvements. I think for example of the socio-economic status of women and mothers, of obstetric and gynecological care, of the ways in which we care for young infants, the methods we employ to encourage learning and development, and ultimately, all the things that might follow logically from our commitment to greater care for the subjective life, sensitivities and needs of the individual.
The above illustration is an attempt to clarify how the earlier something traumatic occurs, the more dramatic its cumulative effects may be in later life. This may be true at the biological level as well as in terms of psychological development. This may be why the toxic effects of e.g. heavy metals may be more damaging to a fetus than to an adult: the fetus is in a rapid process of development where even minute mutations may produce changes that accumulate and redirect development. It seems possible that the same is true for cognitive development, insofar as cognitive development is both a biological process and cognitive, with nerve cells and brain evolving not only in response to genetic and chemical factors but also in response to other stimuli, light, sound, temperature, and consciousness itself. Impressions from the very earliest phases of development, are therefore not just recorded in memory, they are possibly engrained in our bodies and cells, our nervous systems and in the brain and autoimmune system.
Knowing what we do about the sensitivity of biological processes and about fetal consciousness, is it not logical to assume that the fetus development, physiological and psychological, is profoundly open to influence at almost every stage?
Quite aside from the more obvious forms of trauma that a fetus may suffer (intoxication from drug use of the mother, violence, malnutrition, picking up the feelings of the mother, illness, difficulties during birth etc.) we should take into account the 'dramatic' existential change that occurs at birth as the child literally goes from being an appendage of the mother's body, to being a fully 'independent' being. At the very least we can say that the child inherits a complex and uniquely individual set of characteristics and memories from the 9 months preceding birth.
Consequently, we might speculate that difficulties remembering the pre-natal phase are in part due to the dramatic nature of this existential and physiological change that occurs at birth, and in some cases due to the traumatic nature of some event during the pre-natal phase of birth.
As suggested above, the question whether the fetus has 'memory' and whether we can recall pre-natal memories has been hotly debated by psychologists and their consensus on the subject has become part of the collective consciousness, leading to denial and denigration of claims to the counterpart. The problem is twofold in that psychologists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts are generally at a loss what to do with pre- and perinatal material and have very few tools at their disposal to research the subject or work with it in therapy, while their clients more often than not 'remember' only events from early childhood and these are treated as being of primary relevance to the therapy.
What appears to be occurring in traditional psychonanalytic and psychotherapeutic settings is that the analyst or therapist works his way back, like an archeologist digging for foundations. Assuming that most 'mental problems' are related to the 'neurotic family relationships' 'attachment problems' and/or (sexual) abuse, therapists often fail to grasp the complex ways these problems from later life build upon an earlier foundation which they and their clients are unaware of, and unable to excavate.
The language and symbolism of our earliest pre-natal and perinatal memories is has a distinct flavor that is difficult to decipher, relating of religious and mystical experience, sexual fantasy, transpersonal experiences, nightmare and horror and even, possibly, to the cellular level. This language and imagery is easily ignored when it is ascribed to the neurotic imagination of the patient, rather than its emergence during therapy being treated as a possible avenue to integration and self-healing. And when it is given no credence or attention by a professional expert, the person seeking healing is unlikely to grasp the possibilities for themselves.
In sum, the earlier a trauma occurs, the more difficult it becomes to recognise, remember or integrate. This is not just important for people who suffer from some mental affliction, it is relevant to all of us, because so much of what makes us healthy, whole individuals originates within our most primary experiences. Consequently, through mechanisms that predispose us toward certain experiences or away from them, early trauma, may have a more significant impact in later life, closing us to a wider spectrum of experiences and possibilities.
Insofar as identity is constructed upon stories we tell ourselves about things that happened to us, it is interesting that the pre- and perinatal phase of life are often implicitly present, sometimes insidiously so, as for example in the way that Augustine's interpretation of Original Sin gained traction, seemingly due to its ability to explain why there is so much misery and suffering in human life. We can better understand this when we acknowledge the extent to which the allegory of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the eating of the Fruit of Knowledge and the subsequent separation of man and God and the expulsion from the Garden actually might be a metaphor of birth. In this sense, Augustine's interpretation of Sin actually harks back to a sense of failure, unworthiness and isolation that many people retain from birth. This feeling is obviously aggravated when one is born into poverty, filth and injustice, yet it seems quite reasonable to assume that Original Sin expresses a much deeper and more primordial sense of failure and guilt. We once lived in paradise (in the womb) and then got thrown out, and since we have no explanation for the resulting feelings, we somehow assume that this was due to something we did, or that was done to us.
The primary relevance of the above is to highlight the possible extent to which these feelings, inherited from birth, can become the modus operandi of an entire civilisation when we implement ideas about the sinfulness and disobedience of human beings in our laws and institutions. A defining charateristic of Western society may very well be the extent to which we coerce individuals "for their own good" because we assume that individuals, left to their own devices, are unable to figure out what is good for themselves. This modus operandi was inherited during the era of secularisation because it had already been integrated into the collective unconscious from centuries of religious rule and instruction. It was, in addition, a powerful explanation for actual social conditions; poverty, injustice and powerlessness for the masses. When we look around at the social, political and ecological crises of modernity, and hypothesise that these are all, in some way, inevitable outcomes of human shortsightedness, greed, fear and so on, we are in effect repeating something that has been enshrined in our social institutions, namely the notion that human beings "ARE" this way by nature, and that we thus need all the coercive measures of a powerful government to prevent us all making a mess of things.
To which one might counter that a better, more realistic understanding of the way in which we develop our psychology, outlook, beliefs and values might help us to understand that the world is not the way it is due to 'human nature' but as a consequence of a sort of 'disconnection' that occurs when we fail to integrate the first 9 months of our lives and when the surrounding society and culture tell us that our 'alienated' condition is normal, or even 'healthy'.
—Copyright, Daniel Waterman, Feb. 2018
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