A patient named Karen was being interviewed after an operation that split off the right from the left hemisphere of her brain. It was done, as it has been for decades, to cure severe epilepsy. The corpus callosum, the thick bundle of fibers connecting the two halves of the brain, is severed.
“What are you doing?” asked the doctor, shocked to see Karen’s left hand unbuttoning her blouse. “Oh my goodness,” said Karen, and she fastened the buttons again with her right hand. But the left hand followed along and just unbuttoned them once more. The doctor called his colleagues and said, “Hey, we’ve got a problem here.”
Split Brain = Split Awareness
I heard this reported on NPR, but it goes back to Nobel Prize winning work done by Roger Sperry in the fifties. In most people, the left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain, the left side.
By studying people who had undergone this “split brain” operation, Sperry proved that the two hemispheres had distinct jobs and even quasi-distinct consciousnesses. Sever their connection, and you often get a “secret self” that can and does do things, but cannot speak about them.
So what’s that got to do with family constellations, with recovery from personal and/or ancestrally inherited trauma? Well, actually, quite a lot.
Let’s begin by suggesting that there are two sources of trauma: the threatening overwhelms that affect your nervous system personally, and those that affected a parent or ancestor’s but were never dealt with.
After-effects of the second kind do show up in you or your clients, even though they never actually happened to you. What are we coming to understand about these? How are they similar or different?
Consider five foundational facts about them. The whole trauma response, often referred to as “fight/flight/freeze,” actually has not just three, but five stages. Think of them as “friends, fight-or-flight, freeze, and forget.” Easy to remember as the “5 F’s.”
Remember also—trauma is highly individual. One person’s experience of overwhelm is another person’s “so what”--or even triumph.
Fight? or Flight?
The limbic midbrain, triggered by what Bessel van der Kolk calls the “smoke detector” amygdala, sets in motion an array of autonomic responses. They prepare, more or less as needed, our whole organism for possibly extreme efforts to recreate safety.
All processes not immediately relevant to that are slowed down or completely stopped. These include digestion, the immune system, more rationally oriented presence of mind, and more.
Threat level detection in the brain, blood and hormone flow to muscles, everything important to choosing and carrying out actions that will recreate safety--all these become primed and super coordinated for possibly lightning fast response.
In modern life, we most often experience “fight-or-flight” more as “resist-or-evade”. It’s slower, but just as real. And we can stay in milder forms of this stage for hours, days, or years. Too bad for digestion and the immune system.
But what if the “friends/” stage comes even before “fight or flight”?
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Karen and the Alien Hand--Why I Do Inner Family Constellations
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Five Facts About Personal and Ancestral Trauma