Category Archives: Dissociation

Mammalian Attachment System Heals Trauma

Stephen Porges magesDr. Stephen Porges writes in his groundbreaking “Polyvagal Theory” that mammals like us aren’t made for trauma.  We’re made primarily to attach to other mammals, which makes us feel safe, secure and good.  When that fails, we’re also made to go into a secondary fall-back option of fight/flight; we get aggressive or at least defensive. And it feels bad; we know something’s wrong.

But we’re not made to be in fight/flight for a long time, so when we’re caught in fight/flight and can’t get out, mammals are forced back into a third, even more primitive system: reptilian freeze, aka immobilization or dissociation.

“If you go to a pet store and look at the reptiles, you don’t see much behavior, because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles,” says Porges. “But if you look at the small mammals, hamsters and mice, they are running around. They are socializing.”

“Some reptiles can shut down and go underwater for several hours and be fine. The shut-down system works well if you are a reptile, because reptiles don’t need much oxygen and don’t need to support a big brain…

“But this immobilization reaction… is potentially lethal for mammals. If a life threat triggers a biobehavioral response that puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again,”  he warns. [FN]

I talked about that kind of trauma last blog.  I was suddenly thrust into a medical system that ignored all these mammalian basics.  No matter to whom I turned for communication and  information, nobody saw me, nobody heard my questions, nobody seemed to care what happened. No mammalian response.

So instead of being about to simply sit and be “Present” with the sudden survival threat of a surgical knife coming at me, I had to take all the perfectly normal fight/flight feelings which that causes, and “stuff  it.”  Because I had to push myself into hunting and gathering all that info alone. Which threw me into reptilian freeze, just as my body was designed by the Manufacturer to do.  That’s trauma.

Mammals Should Be Seen – And Heard

Cats Bad Day, I fix itBut, good news: I got out of that trauma in under a week, thanks to Dr. Porges’ primary state: mammalian attachment.

The first thing that happened was I took a step myself, to get myself “seen” and “heard” – I wrote that blog.  It went out to almost a thousand readers, and the response was terrific.  In particular, lots of nice warm mammals in my Life Team support system started to call and write to me, and wow did that feel good.

“Dearest Kathy,” wrote one reader, “I just read your latest blog post, and it sounds rough.  I hope things are calming down and straightening out, and I wish I could be there to help. Do call if you want. – A big, warm, long hug….”

Now this gal and I go way back decades, though she’s on the east coast where I haven’t seen her since 2009. But we were attached mammals for so long, that in 2011 I woke up one morning dreaming I’d been singing Handel’s  Messiah, things went terribly wrong – but suddenly there at the foot of the stage, she appeared – to give me a big hug. “Oh!  It’s her!  She knows me. She sees me — the real me, the me who really is.”

And about three hours later that same day in 2011, my cell phone rang and…. it was her.  Across 3,000 miles.

“The evolution of the nervous system starts with the un-myelinated vagus nerve, which does immobilization. Reptiles have this oldest defensive system,“ says Porges.

“With mammals, a newer circuit, a uniquely mammalian vagus which is myelinated, comes online.  So mammals have two vagal circuits, which originate in different areas of the brain stem. The new mammalian vagus is linked in the brain stem to areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head.  Every clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to their voices, which are controlled by muscles of the face and head, they will know the physiological state of their client.

“If we are protected with the newer mammalian vagal circuit, we do fine. When our mammalian social engagement system is working, we feel calm, we hug people, we look at them and we feel good.

“These mammalian part of our  nervous system  enables social interactions to calm our physiology and to support health, growth, and restoration.  When a person is facially expressive, has vocal intonation, has an expressive face and whose eyes are open when we talk to them,”  then we feel seen, heard, and connected.

“Thank you for actually ‘seeing’ me and knowing me,” I wrote back to my gal pal last week after she saw my blog. “It’s got everything to do with plain old simple mammalian attachment, in which we  just ‘be with’ each other, and feel safe.

“And just this morning, it hit me: Oh, Mom again. I was under survival threat as an infant because I was raised in a glass box, which is interpreted by the infant brain stem as a survival threat. Google ‘Still Face Experiment’  – it shows how infants go nuts when nobody sees them, nobody hears them – nobody responds.

“So today, survival threat  (surgical knife) will cause me to over-react.  ‘Of course’ says my wonderful attachment-based psychotherapist,  ‘it’s baked into your brain stem.  Give yourself some grace, have your reaction, and then do the reality check.’   So when the doctors exhibit the same reptilian behavior as Mom: nobody hears me, nobody sees me, nobody responds?   ‘Of course’ — bam, it  triggers the whole infant deep neurological experience.

“The minute I put that together, I had a good cry, then started to feel absolutely fantastic.  Because suddenly I knew: it’s not about the doctors or the surgery — it’s about my mammalian attachment system.  No matter what happens with the surgery or the doctors, it won’t matter – as long as I get with mammals.  And what a relief.

“Because now I do have mammalian attachment to my friends, my therapist, and a few other important people – like God – now I do have “Safe People.”

“So suddenly now the surgery is no big deal because the doctors will do a great technical job like well-trained reptiles, and back to what really counts, my mammalian support system is taking care of my mammal needs big time.  Which brought me an enormous relief of tension, and feeling of support.”

And no sooner did I figure this out, than my email dings –  and it’s her again.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN  Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011,
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013,
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013,
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago,

7,558 total views, 8 views today

Share Button

Fire Up the Right Brain

Dan Siegel Website PicWhen we last left Stewart the 92-year-old lawyer in Dan Siegel’s office June 25,  “the presenting problem was:  his wife got sick, and he became more socially withdrawn… losing himself in his books,” Siegel said. “Rather than confronting what the illness of his wife of 65 years brought up in him, this unbelievable sense of vulnerability which he wasn’t prepared to sit with, he withdrew into his law books.”  [FN1]

Stewart could handle and remember lots of facts, like his or others birth dates, a left brain function.  But he had little or no emotional response, nor could he recall much about his fleshed-out lived experiences, like what he did on his son’s first birthday, a right brain function.  Pure dissociation.  “I think you’re living with half a brain,” Siegel told him.

So Dan set out to grow Stewart’s right brain.

“Our right human hemisphere is all about this present moment,” says brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor. “Information, in the form of energy, streams in through all of our sensory systems, then it explodes into an enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and sounds like.” [FN2]

Here’s what Dan did: “I told Stewart that I thought if we could drive energy and information flow through the right hemisphere of his brain, over a three to four month period, I believed we could stimulate neuronal activation and growth: we could get new synapses to form in the right brain that had never formed before.”

Dan gave Stewart a series of exercises which only the right brain could handle, so the neurons in Stewart’s spectacularly developed logical left brain would have to just stop firing awhile.  His right brain would have to step up. [FN3]

Fire the Right Brain Neurons

Brain_superior-lateral_viewFirst, Siegel said, the right hemisphere specializes in non-verbal responses, facial recognition and imitation, and other mammal to mammal relational expressions and body language – as distinct from verbal language and logic which are left brain actions.

So Dan started miming emotions with his face and body, only — no words. And Stewart had to try to mimic back his face and body motions — no words. “I would make a face, and he would imitate it—not name it because that would be bilateral integration, ” said Dan. “We wanted to get his right hemisphere going, and the right specializes in non-verbal response and facial recognition.”   Stewart watched while Dan demonstrated an emotion non-verbally, with face, with hands and body, and gradually Stewart found he could make his own face, hands and body imitate Dan — all without logic or speech.

Then Dan reversed it, having Stewart mime something without words, while Dan tried to imitate him. “It kind of became fun actually, like a game,” Dan said. “For homework, I would have him watch television with the sound turned off, so that his left hemisphere, which does language, wouldn’t get stimulated. The right hemisphere had to start watching the shows, and he had to get his right hemisphere to work.”

Second, Dan knew that emotions, as the word implies, arise  first as bodily sensations — motion in the body parts — which is communicated as raw data via body nerves to the brain, and finally analyzed and interpreted by the mind as “feelings.” But emotions, like most bodily data, are shunted to the right side of the brain for interpretation, as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describe the way incoming sensory data goes to the right brain, above.

Dan thought Stewart didn’t have that right brain function of assembling a map of how his body felt — which was why he didn’t have emotions. So he taught Stewart to create in his mind, an integrated map of his body, which only the right brain can do.

Dan taught Stewart to do “body scans,” in which attention is focused strongly and willfully (“mindfully”) on what is going on first in our head, then our face,  neck, chest, belly, legs, and so on, for prolonged periods of time — something Stewart had never spent 10 minutes on in 92 years. “He couldn’t check into his body to say, my heart is pounding, my stomach is churning, I’m breathing fast,” said Dan, so how could he know he was feeling an emotion?

Third, Dan gives Stewart autobiographical exercises. “I asked him, ‘before you came to the office, you woke up. How did you wake up?’  He said he got up, he had breakfast, and he got in the car. I said ‘Let’s back that up, which foot got out of the bed first?’  He had to go from factual memory, to having a sense-of-self in time. That’s a right hemisphere specialty. Obviously your sense of self, if you don’t have an autobiographical sense of self, is pretty thin.

“Now you would say: hold on, my left foot got up, and then I had breakfast. How? You didn’t fly to the kitchen…Well I went to the toilet first, then I washed my face, then I took a step, etc…  Then he would start making a map of what he experienced that morning…

“And over time, with autobiographical memory exercises, non-verbal exercises, bodily exercises, and starting to then name feelings, we would put on facial expressions of these feelings — and then he started to change.  It was actually quite startling.

“One moment is telling…  He had mentioned that his brother had lost his leg in a skiing accident, but it didn’t matter, you know, because of his dismissal of relationships. He knew the facts of it, but not the feelings of it. A few months later, he was saying something about his grandchildren going skiing, and I thought there was something related to his brother, so I brought it up and he started to get tearful. I asked him if it was about his brother, he said no.

“I asked him what he was feeling and he looked at me and said that he couldn’t believe that I had remembered what he’d said, and that I really knew him. He said, ‘I can’t believe you remember who I am.’  And there was this shift of the feeling of his presence in the room.  He began to be able to articulate that he felt sad, that he could feel heaviness in his chest, that he was aware of his body in new ways.

“It was a moment of connection with him that didn’t exist before. And from that time onward the feeling in the room was like I had a whole person with me. There was this natural unfolding.  Once you allow these areas to be differentiated and honored, they can naturally find a linkage often.  And that’s what happened with Stewart.

“Empathy became something he did. With the right hemisphere focused on his interior, it also naturally began to focus on the interior of other people — me, his wife, his friends.  And that Presence you have when you’re interested in the interior world of other people, is a totally different way of being on the planet.

“His son reported that his presence around his grandchildren really changed. There was even one time Stewart came in and told me that I wasn’t going to believe what happened. He said they were saying goodbye to some people, and his wife put her hand on his shoulder, and he told her it felt good. Then she asked him if he wanted a back massage because in 65 years of marriage, he never let her do that. So she gave him a shoulder massage, and he said it felt fantastic. I asked why he’d said no for 65 years, and now at 92, he said yes.

“He said that he had been so terrified his entire life of needing anyone because he was never able to need anyone in his childhood, and that now he felt as if he could be that vulnerable to his wife and he could say that he needed her.

“His wife actually called me and asked me if I had given him a brain transplant because he had become a different person.  It wasn’t just that he was more present with relationships; internally, he felt this sort of playfulness. So, that’s how we could tell that something shifted with him.

“It was incredible and I have to say if it were just Stewart, I’d feel really nervous about reporting such a thing in a book, but I’ve worked with a lot of people with avoidant attachment histories, who as adults have dismissed attachment with the same paradigm, and it comes out the same way almost every time. [FN5]

“Now I get these beautiful cards from Stewart every winter. The last one said, ‘Dan, you cannot believe how much fun I’m having. Thank you’.”


Next Friday August 15:  Special guest blog on how the ACE Study is finally being put to good use in pediatrics


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Bio, website, and more of Dan’s books in Footnotes at end of

FN1    Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “The Developing Mind,” National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), Apr 6, 2011 p.20-22 Apr 6, 2011 p.20-22

FN2   Jill Bolte Taylor,  “My Stroke of Insight,” Ted Talk of Feb. 2008,

FN3   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” NICABM,; 2010 Webcast; my first NICABM webinar, downloaded March 31, 2011; rebroadcast October 11, 2011. and

FN4   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are,” (Guilford, 1999).  How attachment in infancy and childhood creates the brain and the mind.

2,934 total views, 1 views today

Share Button

Dan Siegel: Creating a Joyful Brain

Dan Siegel Quote on EmotionI’ve got some great short videos here by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD  — and even his friend comedienne Goldie Hawn makes an appearance.

I’ve also had a lot of demand for my book — but it’s not done. I’ve been too wrapped up in my fascination with brain science and lots of great networking resulting from that. Now I need to chain myself to my book files, so I’ll be blogging only every other Friday.

As reported the last few weeks, Dr. Siegel details how often we feel lousy because actually our brains are wired wrong from childhood. And now Siegel has shown we can actually heal that and rewire our brains. A fun and heartwarming video by Dan which elaborates this theme “How you can change your brain” is here:

We often get sad-wired with attachment trouble as kids while the brain’s forming, due to implicit — body-only — memory created before we reach age 3, before we can think and remember. Two videos by Dan on this topic are here:
and here:

In coming weeks, I’ll be blogging on how Siegel actually healed the split-up brain of a 92-year-old lawyer.  The gentleman had great cognition, but couldn’t feel anything at all. It’s an amazing story.   To prepare, check out this video by Dan called “On Integrating the 2 hemispheres of our brains”  at

Dan on “Being” Versus “Doing” With Your Child – This video really helps show how poor Stewart the lawyer got so messed up as a child, because of lack of emotional connection in his birth home.  My blog introducing Stewart is at

Stewart was taught as a kid to think about facts, but he couldn’t feel a thing.  It’s all in the development of our right brain vs our left brain.  Click here for Dan’s video:

Dan Siegel & Friend Explore the Brain: Mindfulness and Neural Integration at TEDx.  Dr. Siegel shows more on how mindfulness and meditation can help rewire our brains. Then a school kid walks on camera, and you’ll love what happens next.  Click here:

Dan Siegel with Goldie Hawn at TEDMed 2009:  The comedienne explains her hunt for the “science of happiness” and how she teamed up with Dr. Dan.  Now they make school kids happy by helping them harness their brain power and grow mindfulness. It does turn out to create great joy — and better grades.  Click here:

Mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly popular way for people to improve their mental and physical health…New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows even brief mindfulness meditation practice – 25 minutes for three consecutive days – alleviates stress.  Go here for more:

I promised to blog on how Siegel actually healed poor Stewart’s split-up brain; I will, in Dan Siegel Part 5 (available here on Friday Aug. 8).


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


For Dr. Dan Siegel’s biography, website, books and more: see Footnotes at bottom of

5,079 total views, 3 views today

Share Button

Dan Siegel on Explicit Memory

Dan Siegel hand model 3Dr. Daniel J. Siegel uses his “hand model” of the brain to show schools kids, and the rest of us, how we need all three of the brain’s main parts to be working, and to work together.  Say the wrist is the spinal cord.  Then the palm represents the reptilian brain stem, the thumb is the emotional limbic brain, and the fingers are the thinking frontal cortex. Video:

But last week, we said that neither the brain nor the mind can simply create memories like a video camera makes movies.  Instead, first we receive a flood of raw sensory data packets from the outside world which is scattered around the body, the nerves and the primitive reptilian brain stem.  And the primitive brain stem (palm of hand) doesn’t think — or have conscious memories.

For real permanent memory, which he calls “explicit memory,” Siegel says we need the hippocampus, which is up above the brain stem, in the limbic emotional lobe (thumb).  The hippocampus is responsible to A. integrate the raw sensory data into a coherent picture, and B. put a “time tag” on it – transfer it into long-term permanent memory, where it can be retrieved later.  That’s the only way to get it into conscious thought, which occurs in the frontal cortex, the highest cognitive part of the brain (the fingers in his model).

Explicit memory is what we usually “think” of as memory; it’s a “thinking memory” or “cognitive memory,” a memory we can remember in our thinking brain. It’s “the whole movie,” for which a caption of sorts has developed in the higher parts of the brain to say: ‘this is a dog, and it’s this particular dog right now” – as opposed to that dog you saw in 1994.

But there are (at least) four ways in which the hippocampus may not be available  –  which means, humans easily may not remember traumatic events, Siegel shows.

Four Ways to Turn Off Hippocampus

Scarecrow That's Me all overFirst off, from conception to 36 months, even in a 100% healthy child with secure attachment, the hippocampus isn’t working yet; doesn’t have enough myelin to fire, it’s just not online. Events which happen during this first 45 months of life just don’t automatically become conscious memories.  Siegel gives an example of a toddler bitten by a dog.  But this is also true for any memory function a toddler has, of all events pleasant or frightening, before the hippocampus is fully working around age 3.

“Let’s say I’m 6 months old and I’m bitten by a dog on the hand,” Siegel says. “And then I’m 2 and again I’m bitten by a dog on my hand. So I’m going to have a feeling of fear when I see dogs, I’m going to have a feeling of pain in my body,  I’ll have many memories, all implicit – feeling of fear, feeling of pain in my hand, visual what does a dog look like, barking sound what does a dog sound like – and the feeling that I want to get ready to run

“Implicit memory when it’s encoded and just stays in that pure form goes into storage where it’s just changes in my synaptic connections,” he says.  It’s purely a set of raw unconscious body memory packets.

Without a functioning hippocampus, the data sits scattered all over the body – like the straw Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.  “They tore my legs off and threw them over there,” he says. “ Then they took my chest out and threw it over there.”  “That’s you all over,” says the Tin Man.

So neither of these two incidents, the bite at six months or the bite at age 2, ever got integrated into a coherent conscious memory  – nor did they ever get a “time tag” put on them, a clear concept that the two incidents happened in 1992 and 1994, say.

What happens to this person as an adult 20 years later in 2014 when he sees a dog?  “Now today I hear a dog barking,” Siegel goes on, and my brain goes to retrieve whatever memory it has of “dog.”

“The retrieval of a memory is the firing of neural patterns that are similar to but not identical with, what was encoded at the initial time of the experience.

“But here’s the most important lesson about memory integration:  Implicit-only memory does not feel like it’s coming from the past.  When I hear a dog, I just feel fear, period.  I don’t say,  ‘Oh, I was bitten at six months, at two years… yeah, dogs can hurt you.’  No; I just feel scared – and I get ready to run [without thought.]  Maybe I focus on the fangs of a little puppy and I see a wolf – not just a little cute puppy.  Fear hijacks my perceptual system.” [ FN1]

Second, the hippocampus itself can be damaged during those 45 early developmental months (one reason it’s called “developmental trauma.”)  If an infant or toddler has repeatedly frightening experiences, such as hostile adults continuously in the home, the neurology of the primitive brain stem gets thrown off enough that it can harms the development of the higher brain lobes — which are outgrowths of the brain stem. The hippocampus can be badly damaged, to where when we feel scared irrationally, we physically can not “think our way out” just as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk told the New York Times.

This was me; I’d been told that I’d had infant trauma from conception to 36 months.  Listening to Siegel it hit me that talk therapy (and other cognitive work) regarding events and feelings during years no one can remember, had to be a waste of time. Siegel said the memories were lying around un-assembled in my body.

One of the next webinars I heard was his friend Dr. Peter A. Levine, talking about how to assemble these body memories, using “somatic experiencing.”  So I took Dr. Levine’s book “Healing Trauma” to my therapist and said: “Sorry you’re not familiar with somatic work, but I got traumatized before I was 3 and had a thinking brain, so the trauma’s baked down into my body parts, where talk and cognition can’t get at it.  This book is what we’re going to do.”  Our results were spectacular. [FN2]

Third, Siegel said that even if the hippocampus develops pretty well, trauma after 3 years of age and at any point in life, floods the body with so much stress hormones that  this can turn off the hippocampus. “If you massively secrete cortisol stress hormone, at the same time you’re secreting adrenaline, cortisol, in high amounts, shuts off the hippocampus temporarily.  Over the long run, it can actually kill hippocampus cells.

“But adrenaline increases the synaptic changes in implicit memory. So what we’ve just described, a useful vision for PTSD, is a model for explaining flashback of phenomena: when an implicit memory is reactivated without any explicit elements, the hippocampus hasn’t been involved to experience these things in awareness. So it’s not the same as unconscious memory or anything like that. These are elements encoded, stored and now retrieved into awareness, but when they’re implicit only, they have no tagging that they’re coming from the past.” [FN3]

Fourth, there are types of trauma where a person older than age 3 with a functional hippocampus can literally, during a traumatic event, dissociate themselves to avoid experiencing it when it’s happening  – so they can’t remember it later.  “You can divide attention,” says Siegel.  “If you’re being attacked you can focus on a beautiful beach, so you’ve taken your hippocampus out of the picture – but unfortunately you can not block the implicit coding [of the raw separate bodily memories of what was actually being done to you -kb]…

“If you were betrayed by your father or mother, if they abandoned you or hurt you or ignored you in terrible ways, it makes no sense that that would happen to you. So how do you make sense of something which doesn’t make any sense?,” says Siegel.  “It turns out that the part of our hippocampus which is the narrator is in the left hemisphere, but it has to draw on the hippocampus in the right hemisphere for storage of autobiographical data.

“Say your dad drank and he attacked you — so you dissociated and thought about the beach.

“So now [years later] the therapist asks you ‘What did that feel like, were you terrified of your parents?’   Your left narrator wants to cooperate, so it calls over to the right side and asks ‘Any feelings of fear of parents over there?’ and the right side answers back ‘Nothing over here, Dan, but sand and water.’  But your body also feels fear and you  may be sick to your stomach — none of it conscious.”   [FN4]


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN1   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “Domains of Integration,” July 27, 2010 lecture audio  To download, right click Play arrow, left click Save Audio As  [or go to  scroll down to title, right click to download]

FN2  Levine, Peter A., PhD, “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body,” ‘Sounds True, Inc.,’ Boulder CO, 2005; ISBN 1-159179-247-9

FN3   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains, October 12, 2011 Webcast, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM),

FN4   op cit  FN1  Siegel, “Domains of Integration”

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.  He is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. He is also Founding Editor for the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which contains over three dozen textbooks.

Must-read interview:
Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “Early childhood and the developing brain,” on “All in the Mind,” ABC Radio National, Radio Australia, June 24, 2006 at:

Books by Dan Siegel:
–”The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are,” (Guilford, 1999). How attachment in infancy and childhood creates the brain and the mind.
–”Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body, and Brain,” Marion F Solomon, Daniel J Siegel, editors,  New York, NY:  W.W. Norton and Company;  2003.   357pg  Reviewed by Hilary Le Page, MBBS at:
–”The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being,” (Norton, 2007)
–”The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration,” (Norton, 2010)
–”Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,” (Bantam, 2010)
–”Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive,” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2003) with Mary Hartzell
–”The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind,” (Random House, 2011) with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D
–”Brainstorm: Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,”  (Tarcher, 2013)

12,087 total views, 13 views today

Share Button

Dan Siegel on Re-Membering Trauma

brousblog4a Siegel Hawn CooperDr. Daniel J. Siegel, MD (far left) introduced me to brain science, and I write about brain scientists like him ‘cos they saved my life. Without them, I’d still be a successful, all-head talk technical writer for Pentagon sales.  I’d be unaware of my childhood attachment trauma, unable to feel my past, dissociated, and miserable with anxiety.  My cholesterol would still be over 240, my kidneys headed for failure.

But in March 2011, I clicked on the wrong link in a friend’s email and ended up watching a Dan Siegel webinar on how the brain works in trauma. [FN1]  That’s where my healing began.  Siegel flies around the world trying to alert parents and others about how childhood experiences affect the brain.  “You sent us a brain in the mail !” Anderson Cooper exclaims in this Sept. 2012 Anderson Live clip. [FN2]

Dan Siegel is sooo relevant to the May 22 New York Times’ dig against Dr. Bessel van der Kolk for speaking of “repressed memories.”  If it’s traumatic, we remember it, period, the Times says;  “Harvard psychologist Richard McNally called the idea of repressed memories ‘the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy’.”  But many of McNally’s peers said his allegation wasn’t proven.  Harvard’s Lisa Najavits called McNally’s statement “disappointing… landing too forcefully on one side…by no means an end to the debate.” [ FN3]

Siegel’s work suggests that the Times best go back to science school.  Dr. Siegel shows extensively that if it’s traumatic, we may very well not remember it coherently.

More important, we almost certainly won’t be able to feel the bodily feelings caused by the trauma, which are still stuck in our bodies.  And until we can feel those, we won’t be able to heal the trauma.  Siegel illuminates the numerous brain mechanisms which can cause our entire memory system to be fragmented and to misfire badly.

In that first webinar I saw by accident, Siegel said he got started in psychiatry in the 1980s studying the hippocampus, which integrates raw incoming sensory data, into composite conscious memory. Siegel shows there are (at least) four ways in which humans may not remember traumatic events – because their hippocampus wasn’t working.

Implicit Memory

Triune Sixtine Brainforest Octopus is viscera  4-625x1024Check out the history of the word “re-member”– in Shakespeare, for example. “Re-member” literally means putting parts of our body (members) back together again, ie, “getting ourselves together.” And now science has shown: memories actually start in the body, not in the thinking brain.

Memories start as raw incoming sensory data.   And if the hippocampus isn’t on duty, the body is as far as memories get; memories get stuck in the body.  (Illustration shows the “hippo” as a curved grey area center of brain by dancer’s foot.  Credit:  “The Brain Forest,” Copyright © 2012 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved, at ).

Say you’ve never seen a video, TV, or film; go back before that — to most of human history.  Siegel explains that if a dog approaches me, for example, my brain can’t just “take a video”and give me a whole, coherent overview, with headline “this is a dog.”  It also doesn’t automatically give me a date of today for this dog here, now.  Nor does it automatically tell me that I saw another dog back in 1994 and that was a different dog.

Instead, says Siegel, first, I get a flood of distinct sensory inputs which have nothing to do with each other – or with thought.  I get discrete packets of sensory data from the eyes, ears, nose, and other parts of my body.  My sense of sight gets a visual “look” of the dog; my sense of smell gets a whiff; my ears may hear a bark or pant.  All three are entirely separate incoming sensory data.  If a bottle of milk were coming, I’d get a touch memory as to its temperature from finger nerves, a taste memory from lingual nerves, etc.

These bits of incoming data are “implicit memory,” Siegel explains, “changes in synaptic connections…like puzzle pieces.”  Each one is a separate sensory memory housed primarily in the nerves reporting in from the body parts where it happened — optical nerve, olfactory nerve, auditory nerve and so on.

Each of those nerves also reports the different implicit data to the non-thinking instinctive brain stem, which also stores parts of these memories and — this is key — without being able to integrate them.  The lizard and frog in the cartoon represent the brain stem, ‘cos it functions at about the level they do – reflexively and by instinct.  No integration, no thinking.

But: what if the dog (or any other being or event) is hostile?  Now, I get an additional flood of unrelated data: my gut gets tight, my heart rate goes up, breath quickens, leg muscles tense to run. It all happens by instinct, instantly, and it bypasses thought altogether. Again: no thinking involved.

Check out the octopus at bottom of the cartoon. “Around our heart, lungs and intestines, we have a web of nerve cells so complex as to correspond in size to the brain of a cat,” says illustration author Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. “Similar webs of nerve cells may also be found around the muscles.” It’s represented by the head and near arms of the octopus at bottom — and as Treyvaud notes elsewhere, he learned this in his studies with Dan Siegel.  [FN4]

Reporting up from all those visceral nerves of the body cavity is the vagus (10th cranial) nerve, which dumps all this lower body sensory data into the primitive brain stem, shown as the longer arms of the octopus reaching up to the green brain stem lizard.  Siegel and his colleague Dr. Stephen Porges write extensively on the neuroscience of this. [FN5]

Siegel refers to everything under the thinking frontal cortex as the “downstairs brain,” and this octopus is a good visual. Because if the dog, or anything else, is hostile, not only do I have all those sight, smell, and sound data packets to manage -– I’m also hit with a flood of “downstairs” bodily data packets.

Now what?  Well, now I need my hippocampus to be working, or I’m in serious trouble. Let that sink in until next week.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.  He is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. He is also Founding Editor for the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which contains over three dozen textbooks.

FN1   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” October 12, 2011 webcast, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM),

FN2  Anderson Live, September 24, 2012; also at  then scroll down for 2012 videos

FN3  Najavits, Lisa M., PhD, Assoc. Prof of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Director Trauma Research, McLean Hospital, “Book Review, ‘Remembering Trauma’ by Richard McNally,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 192, No. 4, April 2004


FN5  Porges, Stephen, PhD, 2013: “Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,”  NICABM Webinar,
— On Trauma, 2013: “Beyond the Brain: How the Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,”
—  Academic background, 2001: “The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 42 Ž, 2001, 123 146, Department of Psychiatry, Uni ersity of Illinois at Chicago,

Must-read interview: Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “Early childhood and the developing brain,” on “All in the Mind,” ABC Radio National, Radio Australia, June 24, 2006 at:

Books by Dan Siegel:
–“The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are,” (Guilford, 1999). How attachment in infancy and childhood creates the brain and the mind.
–“Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body, and Brain,” Marion F Solomon, Daniel J Siegel, editors,  New York, NY:  W.W. Norton and Company;  2003.   357pg  Reviewed by Hilary Le Page, MBBS at:
–“The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being,” (Norton, 2007)
–“The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration,” (Norton, 2010)
–“Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,” (Bantam, 2010)
–“Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive,” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2003) with Mary Hartzell
–“The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind,” (Random House, 2011) with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D
–“Brainstorm: Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,”  (Tarcher, 2013)

16,768 total views, 7 views today

Share Button

Readers Defend Van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk pic Trauma CenterI had the most comments ever last week, as readers spoke up to defend Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (left) and his ideas about somatic (body) healing for trauma, after the sideswipes against science by the New York Times May 22.  But the comments section got buried under all the footnotes I had to put in my letter to the Times to document their ignorance, so I’m posting the comments here where they’re easy to find.


Barbara Findeisen | June 7, 2014
Thank you, Kathy, you speak for many of us.  Did you see the “60 Minutes” show that Sunday? Most of my friends in the field do not think cognitive (therapy) is the way to go.

Some do. I have a hunch it is because they are afraid of their own trauma and need to be in control. As I am sure you know it an be messy when you are back in that pain and terror.

Kathy | June 8, 2014
Dear Barbara,
I’m grateful for your work on somatic healing and attachment trauma at Star Foundation (  A transcript of the May 25 “60 Minutes” show on PTSD is here.  Personally I was horrified by the VA forcing vets to do cognitive talk therapy, retelling their trauma over and over.
Not only Dr. van der Kolk but also somatic therapy experts Dr. Peter A. Levine, Dr. Pat Ogden, Belleruth Naparstek, Janina Fisher, and others with extensive vet experience warn that “just talk” about trauma only makes victims relive the trauma.  So it gets worse.
That’s why I took Dr. Levine’s somatic book “Healing Trauma to my therapist; he’s an attachment expert, but into cognitive talk therapy.  I said: “Sorry you’re not familiar with somatic work, but I got traumatized before I was 3 and had a thinking brain, so the trauma’s baked down into my body parts, where talk and cognition can’t get at it. This book is what we’re going to do.”  Our results were spectacular.  Levine’s results with vets are also spectacular.

Cheryl Sharp | June 9, 2014
While the coverage of van der Kolk’s work looked good on the surface, the innuendos throughout left me feeling that it was more of an attack.

It would have made much more sense for the article to go further and talk about why the way he works with people actually works, such as follow up with Bruce Perry’s work.

Only when people understand how the brain gets stuck and that the only way to that part of the brain is through the body, will they understand that healing and recovery is a real possibility.

Kathy | June 9, 2014
Amen when it comes to healing!  Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, Dr. Dan Siegel, MD, Stephen Porges and show that trauma shuts down higher brain functions like cognition. Instead, body parts and the primitive brain stem get “stuck” repeating bodily feelings from the past trauma events. Without higher brain functions, we can’t put the past trauma events into long-term memory. Instead, our body is reliving the past, now.
Siegel also says trauma memories can get so fragmented that we can’t gather them into a working picture at all; they sit scattered around the nervous system and body.
Perry says  “rhythmic regulation” by body movement can get the brain stem to calm long enough to let the higher brain functions come on line.
The Times ignores all this and repeats Richard McNally’s 2005 insistence that all trauma is remembered — though many said at the time that his work lacked proof. Lisa Najavits called McNally “disappointing… landing too forcefully on one side…by no means an end to the debate.”

Jane | June 9, 2014
Kathy, thanks for this informative post.  Several parents in my online support group have been discussing this very issue – body work to heal trauma – this past week.

Kathy | June 9, 2014
Thank you Jane!  Bruce Perry, Dan Siegel and others show even a normal child’s brain has no capability to remember much from conception to 36 months of age. Memories come in as discrete packets of sensory data from the eyes, ears, nose, etc., and sit in the body and primitive brain stem.
Only when the higher cognitive  functions like the hippocampus kick in around age 3, can we create real long term memory.
But if developmental trauma occurs from conception to 36 months, the primitive brain stem gets so traumatized that it harms the development of the higher brain lobes — which are outgrowths of the brain stem. The hippocampus, our ability to create long term memory, and many other higher brain functions can be badly damaged.
So we physically can not “think our way out” as van der Kolk says.

Rebecca | June 7, 2014
Excellent. Glad you wrote a defense. Have you heard back from them??

Kathy | June 8, 2014
No, nothing yet; frankly I didn’t expect anything.
They’re like King George or Marie Antoinette… They think they are Royalty at The Most Important Newspaper In The World – so they can just print anything they like, and the rest of us peons must cower.
Like I said, I grew up in New York and I’m not impressed.
When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, they literally wrote an editorial denouncing him as a charlatan. I don’t have a copy of it anymore but maybe you can find it on the internet?


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book  “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

2,734 total views, 1 views today

Share Button

Excommunication Blues

#16 in my book blogs from “Don’t Try This at Home,” Chapter 3

Excommunication 1Last time, I wrote that just when I thought 2008 couldn’t get any worse, October-November 2008 with Mom in the hospice in Florida turned out to be my psychological Cambodia. It was going to get a whole lot worse.

I also noted that Adam and Eve had a Perfect Parent, but a 50% failure rate producing their kids, meaning babies damage real easily.  What if my Mom in reality was a fine (if not Perfect) parent, but I (like Eve) somehow got damaged, and had a mess in my head which made me project my own neurosis onto Mom?  Everybody loves their mom; I do, too.  I sure didn’t want to demonize my own mother.  Ouch!

Linda, my beloved little sister, I know you love Mom so and I know you won’t like this chapter. I’m looking at your photo now and I weep. Yes the one I took in your junior high acrobat leotard; even then you were hot, babe.  I love you like Life itself and I’d do anything not to hurt you – except to live another decade with these horror stories eating at me.

So the truth must come out, and I am so sorry that I could not talk it all through with you at the time, but there was just too much pain.  Today’s 2013 brain science says that the emotional pain was so intense in 2008, that my brain stem literally knocked me out like a mouse when a cat picks it up.  Forgive me, darling, that this comes so late.  I love you so.

Gulp.  Well folks, that one surprised me, too.  Gosh, being a writer certainly has its ups and downs.  Those soggy tissues on the floor all around my desk, where did they come from?  Er, back to our story…

Scholars note that Buddha, Moses and Jesus all had trouble with their family when they went home.  That’s simply because the ones to whom we are the closest, are the ones to whom we are the most vulnerable. We all need closeness and vulnerability, but that’s also where we can all get hurt most. Since nobody’s perfect, that’s where we do get hurt.  They call it the “need-fear dilemma;” we need closeness, but we fear it. [FN1]

Thinking back on what happened next in 2008, I had plenty of need and fear inside my own head. But maybe Mom did, too; she had it none too easy as a kid, as detailed in “Butt End of Evolution.”  See what you think.

It’s always hard to watch a mother die, and my Mom was very hard to watch, as I wrote last time.  But then, I was not just an observer. I was the designated pin cushion.  Mom had made no bones for decades that she pretty much didn’t want me anywhere, least of all in that hospice at the end.  And I did promise you the back story.

Hero or Villain?

Astronaut Parade 1Decades before, I’d started medical school in the Philippines and came home to New York at age 25 for a visit, where Mom feted me like a returning astronaut at family parties to honor my acceptance into that professional track.

I never had a performance problem; I graduated high school a year early with a full college scholarship and finished college six months early. It seemed natural enough to me that I was alone on the other side of the world among strangers, killing myself pulling all-nighters as med students must for years on end. But one day after my return from Manila, talking with my former college sweetheart (now my ex), it hit me that I was trying to do something I didn’t want to do.

And I can’t find a more diplomatic or more truthful way to say this: Mom always wanted me to be a doctor, and I saw that’s why I was doing it.

I saw that I couldn’t go back to Manila, and decided to return to my boyfriend in New York. “I’ve realized that I’m not doing med school for myself,” I told my parents, “but I can’t do something this serious my entire life, for someone else.”

My mother despised my ex for his political involvements; that became grounds for a sudden explosion. “You’re throwing your life away,” she said in great anger. Before I knew it, she had accused my ex of “killing my daughter” by talking me out of medical school. And yes, my 20-20 hindsight freely admits my ex had lousy politics, in as deep with one of the many whacky groups which lined the streets of New York after the Vietnam War. No mom would want to see a daughter with such potential get mixed up in that.

But that could have been discussed in the bosom of the family. I could have left U Manila and gone to work in New York while I figured out what I wanted to do or where to go to grad school.

Instead, I was booted out of the house so fast it made my guts spin. This was not simply, “you’re a quitter, no more parties.”  It felt like one minute I was John Glenn the hero riding in a parade with confetti, then awoke to find myself metamorphosed into Lee Harvey Oswald. The message was: “Go, and Never Darken My Doorway Again.”

I couldn’t think; I just wanted to die. Where was Jack Ruby when I needed him?

I had been excommunicated. There’s that odd feeling again; why does something always remind me of the Inquisition? It just keeps popping up. Perhaps I should create a new perfume line, “Eau d’Auto-da-fé ” or simply “Eau da Fe” for short (maybe have it marketed by Daffy Duck).

He’s a Bad Man

Oswald & Jack RubyIt took me another 25 years to notice the real shocker:  all concerned were distressed, yet everyone accepted Mom’s response as a fait accompli. Scratching my head in 2013, I can’t recall a debate from anyone, not from my father or any other member of my family. Now that I think of it, it never entered even my head to debate it, either.

Everyone, including me, seemed to be in silent agreement that I was in the wrong and bad, while Mom was in the right, and good. That required all to nod in endorsement, as if to the law. It was like I’d been caught in a mortal offense to the Ten Commandments.

I simply condemned myself “guilty as charged” and slunk off as if to some den of inequity. “You’re supposed to feel bad when you’re treated bad!” one therapy expert later quipped on hearing the tale, in an effort to shake me awake. “You were in a sick system so long you became numb to it,” he said, it’s technically termed “dissociation.”

Were my ex or his politics a Nuremberg crime heinous enough to merit this?  No one ever distinguished my being a med school quitter from his hated politics — not even me. It was all one huge ball of wormy guilt.

I didn’t steal from my dad or sleep with my sister’s boyfriend.  I just said, “I can’t go to medical school, I’m going to hang out with a guy you don’t like, and I may have some politics you don’t like.” Yet suddenly it was “Off with her head!”  Not until decades later did I realize it was all nuts.

No one ever said simply: “He’s a bad man, he’ll be bad for you — we love you, stay with us!”  I would have stayed with my family in a New York minute.  I was just trying to come home from the other side of the planet to find a little love for my wildly mixed-up head in a very cold world.  But then I jumped out of a certain controlled script.


Ugly Duckling 1No one said “But we want to see her!”  There was not one protest, as if they were muttering “whew, glad it’s not me.”
They didn’t even attend my wedding five years later.

Now, here I was in 2008 in Mom’s Miami hospice, where as I wrote last blog, I’d come to her room each morning and Mom would roll over and turn her face away.  She’d ask the nurses “Where’s my daughter?” with me standing there. When I’d say, “I’m right here, Mom,” she’d say, “Not you.  Where’s Linda?”

How could Mom and I have run so far off the rails?  I had plenty of time sitting in that hospice to agonize over that.  It hurt a lot.  One thing I knew:  it didn’t start when I returned from Manila at 25.

Mom had been hostile ever since I could remember, since age 4 at least, which I knew from memories predating my sister’s birth.  A few early incidents popped up out of nowhere in my first group therapy session as mentioned earlier.  But as a kid I could never fathom it or discuss it with anyone.  We just didn’t discuss such things at our house; there was too much to get done at home, work and school.  I sure wasn’t going to mortify myself by telling anyone at school.  It was a serious Ugly Duckling routine which never got to the swan part.

Another puzzle piece arrived in January 2006 when I flew in alone from Washington DC for a cameo appearance at my parents’ 50th anniversary dinner in a swank Miami bistro.  With my sister and her family in their finest, amid the champagne toasts, Mom suddenly announced that she had always resented my existence.

Fixing an eye on me across the table decked with flowers and candles, she said out of the blue and loudly, without a trace of a smile:  “I nearly died having you; you almost killed me.  You gave me an infection that put me flat on my back for weeks.  I was so sick that Grandma begged Dad not to have any more children.”

There was stunned silence at the table.  I looked into Mom’s eyes an instant in panic, but there was no way to make a connection with what I saw looking back.  To be blunt, it looked like either a very cold fish or something more dangerous.

I went blank, and made a beeline for the ladies room so no one could see me break down, collapsed in a stall in a blur of chiffon, stilettos, and tears.  My sister eventually pulled me out. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened.  Again.  Even my poor sister blanked out the entire incident, and denies to this day that anything occurred.

This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in Adults, Adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN1  “We have a need in our heart for love, but when it’s wounded or hurt or unavailable, something very bad happens.  We don’t just sustain need.   If my Mom dies when I’m age 7, I can’t just wait 20 years and say  ‘OK now I’ll find someone nice to love me.’  Instead, when we have unmet need or injured need, something bad develops called the need-fear dilemma.  What we need the most, we begin to fear.  If it’s needing love, then we’re uneasy around love.  If we need understanding of our weaknesses, we get very uneasy about being weak.”
—  Cloud, Henry, PhD, “Getting Love on the Inside,” Lecture, April 2002 (CD),  www.Cloud-Townsend

“The insecure resistant ambivalent child shown in the video is experiencing what has been referred to as the need-fear dilemma; he both needs the mother for comfort, but something in his history with this mother has instilled fear, and distrust whether he will find what he needs.  The video is of the Strange Situation, developed by  psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to describe secure and insecure attachment. These two attachment patterns are vividly seen in the interaction of two mother-child pairs:
   — Gerson, John, Phd, “Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment,”

6,449 total views, 3 views today

Share Button

From the Butt End of Evolution

Luggage on cartFear with a capital F has been bred deep into our neurons since man first walked the earth. Neurobiologists call it the “negativity bias” of the brain.  For most of history, our brains needed to fear a stick far more than we needed to enjoy a carrot. “If you fail to avoid a stick in the Serengeti today, you’re finished – but if you don’t find a carrot today, you’ll likely be alive to find one tomorrow,” as Dr. Rick Hanson puts it.[FN1]

It hits me that my trauma is a cosmic joke based on fear: I’m the logical consequence of human evolution.  And the numbers are coming in now to show that our failure to respect how our bodies have evolved is the reason 50% of Americans have some degree of Adult Attachment Disorder, childhood ACE trauma, and the resultant dire medical effects.

“This is your Captain speaking from the Butt End of Evolution,” I joked to a friend. “Since we left the caves, the brain has been evolving to develop an ever-more exquisite ability to feel fear.  Only the most fearful and anxious of us survived.

“Finally my great-grand parents traveled from London to Cape Town to Canberra to Denver while having 13 children, of whom my grandma was the 12th.  How much attachment, attuned face-to-face emotional attention, could grandma have received? Do the math; she couldn’t have gotten much more attention than the 12th piece of luggage. So how much attuned parenting could she have given my mother?

“By that point humans had evolved to be so fearful and anxious that great-grandma probably treated my grandma like luggage, who treated my mother like luggage, then my mother didn’t even want the luggage; she didn’t want a child, as she made clear to me.  So here I am at the Butt End of Evolution: I couldn’t manage to procreate at all, or stay married.  I have no children and no family.

“The moral is: if you have a lot of emotional baggage, the reason might be that you, too, were treated like luggage.”

Too depressing?  Never fear!  There are solutions.

Child Production Failure Rate: 50%

Scared Sick book coverLook: Adam and Eve got perfect parenting, but still had a 50% failure rate in producing good kids. Translation? Babies are very easy to damage, and this problem has been around a long time. But it’s never been acceptable and it’s getting worse.

Last week I wrote that our society now has a 50% failure rate  at producing healthy human children, by many medical, mental, and psychological health yardsticks which show a remarkable correlation.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study documents that childhood trauma and its consequent serious medical issues affect over 50% of the population of the U.S. and cause the risk factors that underlie the 10 most common causes of death in our country.

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), meanwhile, shows that some 50% of Americans are “insecurely attached,” meaning they have some degree of attachment disorder, another form of childhood trauma which may underlie many of the childhood traumas in the ACE Study.

The statistics keep coming. According to “Scared Sick” by Robin Karr-Morse, nearly 50% of Americans have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes; one in eight has two of these.  Some 68% of adults are over weight and more than one-third are obese, and 26% of adults over 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.  One in three children born in the last five years will develop diabetes. [FN3]

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Saber Tooth Tiger cropWell, what’s at the root of childhood trauma, which seems to be a major cause of all this?

Fear.  We need to understand fear, to reverse this. “Fear has shadowed human life since our species emerged,” says the first sentence of “Scared Sick.”

“Neuroscience tells us the brain has a negativity bias.  It’s designed like Velcro for negative events and Teflon for positive ones,” says Dr. Ron Siegel, Phd. “Evolutionarily if our ancestors forgot what they saw the sabre-tooth tiger do, or what happened to someone who got too close to a cliff, they wouldn’t have survived to produce offspring.  Our chill, relaxed forerunners all got eaten in the Serengeti before they could become our ancestors.  Survivors were those who remembered the bad stuff and were  good at jumping when the sabre-tooth tiger showed up.

“Stress-related disorders are a huge health problem today, but most of them don’t kill us before we’re done reproducing,” he concludes, “especially if you go back a few thousand years where people didn’t live beyond 40. Stress-related disorders make us miserable, but they don’t kill us until after 40.” [FN5]

“The velocity of change in our environment and the nature of the fears we face as a consequence has evolved much faster than our biological systems for dealing with them,” “Scared Sick” states. “Americans regularly wake up, work, parent, drive, play, eat, and sleep with the twin offspring of fear—anxiety and depression—holding court in their brains and bodies. This is our shared daily bath: in our homes, on the road, in the workplace. The result? Soaring addiction, anxiety, depression, attention disorders and post-traumatic stress…”

Luggage and Emotional Baggage

Last night, confirmed my worst fears and then some.  I’m the product of four generations of attachment failure.  I already had 80% of the story from family by word of mouth.  But last night  in under an hour online, I found U.S. federal census records that hit me in the gut.

Luggage 13+ PiecesMy maternal grandmother’s parents were born in London, according to family lore; Grannie and her sisters my great aunts all reported they had 13 children, of which my grandmother Jennie was the twelfth, born in 1906 in Denver. These relatives also often separately remarked, as though it were totally unrelated and uninteresting, that the family moved from London, England, to Cape Town, South Africa, to Canberra, Australia, to Denver, Colorado, then New York City, during all this.

In early 2011 I read a quote in a book on attachment disorder which said: “Mothering well doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is mothering as you were mothered.” [FN7]

Then I remembered the 13 children and the trans-continental travels, and it hit me that if these reports were true, that my great-grandma –- just by the math –- had been able to give my grandma Jennie about as much attention growing up as one of the traveling suitcases, if she were lucky.  That would have left Jennie without mothering skills to pass on to my mother, which made some sense out of why I had never noticed my mother to have been overflowing with motherly affections.

Last night family tales became reality. I learned that Grandma Jennie’s dad, my great-grandfather, was named Maurice and was born in London in 1860; his wife Esther was born in London in 1872.

Luggage 1920 Census v3Then I found the 1920 U.S. Federal Census shown here. All of the names of their children listed here, correspond to people I’ve either met or heard about.

Plus the 1910 U.S. Federal Census shows Maurice in Colorado where my grandmother Jennie was born; I’ve definitely got the right people.

But here’s the scary thing. The household of Maurice age 60 and Esther age 48, by then in New York City, included Rose age 34, Clara age 21, Gertrude age 16, Jennie age 14, and Simon age 11. Good grief, that means Rose was born in 1886 when her mother Esther was 14! Then Clara was born in 1899, Gertrude in 1904, Jennie in 1906, and Simon in 1909.

I’m shocked just to see such a large family in official records; it brings flesh and blood to real life. How could poor Esther take care of them all? How did she survive herself, did she ever sleep? How did they all survive all that travel? Did they have enough to eat?  Did they have any place to sleep? The sheer size of it feels traumatic to me, maybe in my bones.

Plus in 1886 when Rose was born, her dad Maurice was 26. It seems he knocked up Esther at 13 or 14 and absconded with her to South Africa.

And what about the 13-year gap between Rose and Clara? There are only 5 children in this 1920 census out of 13 births reported by numerous people to me in person. Did Rose not marry while her 6 or 8 younger siblings born on either side of Clara left the household, and are thus not shown on this census page? Or did large numbers of the children die in terrible ocean voyages or epidemics like the 1917 influenza?

How did one get from London to Cape Town to Canberra to Denver to New York back then, anyway? For most of human history before 1800, including most of human biology, people didn’t move around. Wikipedia reports fewer than one million immigrants—perhaps as few as 400,000—crossed the Atlantic during the entire 17th and 18th centuries.

But after 1800 we had the spreading use of the steam engine, electricity, railroads, the Gold Rush which developed the continental United States. Now, the new explosion of mobility was a very good thing; it allowed millions to escape tyranny and grinding poverty in Europe. From 1836 to 1914, over 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States.

Steerage Dinner on the first emigrant ship to NZ 1850sBy the end of the 19th century even the poorest could get into the steerage hold of a steamship, shown above, where they all lived like luggage for weeks. The peak year of European immigration was in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons entered the country.  By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States. [FN8]

Why? “To better our lives!”  That’s why we’ve created these fabulous technologies.  Yet we don’t see what living at this faster pace does to our nervous systems and our ability to attune to human beings, person to person. This has only accelerated since 1920, until today society is substituting computers, video games, and other addictions, for yesterday’s simple face-to-face human contact.

We’ve got the “negativity bias” bred into our brains because our chill ancestors got eaten in the Serengeti so only the antsy, anxious ones survived.  Then in the industrial revolution we ended up with vastly reduced family time, to where  people were treated like luggage.
Today the IT revolution has virtually done away with face time.

But “the primal mood of the human being separated from close connection to other human mammals is fear,” says Dr. Tara Brach. Welcome to the Root Issue of what we’ll have to heal.


FN1  Types of early man are thought to have originated in Africa’s Serengeti plain.  Hanson, Rick PhD., “Neurodharma: How to Train the Brain Toward Mindfulness,” webiner series “The New Brain Science: Compelling Insights for State of the Art Practice,” September 28, 2011,
“We’ve got to get rewards, we’ve got to get food, we’ve got to get mates, we’ve got to get shelter –  the carrots in evolution. On the other hand, we have to avoid sticks. We have to avoid predators; we have to avoid aggression in our primate band; we have to avoid natural hazards; we have to avoid pain,” Hanson writes.
“So the brain has bias toward scanning for negative information, focusing on it, ignoring any good news, then storing that negative experience very deeply – in just one trial learning. For example, humans and other animals learn much more quickly from pain than from pleasure. To teach a rat to not go down a tunnel, you only have to shock it once. But to train it positively to go down another tunnel that has cheese, you’ve got to send it there a few times before it remembers.
“John Gottman’s findings show that on  the average it takes about five positive interactions in a couple to make up for a single negative one. Negative interactions are five times as powerful as positive interactions.  Seligman found it’s easy to train dogs, and by extension, humans, in helplessness. It only takes a handful of trials to train a dog into a sense of futility and depression. But it takes many, dozens and dozens, sometimes over a hundred trials to re-train that dog to see it can do something about it.”

FN3   Karr-Morse, Robin, Wiley, Meredith,  “Scared Sick,”  Penguin Basic Books, 2012; Introduction, p.xiv

FN4  White, Martha C., “The Real Reason New College Grads Can’t Get Hired,” Time, November 10, 2013

FN5  Siegel, Ronald D. “The Neurobiology of Mindfulness: Clinical Applications ,” Webiner series “The New Brain Science: Compelling Insights for State of the Art Practice,” October 5, 2011,  See also his seminal work:
Germer, Christopher K., Siegel, Ronald D.
, editors, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” Guilford Press, 2005

FN 6  Perry, Bruce, MD, PhD, “Born for Love: The Effects of Empathy on the Developing Brain,” speech to Annual Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference “How People Change: Relationship & Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy,” UCLA Extension, Los Angeles, March 8, 2013; Bruce D. Perry and Erin P. Hambrick, “The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics,” Reclaiming Children and Youth Magazine, Fall 2008 vol 17. nr 3,, (UCLA handout); Perry, Bruce, “Overview of Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT),” article on, 2010

FN7   Verrier, Nancy, PhD, “Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up,” self-published, Lafayette, CA, 1993

FN8  Wilson, John, ‘The voyage out – Life on board’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15-Nov-12

FN8   Brach,Tara, PhD, “The Mindful Path to Radical Acceptance,” Webiner series “The New Brain Science: Compelling Insights for State of the Art Practice,” October 25, 2011,

This is a blog done as a study for Kathy’s forthcoming book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.”  Watch for her posts each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

8,620 total views, 4 views today

Share Button

No Tears for Dad

#9 in my ongoing book series; original post September 27, 2013

After my 27-year marriage fell apart, by late 2007 I was reduced to writing long poems for Dan the East Coast rebound affair, in a bizarre attempt to figure out how his mind worked, why he kept calling me, and how to inspire him to “get it.”

My notebooks repeated one theme for two years:  I was dead — but now I want to be alive.  I’d been left “home alone” by my ex for so many years I thought I was dead, as I said during my divorce.  I emailed friends often in the months to follow that Dan had brought a dead woman back to life.  One March 2008 poem ends: “If you someday chose to take a breath/ I’ll be there at your command/ You gave me life, I owe you life/ Call upon it if you can.”

BrousBlog11a Turtle Stayin' AliveI didn’t learn until four years later that the reptilian brain stem controls a lot of these functions, and this feeling of being dead has a technical tag: dissociation.
Whu Nhu?

But Dan’s every “come here” ended in a “go away,” so I couldn’t stay alive.  I’d been so happy to escape the marriage torture chamber, divorce, and start a fabulous new life, I just couldn’t understand why I felt so lousy. “Dan ruined California for me,” I decided, and launched into a new round of kayaking, sailing, dancing and dating on the West Coast to replace him.  Good luck in that mindset.

Periodically I’d fly back and forth across North America, making money, visiting Mr. Wrong, and going nowhere at 600 MPH.  Who needed meth, I was high as a kite on my own hyper-schedule.

After a late 2007 trip to visit Washington DC defense sector clients and Dan’s Maryland fortress, I flew back to LAX into the worst Southern California fire season of the decade.  The desert from the air showed flames and plumes of black smoke rising as far as the eye could see, as if the plane were “just taking the tram into Mordor.”  A descent into hell, literally and emotionally.

My California dream had become a nightmare.  As 2008 wore on, Dan the Anti-Christ of Anti-Attachment was eating an ever-larger hole in my soul.  I spent days near LAX writing billion-dollar proposals for radar systems and nights writing Dan doggerel, trying to fathom my obsession and work it out of my system.

But no matter how I tried to fix my present, it never hit me that all this emotional pain could be from way far back in my past.

Reality Check

Reality finally hit when my father died and I couldn’t cry.

In spring 2008 I saw an ad for a concert of my all-time favorite, Mozart’s final ”Requiem Mass,” at a community college in Huntington Beach, and moved to take back my music.  On May 15, 2008, I sang the “Requiem” with full chorus and orchestra, realizing my dream to be singing again and in sunny California with a new start.

The next morning my brother-in-law phoned from New York to say that my Dad in Florida had just had a heart attack, please catch the next plane to Miami Beach.  California?  New life?  A little joy?  Kiss the vision goodbye for the Nth time, honey.

BrousBlog11b Amadeus PosterBack in the air across the country, back to the dreary East Coast I flew, Mozart’s fearsome call of Judgment Day ringing in my ears.  Back to my “family of origin” as it is technically termed, back to my parents and my younger sister.  Back, back, back in time.

My father lay in the hospital dying.  He had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and could do little more than groan and wave penciled lists of things that needed doing in the general direction of my mother.  He had had a stroke and acute respiratory failure as well; his major systems had simply given out.

Dad worked long hours into the night and on Saturdays for 40 years for his family because, as the Broadway song from “Carousel” goes:  “She’s gotta be sheltered, and fed, and dressed, in the best that money can buy.”  Yet there was always something strange about his situation. When at age 4 or so I first noticed Dad, he was controlled access only.  He’d come home late, Mom would allow my sister and I each a quick hug, say “Daddy’s tired” (always the same words), seat him in a back room with dinner and the TV on, and close the door with us outside.  She’d joke, “They never knew his name was Ralph; they thought his name was Daddy’s Tired.”

BrousBlog11c Billy Bigelow SunsetIt felt as if Dad was always off into the sunset somewhere, like the movie finale of “Carousel” where Billy the Dad returns to heaven after one day on earth.  Dad would say, “I learned in a house full of women to keep the toilet seat down,” as if he did not belong.

A few Sundays a year Dad would take us to the carousel in the next town, which I awaited eagerly as my only time of any duration with him.  I had such longing to belong with the colored lights and pretty horses, and for Dad to see me and recognize me as part of that beautiful setting.  But Dad didn’t seem to notice me; he’d put me on his horse in front of him and focus on jumping for the gold ring.  The big scary outside moving horses seemed to go awfully high up when I was so little and when Dad jumped it terrified me, but he just laughed.  I wanted to hang onto Dad but he was jumping, so I hung onto the horse’s leather strap instead.

The next memory I have of Dad was in school after the Kennedy assassination, when for no reason anyone could grasp, I began crying uncontrollably and went on sobbing in my room for weeks.  Finally Dad came in and said, “That’s enough now, cut it out.”  Mom and he were displeased when I cried as a kid and that was the signal to be quiet.  It never occurred to either of us for him to ask what was really troubling me, or to hold me while I cried.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Dad grew up in a big house with showcases of silver, plastic slipcovers on the furniture, and tennis courts.  His father was a New York City merchant who commuted to Manhattan every day by Long Island Railroad.  After the 1929 crash, Grandpa lost everything, but still went to the station every morning and sat there all day to keep up appearances.  One day the kids at school told my Dad where Grandpa was, and Dad had to go to the station and tell Grandpa “Come on, Dad, let’s go home.”  My Dad never connected this to post-war times, but when I heard the story, it hit me that appearances had always been really important in our family.

Now I realized watching Dad in the hospital, waving lists of things to do, that he was still trying to keep up appearances, to maintain some sense that he had control over events — in a situation where that is notoriously impossible.  I was reminded of the lists later when my sister Linda and I stumbled over eerily similar boxes of objects Dad had stashed at home.  Large cartons of nail clippers, endless cases of pencils, crates of bills from decades past, an empire of things he spent years trying to control.  Lynn was bemused, but I remember feeling scared and wondering why.

I haven’t mentioned Mom much, in order to let you continue to look over my shoulder and see events exactly as I did – or to be blind to them, as I mostly was.  Let’s simply say for now that another reason it was difficult to communicate with Dad was that it always seemed I couldn’t really speak to him except through Mom.  It was still pretty much controlled access.

Mom had her moments; one afternoon she held Dad’s hand and sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” until we all were in such tears that emails to the cousins reverberated across the internet. You could hear them singing along with Bing Crosby all 1,200 miles from Long Island, New York to Miami Beach, Florida that night.

But Mom wasn’t glad to see me, as usual.  I felt sad I hadn’t visited them more in later years, but Mom never seemed to want me around and I didn’t have the courage to face her.

When I arrived at the hospital Dad was visibly upset – “Kathy?!” he cried, almost in terror.  I can still hear the alarm in his voice.  It hit me that my face made him realize he must be seriously ill, if I were there all the way from California, and despite Mom’s resistance.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

BrousBlog11d Generic CarouselI spent the rest of May 2008 in what felt like a giant nation-wide United Airlines staging of “Carousel,” jetting round and around, back and forth from the hospital in Florida to Washington DC, where I had a  contract this time to work on a $2 billion proposal to restructure the national information systems at the Transportation Security Agency.

I never connected the two at the time, but in retrospect I was in such emotional pain seeing my parents in Florida, pain so severe I couldn’t even become conscious of it, that my resolve to kick the Dan habit went right out the window.

As I said when I first left home in 2006: “I was in so much pain, I just walked out on Newport Beach and proceeded directly to medicate.”  Straight from the hospital to Dan I went and for a few weeks his brand of organic chemicals numbed me up right fine.

On June 3, 2008, Dad passed away.  Back to Florida I flew.  My sister the Wall Street lawyer seemed to have the funeral service as well scripted as a prosecution.  But in fact it was Mom who literally wrote scripts for everyone but me to read.  Linda’s two sons balked at reading the scripts; they said they loved Grandpa, and wanted to speak of him in their own words.

But finally they had to agree, since Mom was distressed and everyone had to “make Mom feel better.” (Actually that had been everyone’s obligation since at least the 1960s, especially mine.)

Something in me rebelled as I saw this train coming down the track, and when Lynn asked me to start the service, I said “No, I’m the eldest, I’ll go last.” For some reason I’ve never understood, everyone accepted that as fact immediately.

My two nephews each got up and read their scripts, but then extemporized as teens will do, Lord bless ’em.  Linda’s husband spoke, then Linda read a speech she’d had me type for her the night before about the greatest Dad on earth.  “Of course I can’t type,” she said.  “I knew I’d never be a typist so I refused to take typing in high school.”  (I type 98.6 words a minute so I wasn’t sure whether that made me chopped liver but I let it go.)  At the service, Mom didn’t want to speak; she sat impassively.

No one had any idea what I was going to do, least of all me, until the last moment.  I rose and said, “Everyone else has said all the wonderful things there are to say about my Dad.  I’d like to do something for my family here.”  And then I sang; it was “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the finale from “Carousel,” a long-time family favorite.  The hundred person audience in the posh Miami Beach retirement home all cried and then, almost forgetting it was a funeral, applauded the long high note at the end.

Everyone cried, that is, except me.  I sang that whole slow sustained song acapella (no piano,  no nothing), and my voice was entirely clear.  “I never thought you’d make that high note,” my sister whispered later, “But you nailed it.  How did you do that?” I was shocked, too; I had no answer, but it came easily, and with perfect confidence.

The emotional soprano who cries whenever music moves her, at the movies, or on so many other occasions, could not find tears for her own Dad.  Actually I had tried to cry for days.  Lynn and I both remarked how strange it was.  I was worried, too.  It did not seem right, but there it was: I somehow felt nothing.

My Dad had died, and I could not cry.

This is from Chapter 2 of Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.  Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book every Friday, in which she explores her journey of recovery and shares the people and tools that have helped her along the way.

1,967 total views, 2 views today

Share Button

How Your Brain Works 101

#2 in my News Blog series; original post September 13, 2013

BrousBlog9a Perry head shotDr. Bruce Perry just put out his latest on “How Your Brain Works 101,” in his September 5 webinar for the National Council on Behavioral Health. Perry’s revelations at Dr. Daniel Siegel’s March 8  (2013) UCLA Conference “How People Change” hit me in the solar plexus.  Now you can hear him and download his slides, (Click here and scroll all the way down to September 2013). [FN1]

You know how your car works – don’t you want to know how your brain works? Click here for an introductory  video on how Attachment Disorder causes brain trauma  [FN2]  Click for Dr. Perry’s YouTube channel with educational videos in depth:

I first heard of Bruce Perry in August 2010; not his name, but his substance. I was commuting to another high-pressure defense job on the 91 freeway outside Anaheim, CA, worrying about how to pour concrete at Seal Beach Naval Base.  It didn’t look to my clients, or to me, as though I had anything wrong with my high-performance business brain.

On the car stereo was a CD by psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud. “Humans are neurologically designed, physiologically designed, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively designed, to be in a relationship where you are loved,” Cloud said to my shock. “You are designed to take aspects of that relationship inside of you, and they actually become a part of who you are.  My 17-month-old came into the world with nothing in her head.  A lot of need, not a lot of words, didn’t read.  Babies are all need and they cry. Adults must calm them, and the minute we put them down, they start crying again.

“But after we do that a million times, the gap for how long they can tolerate not being held gets wider and wider. They take our love from the outside, and it becomes part of them on the inside… Love becomes actual equipment that you take in and walk around with.” [FN3]  I felt sad; I couldn’t identify.

But watch how my body reacts to the right research:

Cloud went on, “We can now do scans of the brain of older kids who were in institutions and were not held, comforted or soothed, and there are parts of the brain which are dark. There’s nothing growing in there — because nothing was planted; neurologically there’s literally no brain activity. But the kids who were held and loved, those parts of the brain are physiologically growing.”

I nearly drove off the 91 overpass at 70 MPH. It hit me in the gut the minute he said it. “Oh, S#$%”, I thought, “parts of my brain are dark!”  (Go tell that to the Marines at Seal Beach.)

It wasn’t until 2 1/2 years later when some guy named Perry put up his slides at UCLA in March 2013, that I saw the pictures. It was brain scans of two children aged 3, a normal brain in grey, and one labeled “extreme neglect,” parts of which were black. In that moment, I knew Cloud had referred to Bruce Perry’s work. [FN4]

As I’ve shown in previous posts, maybe 50% of Americans have some degree of attachment disorder, neurological areas which didn’t get Dr. Cloud’s “love on the inside.”  We don’t want to go around with parts of our brain dark.

Most Primitive  Brain Develops First

BrousBlog9c Perry Slide1 Brain 4 PartsDr. Perry says we’ve got to learn about the neuro-biological growth of the brain in order of time sequence from  conception to later development in infancy and childhood.

He calls this the Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT).  Dr. P’s “Four Part Brain” slide above shows the time sequence from the bottom up: first the brain stem develops (pink); then the diencephalon cerebellum (yellow); they make up our primitive reptilian “survival” brain.  Next develop the emotional limbic brain which only mammals have (green), and finally the thinking cortex (blue).

Why time sequence? Our entire big Einstein brain is an outgrowth of its most primitive part: the brain stem (the knob at the top of the spinal chord), and its spin-off, the cerebellum.

This “reptilian brain” is in the back of your head at the level of the ears. It maintains rock bottom survival such as body temperature, heart rate, sleep, and breathing – all the functions you never think about which if they didn’t happen you’d be dead. Not only reptiles have the same apparatus but so do pre-bony fish like sharks. That’s humbling: our whole brain starts with something that primitive.

“During development, the brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain developing earliest,” Dr. Perry says. Reptile brain better hit the ground running at birth or infants don’t breathe; the rest of the brain can and does grow in later. “The majority of brain organization takes place in the first four years of life,” he says. “Because this is the time when the brain makes the majority of its ‘primary’ associations and core neural networks organize as a reflection of early experience, early developmental trauma and neglect have disproportionate influence on brain organization and later brain functioning.” [FN4 Op cit]

What goes wrong from “conception to 36 months” can fry our reptilian brain and put it in permanent fight-flight or freeze (dissociation shutdown). Then the entire brain can be thrown out of whack starting from its first cell divisions.

As the ACE Study has shown, this results in heart, gut, and many other chronic physical diseases throughout adult life.

“The brain is an historical organ,” Perry said.  “The NMT Core Assessment’s first step is a review of the key insults, stressors, and challenges during development. Intrauterine insults such as alcohol or perinatal care disruptions (such as an impaired inattentive primary caregiver) alter the norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine systems of the brain stem and diencephalon that are rapidly organizing. These early life disruptions result in a cascade of functional problems in brain areas these neural systems innervate.”

Think your thinking brain’s in charge? “Think” again – we’re arrogant about how much our thinking brain can do. Fact is, it’s the new kid on the block in the brain. It has a lot less influence than we imagine on the roiling instincts and feelings in the subconscious or “downstairs” brain, as Dan Siegel calls the rest of the brain below the cortex.  Siegel says the “downstairs brain” also  includes thick clusters of neurons associated with the brain stem that form around our viscera (heart, lungs, gut etc.).  Development of all that can go wrong from the hour the sperm hits the egg. It did with me.

“When a child has experienced chronic threats, the brain exists in a persisting state of fear,” Perry says. This “makes the stress response oversensitive, over-reactive, and dysfunctional due to over-utilization of brain stem-driven reactions. Such reactions become entrenched over time, and the ‘lower’ parts of the brain house maladaptive, influential, and terrifying pre-conscious memories that function as a template for the child’s feelings, thoughts, and actions.” [FN4]

“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is great if you have a developed frontal cortex – but we’re talking about a five year old kid who’s so scared to death most of the time that it’s shut down his frontal cortex ’cause he just saw his mother get shot,” Perry told his UCLA therapist audience March 8. “You’re going to do 20 sessions of CBT and expect change?  B#$$%&! (expletive)  That’s a fantasy.”  (Wild applause).

Listening to him talk, I can feel things inside me resonating, probably things that didn’t develop right in the womb, and I can feel it healing because, finally, here is compassion for my situation. It’s a remarkable experience.

When I hear Dr. Perry and his colleagues identifying these issues, it hits me in the solar plexus and the gut. I feel like someone is telling me “You’re not crazy, this actually happened deep inside you, you don’t have to conceal the pain anymore. You can be understood, you can be accepted as who you are.

“You can say exactly how you feel for the first time in your life and we are not going to run screaming from the room. We are going to accept you, because we can say scientifically that this is the way your cells developed in the environment you were in.”

Once I feel accepted in this profound way, I literally feel the problem begin to heal.  Dan Siegel reports that it’s been proven by brain scans that this feeling of acceptance and belonging produces re-growth of damaged brain tissues. It simulates the missed environment of love, acceptance and “we’re glad you’re here” which the infant was designed to experience at birth.

“Born for Love”

BrousBlog9d Perry Slide2 Attachment,StressBruce Perry and his Attachment Theory and trauma specialist colleagues like Bessel Van der Kolk, Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, and Mary Jo Barrett, are also overturning the American Psychiatric Association (APA) apple cart by calling this “developmental trauma.”  It starts in the womb and is continuous from there, going on in the pre-conscious years.

It differs completely from incident-by-incident based trauma such as assault, rape, school violence, or combat stress, which can hit at any age. These later “PTSD” traumas have been assumed to what trauma is, yet horrible as they are, they are just not all there is.

Many (like me) take a lot of damage in wrong therapy which treats developmental trauma as if it were incident trauma. The APA’s latest “what’s my disease” bible, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),” just out June 2013, doesn’t even recognize the existence of developmental trauma.

How to heal? Dr. Perry lays out the brain science behind Dr. Cloud’s idea of “getting love on the inside.”

“Attachment is when the baby learns by thousands of good experiences that stress is tolerable because it leads to reward opiates such as dopamine in our body, and that this pleasurable outcome is cathexsized to a person, Mom, who consistently attunes to it about this,” Perry said at UCLA. “When the baby feels distress, the attuned Mom feels distress and gets her own pleasure rewards by responding to the baby. So the infant brain weaves together the neurobiology of what interaction with another human being is, and connects it to stress relief, pleasure and safety, when this happens repeatedly. Ultimately, just seeing or hearing Mom makes you feel safe and pleasurable. Let a wounded combat soldier talk to his mom, and he’ll require 45% less pain meds.”

“Patterned, Repeated, Rhythmic Activity”

“Because the brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion, with symptoms of fear first arising in the brain stem and then moving all the way to the cortex, the first step in therapeutic success is brain stem regulation,” Perry said.  “An example of a repetitive intervention is positive, nurturing interactions with trustworthy peers, teachers, and caregivers, especially for neglected children who have not had the neural stimulation to develop the capacity to bond with others.

“Others are dance, music, or massage, especially for children whose persisting fear state is so overwhelming that they cannot improve via increased positive relationships, or even therapeutic relationships, until their brain stem is regulated by safe, predictable, repetitive sensory input.” An hour here and there of even sensitive therapy is rarely enough, he says.

“Children with relational stability and multiple positive, healthy adults invested in their lives improve; children with multiple transitions, chaotic and unpredictable family relations, and relational poverty do not improve even when provided with the best ‘evidence-based’ therapies. The healing environment is a safe, relationally-enriched environment,” he says.

“The only way you can move from these super-high anxiety states, to calmer more cognitive states, is rhythm,” Perry emphasizes.  “Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing.  You use brain stem-related somato-sensory network regulation, which make your brain accessible to relational reward and cortical thinking.”

Dr. Perry’s ChildTrauma Academy in Houston offers courses such as “Somatosensory Regulation Plan for Dysregulated Children” and “The Power of Rhythm: Music, Movement & Language.”  Somatosensory rhythmic programs at Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s Trauma Center in Boston feature yoga, drama, drum circles,  trampoline work, and more.

“If you want a person to use relational reward, or cortical thought,” he says, “they’ve got to be emotionally regulated first!  We must regulate people, before we can possibly persuade them with a cognitive argument or compel them with an emotional affect.  All our contingency-based models do nothing but merely escalate their negative arousal!”

Sound stupid, like your doctor saying “Scram and go cool off at the gym” ?  I thought so – until I tried it.  It works, big time. But what happened was so explosive, it’s another blog for another day.

The take-away is 1: Listen to Dr. Perry; figure out how your brain does work; see if anything he says resonates.  Call up the ChildTrauma Academy and get their materials and training on Somatosensory Regulation and the power of rhythm.

Or if you can’t wait, as I’ve said before, find a really empathic, loving therapist who knows trauma inside out, and bring him that Peter Levine book. [FN5]  That’s what I used to do somatosensory work before I heard of Bruce Perry.  You’ll need professional supervision when you do the exercises on the CD in the back of Levine’s book, and look out world.

Even if we’re 92, we can grow parts of our brain. Daniel Siegel did it with a 92-year-old lawyer using mindfulness practice. [FN6]


Excerpts from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all and related research of attachment and brain science are posted here every Friday. Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book, in which she explores her journey of recovery and shares the people and tools that have helped her along the way.


FN1  Perry, Bruce D. MD, PhD, “Helping Children Recover from Trauma,” National Council LIVE, National Council on Behavioral Health, September 5, 2013;  Scroll down to September 2013.

FN2  Bruce Perry, Daniel Siegel,, “Trauma, Brain & Relationship: Helping Children Heal,” (25 Minutes) – an introductory video on Attachment Disorder. A new understanding of how trauma effects the development of the mind-body system, and how it affects children’s behaviors and social relationships. Copies at

FN3  Cloud, Henry, PhD, “Getting Love on the Inside,” Lecture, April 2002 (CD), Mariner’s Church, Newport Beach CA, www.Cloud-Townsend, [Coauthor with Townsend, John, PhD, of “Boundaries,” Zondervan, 2004]

FN4  Perry, Bruce, MD, PhD, “Born for Love: The Effects of Empathy on the Developing Brain,” Annual Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference “How People Change: Relationship & Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy,” UCLA, Los Angeles, March 8, 2013 (unpublished).
Dr. Perry’s latest research and key slides (otherwise hard to obtain)  are in his National Council speech in FN1 above.
Key videos, articles on Interventions, Trauma, Brain Development/Neuroscience, etc. are at:
“The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics” by Perry, B.D. and Hambrick, E. (2008)  is  at:

FN5  Levine, Peter A., PhD, “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body,” Sounds True, Inc.,  Boulder CO, 2005; ISBN 1-159179-247-9

FN6  Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine,,  March 2011.  Check for the passage on a 92 year old lawyer code-named “Stewart.”

20,187 total views, 16 views today

Share Button