You’ve probably heard the phrase “at least it isn’t brain surgery” multiple times in your life. It signifies our general understanding that the human brain is one of the most complex organs in the body, and possibly also the least understood. While this is true to some degree, there have been multiple studies that delve deeply in the inner workings of our physical minds.
In the 80s, magnetic resonance imaging was invented, which allowed clearer studies of the brain through a process known as neuroimaging. In short, these MRI scans combined with other techniques and neurological knowledge allow a more in-depth study of how the brain functions.
Case in point: the amygdala reacts immediately to stressful situations, whereupon other parts of the brain will determine how to respond. For example: if you hear a loud bang, your amygdala will send a system-wide alert to the rest of your brain. From there, the separate regions will make judgement calls as how to best respond - and if it’s actually an emergency worth responding to. It does you no good to freak out and run away if the source of that loud bang was just something that fell from the counter.
It was found that victims of severe trauma have a bit of a short-circuit in their brains. The amygdala still reacts to dangerous and stressful situations, but the portions of your brain that help determine what is or isn’t dangerous is cut off. It’s as though your mind is frozen in such a way that the alert is rampaging through your system, but has no idea how to react.
Another interesting thing to note is that there’s a region in your brain called Broca’s area. It is, in essence, your speech center. It allows your ability to communicate with everyone around you using language in any form. Trauma shuts it down, meaning that those who suffer from trauma are completely unable to articulate what they’re experiencing.
There’s also a section in your brain called Brodmann’s area 19. The first time you see something, it goes through here first before being passed on to other regions in the brain. It’s only activated when something is first experienced. Most interestingly, this area in trauma patients become extremely active when they’re reliving their traumatic experience. Basically, they “see” their traumatic experiences as though they are happening in the present, regardless of how long ago the event actually happened.
You’ve likely heard of the three key brain ‘types’: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the primate brain. While a bit generalized, each of these types form the basis for the next. The reptilian brain is the foundation for the mammalian, and the mammalian is the foundation for the primate.
The reptilian brain governs all of your basic and necessary functions: breathing, heart rate, balance, and so on. The mammalian brain handles emotional input and response, stores emotional memory, and makes value judgements on your day to day life. The amygdala is a component of your mammalian brain. Finally, there’s the primate, or human, brain. It deals with your current consciousness - such as your ability to read this very article and process it. It also deals with communication, so Broca’s area sits in here. It also deals with your ability to imagine and think critically.
As humans, we developed these three levels in order to deal with our survival as a species, meaning that our brains are able to discern dangerous situations and automatically create an appropriate response up and down these three brain levels. In more extreme situations, your mind and body default into a fight or flight mode, which is when your mammalian brain sends out an alert to the rest of your brain, warning it of danger. So the mammalian brain, thanks to the alerts sent out by the amygdala, creates all manner of hormones to help produce the fight-or-flight response in your body. In the last article, cortisol was mentioned to be a stress hormone, but it isn’t the only one. Others include adrenaline, estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, and serotonin among others.
With these hormones flooding your mind and body, your human brain is able to instantaneously make the appropriate judgement call to leap into action if need be. It typically makes the ultimate decision as to what to do, by using past experience as well as stimuli from your environment. An increase in adrenaline, for example, allows you to run faster or fight harder if the situation demands it. It’s necessary for your individual survival.
Let’s say you’re in a movie theatre, watching the latest exciting superhero movie. There’s all sorts of action, with explosions, people getting hurt, and buildings collapsing. But your body doesn’t run away from this (or get into a fight), despite the highly stressful situation it’s in. This is your mammalian brain sending the signals, and your human brain telling the rest of your body that there’s nothing to fear; everything is fine.
What trauma does is sever this connection with your human brain.
Now imagine you’re in that theatre and you’re watching your favorite superhero movie. Only this time, when the explosions and fire happens, your mind short-circuits. It doesn’t know that what you’re experiencing isn’t dangerous. Your body goes into fight or flight and you take off running as fast as humanly possible, obviously a less-than-logical response.
Trauma victims are stuck in this perpetual mindset of ultimate survival and fight or flight, despite the danger having passed a long time ago. Because trauma victims aren’t able to regulate their mammalian brain with their human brain, those stress hormones keep getting sent even if there’s no need to.
As mentioned previously, you can use medication to control your body’s response to the increased levels of stress hormones. But that doesn’t stop the mind from actually sending more and more of them out. Therapy is absolutely necessary in fixing this short-circuit in the brain. They say balance is the key to life, love, and happiness. And this means that balance within yourself makes all the difference in the world.