chapter 15 fifteen
All the writing that I did about this yesterday vanished. For some reason, the computer did not save it. That is most disturbing!
I am revisiting Siegel/TDM/101-102
He says on page 101:
“Is there anyone for whom the past doesn’t shape the present? Of course not; our minds are always automatically comparing past experience with present perceptions as we anticipate the next moment in time. This comparing process is a natural outcome of the interplay among memory, perception, and consciousness, and defines the mind as an “anticipation machine.”” (TDM/101)
For infants, the past also shapes their present, and has done so since before their birth through the process of implicit memory formation and retrieval. All their interactions and experiences are actively forming their rapidly growing and developing brains. When an infant is experiencing chronic, ongoing and perpetual peritrauma, however, the process by which their brain and mind is forming is distorted. We know that in the end, this “comparing process” is altered and damaged. Adults who were severely and chronically abused as infants do not have this “natural outcome” operating properly, so that the comparing process, resulting from this “interplay among memory, perception, and consciousness” appears incomplete, faulty, or nonexistent.
When adults, for whom infant abuse occurred, look back at these crucially formative months of their lives, they will see that their “anticipation machine” is faulty and/or broken. If there was an option that we could purchase one of these “machine,” the most complex on earth, we would quickly determine that the one these infants have never passed any quality control. The sad thing is, the brain is not something we can return to the store and exchange or receive a refund for if it is defective.
We have to find out what is wrong, and then try to see if there’s a way to fix it. We will end up doing “brain surgery” on ourselves. And the purpose of this book is to help with this process, so we are not going at it with our dull, rusty hatchets.
With a severely abused and neglected, traumatized infant, what replaces the “anticipation” that a securely attached, well-cared for infant feels, is anticipation turned into foreboding. This dread, this fear of the approach of impending evil, is impacting the infant by becoming the very structure, patterning, and circuitry of the brain itself. It is far too simple a statement to mildly state that these will impact its experiences for the rest of its life. Peritrauma BECOMES the infant, though this is nothing like a becoming-as-pretty process. The infant brain, during infancy, is becoming the brain of the adult to follow. From that brain will arise a mind. From that brain and mind, SHOULD arise a self. But, as we shall see, this is not always the case.
Parents, or primary caregivers, are feedback machines to the growing “anticipation machine” of the infant’s brain. With every interaction and experience the infant has with its caregiver or caregivers, there is SUPPOSED TO BE a mind-to-mind interaction where the mind of the caregiver attends to and attunes to the emotional state of the infant – which in this early beginning stages of developing and growing a person – IS the mind of the infant. Any unhealthy, abnormal, or unnatural interference that occurs in the brain-mind of the caregiver as it interacts with the brain-mind of the infant will always impact the infant deleteriously.
Caregivers need to understand that the needs of the infant override their own needs. An infant is not a cute tiny doll, or a bothersome interference, or an object that simply reminds a caregiver of the miseries of their own childhood. An infant is a full-grown human being in-the-making. Caregivers MAKE the adult whose life will follow their experiences of infancy. These experiences BUILD the architecture of the brain and determine how the genetic potential of the infant will manifest itself. It will determine how the infant’s brain will WORK or NOT WORK correctly for the rest of its life.
If caregivers allow their own misery, their own traumatic past, their own distresses in the present, to override the needs of the infant in ANY of their interactions with it, this is an INTRUSION into the brain-mind of the infant. If they react to the infant in any way that scares it, they are literally feeding their infant toxic poisons. The stress chemicals released by the body during times of stress or trauma are powerful allies that developed during evolution to help the human race survive. Infants, and their bodies, however, were never designed to experience severe abuse by caregivers.
Trauma to an infant is unnatural, abnormal and unhealthy. (1) The stress chemicals damage its body and its brain. Traumatic interactions with caregivers, poison the body of the infant, which creates damage to the physical structure of the brain and how it functions and operates, which is astronomically harmful during these early months prior to age two when the brain is growing incredibly quickly. These traumatic states of acute distress created during abusive experiences with caregivers also (2) create faulty wiring and circuitry in the brain. They kill brain cells. They create and reinforce erroneous connections in the brain. And they (3) create extremely distressing emotions that will be stored in the brain and no doubt in the body itself, which will remain as a constitutional part of the individual the rest of their lives.
We all know that abusing anyone is wrong. We know that abusing a child is wrong. And we all certainly know that abusing an infant is about as wrong as it could possibly be. But it happens, and nearly always behind closed doors where few, if any, ever see it. Any time we turn our negative emotions, our traumatic memories, our inattention, our overpowering stress, any experiences from our own lives that is outside the concern-field of the infant – whatever the reason and whatever the circumstances – in the direction of these tiny human beings, we are hurting them. All caregivers are human. There will always be times when we know we are less-than-adequate at responding to these tiny people. Occasional minor discrepancies is not going to majorly or permanently damage them. What truly destroys an adult-in-the-making is trauma.
Trauma is most simply defined as experience that is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and is outside the range of ordinary human experience. There is a vast difference between what is ordinary for an adult to experience, and what is ordinary for an infant. Common sense tells us this. But we have to carefully examine the whole picture. We know infants are helpless by definition. They rely on their caregivers to meet their every basic need. But if we pay attention, they ARE making attempts to control the environment around them using the very limited array of tools at their disposal. They cry. They move their limbs around, and then their bodies. They have feelings, which they express appropriately according to their ages. And they attempt to communicate both their feelings and their needs to others in any way they can.
Caregivers need to pay them close attention. Any demonstration that an infant makes, in any way it can, of being alive is its effort to firstly stay alive and grow its body, and secondly to grow its brain-mind-self. Never again will these growth potentials of the brain or of body repeat themselves. Infancy IS the time for this growth and development to occur. The only time.
It is as simple as “garbage in, garbage out,” only with the brain-mind-self connection it is not only about physical nutrition. It is about person-to-person mind-to-mind interpersonal interactional experiences. From the infant’s end of the growth equation, it knows instinctively what it needs. We know the boundaries/external circumference of its body because we can see, touch and feel it. The boundaries of its brain-mind-self, though they are invisible to us, are equally important. We MUST know and respect this fact. When caregivers INTRUDE upon the realm of the infant, including ALL of its being, red lights, bells, sirens, terrorist alert signals should go off. It is dangerous!!
With peritraumatized infants, who are living in a dangerous environment, their being is nearly constantly being interfered with and intruded upon. On the most severe end of the continuum of trauma and abuse to infants, we will find parents who are not, themselves, in a normal, natural, or healthy state of mind. I would guarantee that in at least 95% of these cases, these caregivers brains-minds-selves were, themselves, damaged in their infanthood. The mind-to-mind interactions are missing inside themselves – they do not and cannot read or understand their own minds. Their brains were damaged in the growth and developmental stages of infancy, and they directly pass this damage, this “garbage,” down to their offspring by the nature of the interactional experiences they have with their infants.
If a caregiver cannot respond to their own state of mind, they will not be able to respond to their infant’s state of mind. Haywire is as haywire does. Bad input, bad output. Because when an infant is born, and its umbilical cord to its mother is severed, what replaces it is not only nutritional sustenance that it receives from its caregivers after birth, it is the MENTAL input as well. And that includes emotions. It includes all forms of physical touch interactions with the infant, including voice tones and facial expressions. The infant is, as all animals are, a sensory input machine. But being human means that we have an incredibly complex brain, the most complex and intricate structure manmade or natural on our wonderful planet.
We are born well before we have finished forming or we would not be able to be born at all. But just the fact that we make our physical appearance outside the womb does not mean that we are any less fully dependent on our caregivers than we were while still ensconced in the embryonic fluid of our mothers. But once we are born, our umbilical cord becomes invisible. And it is the cord that connects our growing brains to others’ brains that is our present concern. EVERYTHING that an infant experiences, but most vitally the interactions it has with the caregivers around it, are transmitted to and INTO its growing brain-mind-self. Siegel calls this a “flow of energy and information,” and that is exactly what it is.
Infants are like “sensory input machines” and everything they experience processes through their brains just like it does through our own. But we have already passed through our own crucial developmental stages. And just like our bodies had to develop and grow through stages, so that we could roll over, sit up, crawl, stand up, walk and run, so, too, did our brains and our minds go through invisible but correspondingly crucial stages of growth and development. And just like the human body will continue to grow into adulthood even if there is damage, distortion, or disability, so, too, will the brain-mind-self. And just as severe physical trauma can damage the physical body of an infant, severe mental trauma will damage its brain – its structure, circuitry, and functioning.
Chapter sixteen 16
By around nine months of age and infant has already experienced millions upon millions of interactions with its primary caregivers. Implicit memory has stored every one of them in the growing brain. Because the brain develops so quickly from birth to age two, we can see specific milestones in development of the infant’s perceptive, communicative, and social abilities. They correspond to the developing complexity of the physical brain itself.
When we are born, all the regions and compartments of the brain are not equally developed. Over time, as the brain grows itself with the material it is receiving from its interactions with the environment around it, the growing structures within the brain begin to operate. This is a gradual process during which there are specific developmental signatures that we can see if we are paying attention. Of course in the cases of severely abused and traumatized infants, there is a dearth of “attending,” or the trauma would not be occurring in the first place.
These mental representations are directly connected to the states of mind the infant has experienced while in the presence of these caregivers over the entire span of its experience with them. The infant makes these images, which are known as “virtual others,” directly from what it knows about these interactions. Not only are these “virtual others” meant to convey to the infant, if it has had adequate care giving, a sense of safety and security from these “attachment figures,” but being able to summon these virtual others to its mind is supposed to allow the infant to use the history of positive, caring, nurturing experiences to calm and to soothe itself. These secure attachment figures have already developed a long history of “holding the infant’s mind in their mind” during their interactions with it. They have a history of reflecting back, or of mirroring in their interactions with the infant the infant’s emotional experience, so that the infant has begun to recognize itself in the expressions, body language, and voice tones that have been reflected back to it by its attentive caregivers. The infant has used these interactions to begin to internally recognize its own emotional and mental states.
None of this is obvious to us from the outside. All this occurs during the flow of energy and information across the invisible umbilical cord of caregiver-to-infant interactions. Every interaction a caregiver has had, in fact ANY person the infant has been exposed to, is a form of communication during which this flow has occurred. The information, which the infant’s brain has used in its construction, is becoming a part of its independent mind.
The infant’s brain-mind-self has been engaged in the internal in-forming process that has been going on for the infant since before its birth. But at this developmental stage at nine months of age, past implicit memory begins to directly connect itself to present implicit memory. This is not a step that involves consciousness, but it is a first step whereby the infant can assert its own mind in its own behalf.
This is a crucial stage in the process of brain development involving memory. It is, in effect, a doorway between two universes: a primary one, and now a secondary one. The first universe, which the infant has been participating in from birth until nine months, is known as a stage of “primary subjectivity.” The infant’s brain does not initially have an ability or capacity to separate experiences from one another, or to have any sense of a self that experiences experience. It begins life as a “sensory input machine” that subjectively is internalizing everything it experiences, and has no ability to be objective about anything. The infant and its environment are a “one thing.” The infant has neither a sense of time passing nor a sense of a self in space or place. The infant and everything around it is merely and “event.”
In considering the effects of severe trauma and abuse on an infant, I use the analogy borrowed from astrophysics of “an event on an event horizon.” This term applies to an invisible line surrounding a black hole that is a field of limitation. If light crosses its event horizon, it will inevitably be drawn into the black hole and disappear. The event horizon for light is closer to the black hole than is the one for physical matter. But in any case, this line, or this event horizon, marks an area of no return.
An infant is born poised on such a line. The experiences that it has, what is done to it and what the infant does with what is done to it, determines where in relation to this invisible line of no return the infant exits. We all like to think that an infant will come to exist on the living side of this line. But there are situations where the infant either never gets a “self,” and therefore never gets off of this line, or it is forced across the line into destruction.
This age of nine months is one of the periods in a human life that can be seen as a “tipping point.” It is the stage, as the brain begins to use its new capacity to form an unconscious link between past and present, that is a transition point toward the development of “self.” Primary intersubjectivity now becomes “secondary subjectivity.” No longer is it JUST direct subjective experience that impacts and influences the infant. The infant begins to use its MIND by forming a secondary “thought” or “image” in the mental representations it can now form of its primary caregivers as “virtual others.” It can experience the “other” as distinct from itself, but still on an implicit level. This means that there is yet no ability to have conscious memories, only unconscious ones.
- These infants also experience a positive anticipatory state regarding the return of their securely attached caregivers.
For these infants, a walk through the doorway of their primary intersubjective universe into their secondary intersubjective universe is a natural and easy process. The structure of their brains, based on positive interactional input from nurturing caregivers, allows them to utilize their brain’s new capacity to begin to connect past to present, to begin to recognize that people exist in their lives, to begin to recognize that they are a person that these people interact with, that there are safe people in the world — that the world has safety in it, that the past is good, that the present is good, that others are good, that they are good. Hope, trust, happiness and a sense of safety are already built, through implicit memories of experiences, into the brain-minds of these infants.
What is extremely important for us to realize is that not only is the self of the infant being born into adulthood through this process and in this positive internal environment, it is born into the world AS A RESULT of it. An individual self is the end product of a natural, normal and healthy developmental process. If these necessary qualities of this process are absent, a self will not be born. Just as adequate nutrition and an absence of toxic substances are necessary for an infant to be born healthy in the first place, a healthy environment with adequate mind-to-mind interactions through interactions with a secure attachment with caregivers is necessary for the development of a normal and healthy brain-mind-self. If a infant lives in a chronic environment of trauma, abuse and neglect, the good will be missing, and the bad will be present. The infant’s brain-mind-self damage will be damaged as a result. This is not a promise. It is a guarantee.
Chapter seventeen 17
Some infant’s lives are not secure. They are not happy and they are not safe. In fact, their lives are not only barren, they are dangerous. While we usually feel badly when we hear news that someone has killed their infant, we must at the same time realize that in many cases, these are the fortunate ones. I accept that this is a radical statement and a drastic one. But I also understand that we are considering truly drastic situations when we consider what truly happens to infants that endure and survive the chronic acute state of peritrauma through abuse so that they have to enter the world of adulthood with brain-mind-self damage.
When we allow infant abuse to continue to occur, we are destroying lives and eroding the fabric of our civilization. The intergenerational transmission of unresolved trauma is an “invisible” plague among us. We must recognize the symptoms. We must intervene, prevent and eliminate this plague. We must educate ourselves, eradicate our ignorance, and summon our courage on behalf of the infants that are entrusted to our society to care for. We are ALL their caregivers. We are ALL their virtual others, for they will grow up and join us in the ranks of all the people walking among us – the good and the bad. Their problems are our problems, and if we are honest, there’s nothing invisible about them.
As long as we relegate the plight of the abused infant to the category of “other” we will never mature as a race – the human race. As Temple Grandin notes in her wonderful book, “How Animals Think,” it is the fact that humans can extrapolate information and generalize it to other settings, can synthesize complex information into coherent wholes, can attain self-consciousness, can combine millions of tiny details into a big picture that makes us think differently from other mammals. Yet in my mind, the fact that we are missing many if not most details in our process of being human, often means that we miss the aspects of life that are most central and significant.
An infant born into this life is like a tiny seed, full of potential. And when it hits the waters of life it will make ripples. Inside that seed is the self of the individual. If the necessary experiences vital to the self’s birth are not provided for that infant, the seed will not open so that self with its potential will be born. Every detail of an infant’s life goes into the formation of its brain. Most of the interactions that are most crucial to its development occur behind closed doors, in the “privacy” of the family’s life into which it has been born. How can we see those tiny details? And if we can’t see them, then how do we stop infant abuse?
Most researchers and clinicians use “normal, healthy, and secure” as their primary, fundamental frame of reference for their studies, conclusions, extrapolations, and for the development of their classification categories and for their theories. From “ordinary” they occasionally note the “deviances” thye discover or discern. But in reading their professional “stories” I have found it nearly impossible to make any coherent sense out of what they are saying about normal, let alone about “extra-ordinary” brain-mind-self development so that I can apply it directly to the subject of traumatic infant abuse and its consequenes.
So while I am extremely appreciative of the platform of knowledge they have struggled over many years to construct, I also have to take a path of more, not least resistance to discover and uncover the information that seems most vital and significant to me. When we talk about infant abuse, we all know we are not talking about the “ordinary.” We are talking about the “extra-ordinary” experiences of trauma. And I have found that researchers would much rather put their efforts into describing what “ordinary” is than taking a close look at the harsh reality of infant abuse and its survivors.
When we use the word trauma, we might as well recognize that we might as well be referring to the middle name of human race. We are here because we could adapt to it, survive and endure. This is as true on the personal level as it is on the global one. And from our vantage point at the apex of existence, from the top of our pyramids above the food chain, we also know that what got us here is our brain-mind-self abilities.
Most all of us take the development of our brain-mind-selves for granted, both in terms of the millions of evolutionary years it took for us to get “ourselves” and in terms of our own infant-to-adulthood stages of development. The processes an infant’s mind goes through to develop is just a tiny parallel version of the grand scale process we went through as a race. If the human race had tried to evolve collectively under the conditions an abused infant has to develop under, we never would have made it to the present.
Infant abuse is a form of cannibalism, although most of it is probably “unintentional.” In any species, when primary caregivers of offspring become predators of those same offspring, something has seriously gone awry. That humans can cannibalize their infants mentally through their interactions with them is a condition unique to the human race. But no less devastating. We could say that this is nature’s way of taking care of things. But as we allow infant abuse to continue to occur, we are allowing not only the destruction of individuals often with great talents and abilities to offer society. We are incubating predators in our midst that will in turn may not only prey on their own offspring, but that might prey on the rest of us as well. And I don’t believe anywhere in the natural world does any species enjoy being eaten! Especially alive!
In the case of infants, you are either with them or you are against them. Yet in order to protect them, we need to look in what might seem to be the most unlikely place. We have to look at ourselves. If we know that we came from a childhood where we were loved, cared for, adored and nurtured adequately from birth, and have a secure connection with ourselves and with all life around us, then we have a great deal to offer and would benefit from being extremely thankful in return for what we have been given.
Childhoods and caregivers do not need to be perfect to be adequate – to be “good enough.” We already know, with a simple honest look into ourselves, if there was something wrong with our childhoods. And I use “wrong” as a concept that encompasses a graduated continuum from bumpy to impossible. We know if there was “a little bit of trouble” or if there was “a huge pile of trouble.” We always know, even if we are still denying the major impact of a troubled and troubling past.
What I am proposing in this book is that those of us with a sense of the “wrongs” of our childhoods need to reexamine what we know using a more perfected set of lenses. If your sense of your childhood includes an awareness that there was something wrong before you reached the age of two, then this book will be especially important to you.
I suggest that you do not look to your parents for elucidation of specifics of infant trauma and abuse. Very few parents allow that information to escape from the past. It can be helpful for you, however, to go to them or to any other person who can provide you with facts – with what is called “semantic or noetic or factual” information about the events occurring for your family and your parents at the time of your conception, birth, and infancy especially up until the age you were two.
Confrontation and further alienation is not the goal here, so a word of caution: Be very, very careful of yourself, and be cautious and wise. I can tell you this from my personal experience: In spite of my vague awareness when I was 20 that there had been something “wrong” with my childhood, I had not yet faced any aspect of it. Not as a child and not as an adult. When my oldest daughter was three years old, I decided that maybe I needed to consult with a therapist. But when the first statement to me that came out of my therapist-to-be’s mouth was, “Tell me what was going on in your life when your daughter was born,” I looked at her and instantly replied, “You don’t want to know. You don’t EVEN want to know.” And then I did what any normal survivor of a truly traumatic and an unendurable childhood would do. I turned tail and ran away as fast and as far as I could and never looked back. (See reference in back of book to the “Family Tree” exercise)