Listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Bessel Van Der I discovered an interesting paradox about stories and trauma: It is normal, even vital, for stories to change.
The nature of memory is that it transforms and gets integrated into stories — our life narrative. The stories we tell about our lives change over time and help us make sense of our world. And stories are unique to the individual. Think, for example, of the variation amongst the stories your parents and siblings would tell of your childhood.
This is a very old observation made by many, including Freud.
What is so extraordinary about traumatic memories is that the brain doesn’t allow the story to be created. Instead, the memories are relived in the form of images, sounds. And these physical sensations do not change over time. For example, someone who continues to see the wallpaper of the room in which they were molested.
George Vaillant did a study called the Grant Study (1939-1942) that followed classes at Harvard every 5 years and continues to do so. Most of them went off to war in 1942 and returned in 1945. They were interviewed every five years and found that people who did not develop PTSD tell very different stories. It becomes a coherent narrative and progressively we inject meaning or happiness. People who are traumatized tell the same stories since 1945. They cannot transform it.
Stories restore our body. They, quite literally, relax our senses, letting us feel safe. Antonio Damasio, author of the book The Feeling of What Happens says, “The function of the brain is to take care of the body.” Stories are our brain’s way of taking care of itself.
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