The Drama of Earth Systems (Pt 2)

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In November of 2000, I had the pleasure of attending a one-day conference on psychological trauma hosted by the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and entitled Twelfth Annual Southwest Psychiatric Symposium: Diagnosis and Treatment of PTSD. This conference featured several speakers who were experts in the area of psychological trauma. One speaker in particular really caught my attention. His name is Robert Pynoos, MD, MPH. Dr. Pynoos is a professor of psychiatry in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. The title to Dr. Pynoss’ talk was Danger, Trauma and PTSD: An Overview.[1] What made Dr. Pynoos’ New Mexico talk so memorable for me? Let me explain.

As Dr. Pynoos stepped up to the lectern, he tapped the keyboard on his laptop and a painting of Icarus’ ill-fated flight appeared on the screen. I remember hearing about the Greek myth of Icarus in grade school. From what I could recall, Icarus was the son of a craftsman, Daedalus. Daedalus built a set of wings made out cloth, feathers, and wax. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Icarus myth, “Daedalus warned Icarus first of complacency and then of hubris, instructing him to fly neither too low nor too high lest the sea’s dampness clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them.” Icarus ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun causing the wings to disintegrate and fall apart. Icarus fell to the sea where he drowned.

Dr. Pynoos allowed the painting to linger on the screen for several moments before he started his talk by saying something along the lines of, “I’d like to talk about the myth of Icarus, shown here on the screen. In doing so I would like to propose that the myth of Icarus is a trauma narrative, one designed to help a community heal from the collective psychological trauma that often results following a disaster such as an earthquake or even war.”

Wow! I was captivated. I had never heard of the concept of a trauma narrative, and that such narratives could be used to not only bring about collective understanding but also collective healing. Dr. Pynoos revealed that he had played a role in the relief efforts following the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that decimated many areas of Armenia in December of 1988. These relief and followup efforts spanning 25 years are chronicled in the 2022 book entitled Lessons Learned in Disaster Mental Health: The Earthquake in Armenia and Beyond edited by Dr. Armen K. Goenjian, MD and his colleagues from UCLA—Alan Steinberg, PhD, and Robert Pynoos, MD.

Dr. Pynoos told us that it is not uncommon for a group of people to experience a disintegration of brain functioning (not unlike the disintegration of Icarus’ wings) following a disaster. Apparently this is one way the brain protects itself from further damage. This is why it is imperative to provide psychological relief as soon as possible following a disaster so that disintegration does not become locked in. If trauma is allowed to “lock in” it could lead to PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. As a result of brain system disintegration, the midbrain could become disconnected from the upper brain. In the Icarus myth, this is represented by Icarus, now operating out of his midbrain, ignoring his father’s warnings. I would suggest that Daedalus is acting as a surrogate upper brain providing Executive Function skills for his son.

In an interview for Psychiatric Times[2] following the release of Lessons Learned in 2022, Dr. Steinberg makes this statement: “Adolescents from Spitak [an area hard hit by the earthquake] exposed to severe earthquake trauma manifested pathological interference with conscience functioning.” He continues, “These youth felt that they lost their conscience after the earthquake—that their conscience doesn’t work anymore—and thought that it was justifiable to act without consideration of morality to survive.”

Suffice it to say that such things as conscience, morality, and empathy are the purview of the upper brain, home to the Excutive Functions (which I covered in an earlier blog series). It’s incredibly insightful on the part of these adolescents that they can sense the input from the upper brain sliding away as the result of a trauma reaction. What these adolescents are describing is a dissociative process: parts of the brain dissociated one from another. So, a trauma narrative could also be looked at as a narrative of dissociation. As Louis Cozolino writes in his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, “Dissociation is a common result of the high levels of stress associated with traumatic experiences.” He continues, “Characterized by a disconnection among thoughts, behaviors, sensations, and emotions, dissociation demonstrates that the coordination and integration of these functions is an active neurobiological [systems] process.”

You may well ask if there is a way to heal from a collective trauma, or will Icarus always disobey his father and end up drowning in the sea. Well, as it turns out, evolution has provided humans and many higher order animals—elephants, many primates, dogs, horses, etc.—a way toward healing psychological trauma. It’s called mourning. And as Dr. Pynoos told us, the Icarus myth was probably used as a way of bringing about collective mourning.

Loss, grief, and mourning were central themes contained in John Bowlby’s work in the area of attachment. Bowlby too felt that the natural cycles of loss, grief, mourning, and re-membering that characterized attachment relationships carried with them the ability to heal following trauma.[3] As the work contained in the book Lessons Learned tells us, it could take decades to heal from trauma. Could trauma become locked in at the level of a country? Yes, it could.

In their 1967 book entitled The Inability to Mourn—Principles of Collective Behavior, the husband and wife team of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich provide evidence in support of the idea that Germany has not fully mourned the many losses it experienced following the close of WWII. The Mitscherlichs suggest that present day German youth (as of the late 1960s) embody this loss without being fully aware of its source. This ties with Bowlby’s idea that trauma can be passed on transgenerationally unless it is properly mourned at the collective level. Could this possibly be done? Yes.

In the next part, I’ll present an example of how the trauma of the Holocaust was collectively mourned in such a way that transgenerational transmission of trauma was greatly impeded. In terms of mourning collective trauma, this example really is a lesson for all of us. Without such collective mourning, it is entirely possible that large groups of people will at some level sense their conscience slip away leaving no choice but to act without conscience as a way to simply survive (paraphrasing Dr. Steinberg from above).



[1] Here’s a link to Dr. Pynoos’ biography that was used for the Los Angles conference Trauma, Culture & the Brain that took place in Los Angles, December 13-15, 2002:

[2] Here’s the link to this interview:

[3] I just wished to point out that a focus on loss, grief, mourning, and re-membering is often missing from so-called “modern” treatments of attachment theory. In my opinion, leaving such things as loss, grief, mourning, and re-membering, on the proverbial cutting room floor is a big mistake in that it takes healing out of the collective realm and isolates it in the therapist’s office. As the book Lessons Learned clearly points out, many times healing following trauma takes place out in the field and in the collective environment.

OK, one quick story to support the idea that healing following trauma often takes place in a collective environment, and also takes the form of reconnecting mind to body, left brain to right brain, or midbrain to upper brain. Not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01, I attended a workshop put on by Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma expert of some note. Dr. van der Kolk was asked to help with relief efforts (not unlike the relief efforts following the earthquakes in Armenia). He and his team set up walk-in clinics in the New York City area so that people could begin the process of making sense of the tragic events that had transpired. He was somewhat surprised when few people used the resources offered by these walk-in clinics. What he noticed, though, was that yoga studios were packed with people. He was also told by other relief workers that cell phone systems were still running at capacity. Apparently people were reaching out to friends and family as the first step toward healing. What Dr. van der Kok told us was that attachment relationships are key to healing. In addition, reconnecting mind to body within the self was equally important as far as protecting against PTSD becoming locked in. Dr. van der Kolk mentioned research that suggests that people who are securely attached and have a strong network of family, friends, and community have the best chance of healing following trauma. We’ll see this theme pop up again in the next post.