There’s an unpredictable neural trickster living inside each of us, taking up residence in the dendrites and synapses that weave their way through the right side of our brain. It’s been living there since before we were transformed from embryos into fetuses – between weeks seven and eight in utero. By then, great learning has already begun and the primary driver of learning and brain development turns out to be … sound! (One reason hearing is one of the first senses to develop and the last to leave us?). Especially powerful is the sound of mother’s voice, which we begin paying close attention to during this important time. The growth that begins unfolding, driven powerfully by mother’s voice initially, almost immediately begins making a preponderance of connections on the right side of our brain.
Many months later, as we begin to acquire language, this lopsided neural development and connectivity will begin to shift over to the left side of the brain. But this period before we acquire language is when much of consequence in our lives that causes great anxiety or poses a threat to our survival gets registered and stored in the brain without words. These memories are something attachment researchers call The Unthought Known.
The Birth of the Unthought Known
British psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas first coined the phrase “The Unthought Known” more than 20 years ago. What he meant by those words is anything that we “know,” but for any variety of reasons, cannot actually think about. They may be things we’ve forgotten or have an intuitive or felt sense for that we sometimes find ourselves desperately struggling to put into words. Much of the content of the Unthought Known obtains from experiences in utero on and up through the first three years of our lives. Memories of these experiences live in the boundary between our conscious and unconscious mind. In addition to dreamwork and non-verbal forms of therapy, the stress we feel in our bodies is one of the primary ways to trace and uncover much of the content of The Unthought Known.
During this period before we acquire language, each of us is subject to many stressful experiences, first by proxy in the womb as a result of stress our mothers experienced. If the stress is long enough and strong enough, and a return to pre-stress levels is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, our developing brain takes emergency action to shut off the “fight or flight chemicals” (cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, glutamate, etc.) through the use of inhibitory neurons which make up roughly 30% of the brain. You can see a depiction of Inhibitory Commanders at work by visiting the Blue Brain website. This inhibitory action by the brain, in the face of unremitting stress, can then result in what neurobiologist Robert Scaer has accurately termed “dissociation capsules.” Simply put, dissociation capsules are parts of our neural network that record and store the memories of stressful experiences. These neurons and the memories stored in them are held in check and prevented from firing and from connecting to the larger network by inhibitory neurons. Before we acquire language, these experiences are stored in the right side of the brain primarily as image and sensation. This is most likely the process by which The Unthought Known is created – virtually from conception through birth and into our first few years, the brain stores stressful experiences without the benefit of language.
Neurological Pile Ups
Having few words to speak of such experiences turns out to be a problem for neural integration. Having areas of our neural network not fully operational is less than optimal. It’s like having a pileup on the Autobahn that no one has taken the time or initiative to clear out in order to get traffic easily flowing again. It’s also very stressful. The brain recognizes this suboptimal situation however, and will earnestly attempt to get things cleared up and working again. Some of the ways it attempts this (often unsuccessfully) are through the creation and expression of things like nightmares and panic attacks.
Another way the brain appears to attempt repair is through something Freud long ago identified as the repetition compulsion. Taking his lead from Freud and French psychiatrist Pierre Janet, Harvard trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk has identified that our “body keeps the score,” and it does so beginning shortly after conception continuously through our whole lifespan. What it keeps score of are real or perceived threats to our survival. Much of that score-keeping, unfortunately shows up in our neural network as the previously-mentioned dissociation capsules. Dissociation capsules most frequently occur when overwhelming experiences take place that leave us frozen or immobilized. Surgical operations that employ a general anesthesia are an all too common example of such an experience. With babies strapped to a swaddling board, circumcision is another (My suspicion is that physical movement restricted by swaddling itself may lead to less than optimal neurological development).
One of the ways the reticular activating structures of the brain work to help re-open and re-connect these non-operational or minimally functioning neural structures is by continually scanning the environment in order to find people, places and circumstances that have a similar look and feel to those that created the original encapsulations or engrams. In doing so, somatic psychologists Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton and Clare Pain contend that re-engaging with “familiar” people and/or circumstances and being able to take “triumphant action” in the presence of a significant, understanding, other person, often results in these non-functioning neurons being able to reconnect back up to the larger network and return to being a healthy, reintegrated part of the larger brain. This process of unconscious parts of our brain and mind working to continually move in the direction of greater integration can be a profoundly stress-generating process. Why?
Revisiting Our Wounding
One reason is that in an attempt to resolve early overwhelming experiences, it is continually attempting to place us back in circumstances that we originally were overwhelmed by. And resolution unfortunately, is not so easy to accomplish. When our internal neural trickster guides us into situations with familiar traumatic elements in them, and resolution fails to take place, there is growing laboratory evidence that we suffer damage on top of the damage that has already occurred.
Fortunately, in recent years a number of innovative therapies have been developed to address the stress generated by memories stored in The Unthought Known. Many of them are somatic-based in their approach, incorporating the recognition of the important role played by the body. Some, such as EMDR and Cranial Sacral Therapy, are continuing to have rigorous studies done to confirm their efficacy. Others, like Hakomi, Somatic Experiencing, Emotional Freedom Therapy and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy have a preponderance of anecdotal evidence available in support of their effectiveness. With continuing research efforts and application, in the not-too-distant future, we may all come to better know and be significantly less stressed by The Unthought Known.