In the face on impending danger, the human brain resorts to primitive instinct to seek salvation. Instincts that drive humans to run from fires, fight off attackers, and hide from their worst nightmares. When those nightmares live deep inside their own minds rather than outside the body, the only way to escape them is through dissociation. Dissociation, the process of disconnecting one’s conscious awareness from his or her physical being to achieve a state of being “away” from reality, provides average humans with a relief from the brutalities of everyday life and victims and witnesses of serious traumas a way to avoid their memories. Popular belief dictates that excessive dissociation indicates insanity, while contrarily, it indicates an individual with heavier than average reliance on this intrinsic reflex. Rather than serving as an indication of insanity, dissociation functions as an innate, biological defense mechanism against memories of trauma to protect against the recurrences and recollections of the original traumatic event.
To begin, the limits of understanding the extent of shared sensory perception between humans contribute greatly to the idea that dissociation is not an abnormal phenomenon. One cannot accurately self-evaluate his or her perceptions and decipher whether they may classify oneself as “normal” due to the restrictions set by the fact that humans possess an inability to completely comprehend another’s perceptions. Resultantly, formulating a definite, all-encompassing line between the extremes of sanity and insanity cannot be achieved. For example, even the most basic sensory perceptions may differ immensely between individuals. Two people may classify a certain stimulus under the same label; yet perceive it in a completely different manner. During a session with Stout, dissociation patient Julia states, “‘two people can agree that the clear blue sky is blue, but does the actual color blue look the same to both of them? Who knows?’” (Stout 429).
Without the ability to appreciate another’s perception, and the perception of the general population, one cannot conclude that what he or she perceives is out of the norm. This may lead one to falsely conclude that their perceptions of the world are abnormal, when contrastingly many may share the same observations. Building upon the idea of the binds upon mutual understanding between humans, one may assume that other’s perceptions are the same as their own, rather than that they may be unique to the individual. Julia’s experiences of dissociation lead her to lose large chunks of her memory, particularly from her childhood. However, she did not initially realize that her experiences of dissociation and memory loss were more extreme than that of the general population because she, “‘just assumed, sort of tacitly assumed, that everyone’s memory was like mine, that is to say, kind of blank before the age of twenty or so. I mean, you can’t see into someone else’s mind, right?’” (428).
This innocent assumption led to Julia believing for years that the gaps in her memory occur in any other average individuals as well. Unable to clearly identify another’s individual human experience, Julia could not be expected to formulate an accurate idea of the normality of memory. Losing parts of her memory permeated her life since childhood, “‘it was [her] reality, and so of course you never questioned it, any more than any other child questions his reality?’” (434). These experiences of dissociation saturate the lives of many individuals, yet they fail to question these experiences because they are part of what builds up their reality and their normality. To these individuals, memory loss and divided awareness constitute “normal,” therefore blurring the line of the classification between what is “normal” and “sane” versus the contradictory.
Next, divided awareness occurs on different levels to nearly all individuals in society and results directly from neurochemical processes. The human brain uses dissociation to protect against the recurrence of a tragic event by creating high levels of vigilance in similar situations to the original trauma. In doing so, the brain manages to indicate to the body that danger may be approaching while avoiding complete reminders of the trauma. When a traumatic memory is encoded, “Overwhelming emotional significance registered by the amygdala actually leads to a decrease in hippocampal activation, such that some of the traumatic input is not usefully organized by the hippocampus, or integrated with other memories. The result is that portions of traumatic memory are stored not as parts of a unified whole, but as isolated sensory images and bodily sensations that are not localized in time or even in situation, or integrated with other events” (421).
The brain recognizes that a given memory contains too much emotional significance for the body to handle, so in an act to preserve the health and sanity of the individual, the memory encodes in fragments to allow increased caution in similar future situations while also suppressing the majority of the recollection. Dissociation, utilized as a neurological defense against traumatic memories, occurs at some point on different levels to all members of society. If the majority of individuals share the same experience, it cannot be classified as abnormal. However, people tend to attempt to differentiate themselves from the “insane” that dissociate by classifying their own instances of dissociation as ordinary distractions. In actuality, most people experience a smaller scale of the same kind of dissociation as those they label “insane.” Stout points out that, “similar is the common experience of the daily commuter by car who realizes that sometimes she or he arrives back at home in the evening without having been aware of the activities of driving” (432).
Nearly every human, at some point in time, finds him or herself completing a task so habitual that it requires no conscious effort at all. During this time, the individual’s consciousness dissociates from the bodily task at hand. If not as common during one’s adult life, every child experiences divided awareness. Stout makes the critical point, “In the interest of play, a child can, in a heartbeat, leave himself behind, become someone or something else, or several things at once. […] It is clear to anyone who really looks that normal children derive unending joy form their superior ability to leap out of their ‘selves’ and go somewhere else, be other things” (430).
Only a process with such innate and biological foundation such as dissociation appears in early childhood in the majority of average children. The frequency of childhood dissociation proves that the brain innately utilizes the process as a means of escaping the current reality for a variety of reasons, especially to protect against traumatic memories. Although many people tend to dissociate to varying degrees, everyone experiences dissociation to a certain extent. This point clearly illustrates that the process of dissociation does not indicate abnormality, rather a more exacerbated biological reflex.
Finally, dissociation serves as a pivotal tool in preventing the reoccurrence and pain of serious traumatic events that occur in one’s lifetime. The brain encodes specific details surrounding the memory that form into danger indicting triggers when faced with similar stimuli in the future. For example, Stout describes a woman named Beverly’s extreme reaction to her surprise when a train screeched to a stop at the train station. She indicates that the sound of the train reminds Beverly of the emotions she experienced as a child when she witnessed her younger sister get struck and killed by a car. In order to avoid any possibility of really experiencing that pain and fear again, “In reaction to relatively trivial stress, the person traumatized long ago may truly feel that danger is imminent again, be assailed full-force by the emotions, bodily sensations, and perhaps even the images, sounds, smells that once accompanied great threat” (422). The brain develops a hyper-vigilance to the situations that reflect the original trauma, so by inducing anxiety and instincts to run and hide, the trauma may be avoided again in the future.
Dissociation works ingeniously in the way that it allows victims of trauma to maintain the feelings of fear and anxiety in the presence of triggers, yet represses the majority of the original traumatic memory. The process saves traumatized individuals from completely reliving these memories, which can be mind-blowingly painful due to the fact that, “On account of our neurological wiring, confronting past traumas requires one to re-endure all of their terrors mentally, in their original intensity, to feel as if the worst nightmare had come true and the horrors had returned” (423). This process of entirely re-experiencing the original trauma, for many people, goes beyond the realm of their mental and emotional capacity. Lastly, besides only protecting against painful memories, dissociation proves useful in protecting against the pain of recurring traumas as well.
As a means of disconnecting with one’s physical self, it can provide release from the anguish of abuse and other mistreatment. Stout describes that, “Agony that is psychological can be dissociated, too. While she was being abused, Julia developed the reaction of standing apart from herself and her situation. She just stopped being there” (428). By detaching from her reality for a period of time, Julia utilized dissociation as a coping mechanism for surviving the brutal abuse she faced throughout her childhood. She allowed her intrinsic, neurological reflexes to take over and protect her, and allowed her consciousness to drift far away from reality. Dissociation saved Julia from a lifetime of childhood abuse and continually serves as a coping mechanism throughout her adult life, proving to be a highly utilized biological reflex, rather than indicator of insanity.
In a world where the perspectives of others may never be truly understood, one may not draw a line between the classifications of sanity and insanity. Those individuals who rely heavily upon dissociation, which most of the general population views as “insane,” simply employ a universal, instinctive protective mechanism against the horrors of traumatic memories. When faced with emotional triggers, they separate their conscious awareness from their physical beings and allow themselves to reach an altered state, one where the pain can no longer reach them. Rather than viewing this as an abnormality, those who dissociate should be admired for the impressive pliability of their consciousness and effective mean of avoiding emotional stimulation beyond their capacity of control. The ability to dissociate sits within the depths of every human brain, and the choice to employ this coping mechanism does not indicate insanity, rather, it indicates the strength to continue to live after the experience of an unimaginably painful suffering.