Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Relational Trauma and the Developing Right Brain: An Interface of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology and Neuroscience

Allan N. Schore, PhD
UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine


At the core of Kohut’s model of psychopathogenesis is the central hypothesis that the mother’s traumatic failures of empathic mirroring lead to enduring defects in the infant’s emerging self. Self psychology thus proposes that disturbed physiological regulation results from primary disturbances in selfobject experiences, and that a defective self and an impaired regulatory structure lie at the foundation of early forming psychopathologies. Kohut highlighted the importance of “the role of specific environmental factors (the personality of the parents, for example; certain traumatic external events) in the genesis of the developmental arrest,” especially when “the mother’s response are grossly unempathic and unreliable…no transmuting internalization can take place, and the psyche…does not develop the various internal functions which reestablish narcissistic equilibrium.”3

Although there is a long history of controversy within psychoanalysis, the field is now very interested in the problem of trauma and in the unique survival defenses for dealing with early relational trauma. Laub and Auerhahn propose that the essential experience of trauma is a disruption of the link between the “self” and the mothering “empathic other,” and therefore the maternal introject, or mothering (selfobject regulatory) function, is deficient or “damaged.”46 They further contend “it is the nature of trauma to elude our knowledge because of both defence and deficit…trauma overwhelms and defeats our capacity to organize it.” In line with these self psychological principles, current neuropsychoanalytic models now posit that under the impact of developmental trauma, specific defensive and defective regulatory structures develop that lie at the core of the patient’s psychopathology.8

Psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and developmental traumatology are all now converging on dissociation, the bottom line survival defense against overwhelming, unbearable emotional experiences. Longitudinal attachment research demonstrates an association between traumatic childhood events and proneness to dissociation, described as “detachment from an unbearable situation,” “the escape when there is no escape,” and “a last resort defensive strategy.”47 Although Kohut never used the term dissociation, in his last book he characterized an early interaction in which the traumatized child “walls himself off” from traumatizing experiences:

If the mother’s empathic ability has remained infantile, that is, if she tends to respond with panic to the baby’s anxiety, then a deleterious chain will be set into motion. She may chronically wall herself off from the baby, thus depriving him of the beneficial effect of merging with her as she returns from experiencing mild anxiety to calmness. Alternatively, she may continue to respond with panic, in which case two negative consequences may ensue: the mother may lay the groundwork in the child for a lifelong propensity toward the uncurbed spreading of anxiety or other emotions, or by forcing the child to wall himself off from such an overly intense and thus traumatizing [experience, she] may foster in the child an impoverished psychic organization, the psychic organization of a person who will later be unable to be empathic himself, to experience human experiences, in essence, to be fully human.5

What can ongoing studies in developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, and neuropsychoanalysis tell us about the neurobiology and neuropsychology of attachment-relational trauma, and about dissociation, the mechanism by which humans “wall themselves off” from overwhelming emotional trauma? In this last section I discuss interdisciplinary studies which indicate that experiences with a traumatizing caregiver negatively impact the child’s attachment security, right brain maturation, and sense of self, and thereby lay the ground work for the use of pathological dissociation in various self pathologies.