Allan N. Schore, PhD

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The Right Brain Implicit Self Lies at the Core of Psychoanalysis

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

Implicit Processes in Psychopathogenesis

During early critical periods of brain development relational trauma-induced arousal dysregulation precludes the forementioned facial-visual, auditory-prosodic, and tactile-proprioceptive attachment communications and thereby alters the development of essential right brain functions.  In contrast to an optimal attachment scenario, in a relational growth-inhibiting early environment the primary caregiver induces traumatic states of enduring negative affect in the child. This caregiver is inaccessible and reacts to her infant's expressions of emotions and stress inappropriately and/or rejectingly, and therefore shows minimal or unpredictable participation in the various types of arousal regulating processes.  Instead of modulating she induces extreme levels of stressful stimulation and arousal, very high in abuse and/or very low in neglect.  And because she provides no interactive repair the infant’s intense negative affective states last for long periods of time.

There is now extensive evidence which indicates that stress is a critical factor that affects social interactions, especially the mother-child interaction (Suter, Huggenberger, & Schachinger, 2007). Overviewing the literature, these researchers report that during stressful life episodes mothers were less sensitive, more irritable, critical and punitive, and showed less warmth and flexibility in interactions with their children.  They conclude, “Overall, stress seems to be a factor that has the power to disrupt parenting practices seriously and results in a lower quality of the mother-child interaction” (p. 46).  In a review of parenting issues for mothers who manifest chronic stress dysregulation and diagnosed as borderline personality disorders, Newman and Stevenson (2005) conclude, “Clearly, this group of women are very fragile and experience high levels of inner turmoil. This distress, often a product of their own experiences of early abuse and attachment disruption in abusive relationships, can be re-enacted with their own infants” (p. 392). 

This re-enactment occurs in episodes of relational trauma (Schore, 2003b; in press). Interdisciplinary evidence indicates that the infant’s psychobiological reaction to severe interpersonal stressors is comprised of two separate response patterns, hyperarousal and dissociation.  During these episodes of the intergenerational transmission of attachment trauma the infant is matching the rhythmic structures of the mother’s dysregulated arousal states.  This synchronization is registered in the firing patterns of the stress-sensitive corticolimbic regions of the right brain, dominant for survival. Adamec, Blundell, and Burton (2003) report findings that “implicate neuroplasticity in right hemispheric limbic circuitry in mediating long-lasting changes in negative affect following brief but severe stress” (p. 1264). Gadea et al. (2005) conclude that an intense experience “might interfere with right hemisphere processing, with eventual damage if some critical point is reached” (p. 136).  Recall that right cortical areas and their connections with right subcortical structures are in a critical period of growth during the early stages of human development. 

The massive ongoing psychobiological stress associated with unregulated attachment trauma sets the stage for the characterological use of right brain pathological dissociation over all subsequent periods of human development. In this manner, “traumatic stress in childhood could lead to self-modulation of painful affect by directing attention away from internal emotional states” (Lane et al., 1997, p. 840).  In a transcranial magnetic stimulation study of adults Spitzer et al. (2004) report, “In dissociation-prone individuals, a trauma that is perceived and processed by the right hemisphere will lead to a ‘disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness’” (p. 168).  And in functional magnetic resonance imaging research Lanius et al. (2005) show predominantly right hemispheric activation in PTSD patients while they are dissociating.  They conclude that patients dissociate in order to escape from the overwhelming emotions associated with the traumatic memory, and that dissociation can be interpreted as representing a nonverbal response to the traumatic memory.

Dissociation thus reflects the inability of the right brain cortical-subcortical implicit self system to recognize and process external stimuli (exteroceptive information coming from the relational environment) and on a moment-to-moment basis integrate them with internal stimuli (interoceptive information from the body, somatic markers, the “felt experience”) (Schore, 2003b, 2008, in press).  A deficit in this integration represents a dysfunction in one of the primary operations of the right brain.  According to Schutz (2005),  

The right hemisphere operates a distributed network for rapid responding to danger and other urgent problems. It preferentially processes environmental challenge, stress and pain and manages self-protective responses such as avoidance and escape…Emotionality is thus the right brain’s ‘red phone,’ compelling the mind to handle urgent matters without delay. (p. 15)

In patients utilizing pathological dissociation at moments of stress the red phone line is dead. These data clearly suggest a paradigm shift in psychoanalytic models of psychopathogenesis, from oedipal repression to preoedipal dissociation, the “bottom-line defense.” At all developmental stages dissociation is associated with a re-activation of maternal preoedipal attachment dynamics.

Neuroscientists contend that the right hemisphere is centrally involved in “maintaining a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self” (Devinsky, 2000), and that “impaired self-awareness seems to be associated predominantly with right hemisphere dysfunction” (Andelman et al., 2004).  They also conclude “A nondominant frontal lobe process, one that connects the individual to emotionally salient experiences and memories underlying self-schemas, is the glue holding together a sense of self” (Miller et al., 2001, p. 821).  In patients who as infants experienced “dead spots” in their subjective experience and subsequently characterologically access pathological dissociation, this “glue” of the right brain emotional-corporeal implicit self too frequently fails in stressful moments of arousal dysregulation. Thus there is a deficit in implicitly generating and integrating what Stern (2004) calls “now moments,” the basic fabric of lived experience created in continuous small packages of interactions with others. These are the smallest molar unit of lived interactive experience exhibiting temporal and rhythmic patterning, and they operate at an implicit/procedural “core” level of consciousness.  Dissociation is commonly understood as “a basic part of the psychobiology of the human trauma response: a protective activation of altered states of consciousness in reaction to overwhelming psychological trauma” (Loewenstein, 1996, p. 312), but it is important to note that this restriction is not just of explicit but more importantly implicit consciousness.

The fragile unconscious system of such personalities is susceptible to mind-body metabolic collapse, and thereby a loss of energy-dependent synaptic connectivity within the right brain, expressed in a sudden implosion of the implicit self, a rupture of self-continuity, and a loss of an ability to experience a conscious affect. This collapse of the implicit self is signaled by the amplification of the affects of shame and disgust, and by the cognitions of hopelessness and helplessness. Because the right hemisphere mediates the communication and regulation of emotional states, the rupture of intersubjectivity is accompanied by an instant dissipation of safety and trust, a common occurrence in the treatment of the right brain deficits of severe personality disorders (Schore, 2007, in press).