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A spectacular ability that can go wrong: post-traumatic stress syndrome

March 26, 2011

Recollection across time and space

I recall clearly taking one particular school-leaving exam in the late 1940’s. It was held in the school hall which had colourful stained glass church-like windows and wall to wall oak bookcases with a stage up front. Only the “big exams” were taken there. It was high summer in England and, as a sixteen year old  struggling to answer the exam questions, a light shower of rain commenced. The smell of the newly wet roads drifted through the open windows. It had been warm and the rain was welcome. Students sat at their separate desks and the adjudicator walked up and down between the rows.

Even today, after a long dry in Western Australia, far removed in time and space from that school hall in the UK, when light rain falls on hot roads, gardens and parks, the smell of that rain transports me back to the school hall.

A splendid ability of the brain: composite memory

This is a splendid ability of the brain. It has stored a composite memory of an event which I can recall across time and space just from the representation of the smell of rain. Obviously the original event had value and involved emotion (fear and dread of an exam!), so my brain learned place, colour, smell and the like and it is all brought back on cue….the smell of rain. Nowadays the emotion derived from the exam context has faded, that part of recall has grown faint, but the place and the smell and the event is still clear.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome: an unwelcome side effect

But there can be an unwelcome side effect of this remarkable ability of our brain.

My father was a marine engineer. He was at sea for the full six years of World War 2, initially sailing without a convoy for protection.  In 1942 his ship was torpedoed with much trauma and loss of life: he spent 3 days and nights in the Atlantic Ocean on an open raft before being rescued and taken to the Cape Verde Islands. He left the Navy in 1945 when the war ended and took a shore job. Tragically, in August of the same year at the time of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender, my fifteen year-old brother died due to a medical error.

My father survived for three years after the war but gradually deteriorated. He spent the next 13 years in and out of mental hospitals. At that time there was of course no such concept as  “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome”….. although something similar had been named “shell-shock” in the first world war but was often considered to be just cowardice.

“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is the unwelcome side effect of an otherwise splendid ability of the brain.”

Damasio A.,  Self Comes to Mind, 2010 Pantheon Books.

Remember, recall of composite, emotion charged events can occur from the representation of any part of that event.

Memory and Response to trauma

For me the part of the event that triggers memory was the smell of rain experienced during an exam. For my father, working in the late 1940s as a manager in a dry dock with ships’ engines, any part of his daily life could have triggered the appalling trauma of six years of war at sea; the danger, the fatigue, the fear and the loss of life. But we did not know what was happening…..neither in those days did the medical profession.

Antonio Damasio says “This is what happens to those who have been in a war zone and forever relive the sounds and sights of battle in haunting, unwanted flashbacks. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is the unwelcome side effect of an otherwise splendid ability of the brain.”

It goes without saying, that as far as my father was concerned, available medication and hospital treatment of mental disorders  in the 1950’s and 60’s left much to be desired…..but that is another story.

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