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I Am an Avatar of Myself

Fantasy, Trauma, and Self-Deception

Terry Marks-Tarlow

Terry Marks-Tarlow employs neurobiology to help explore deception in nature and self-deception in human beings. She examines activities that may appear playful but that lack such hallmark qualities of play as equality, mutual pleasure, and voluntarism and that can, therefore, prove psychologically destructive. She warns that the kind of playful interactions of parents and children that help connect the concept of self with the concept of other and to expand children’s imaginative horizons during healthy development may turn defensive and do harm during severe trauma. Such interactions can shrink mental horizons, help separate mind from body, and facilitate the disconnection of the self from others. These devastating outcomes occur especially when play-like activities seem to offer in fantasy a safety absent from real life. The author uses the clinical case of a victim of sexual abuse to illustrate such unhealthy activity and the compulsion and dissociation it creates, which can foster the epigenetic transmission of incest from one generation to the next.

Compared with Herbert Spencer’s (1873) outdated view of play as frivolous and without purpose, the very existence of the multidisciplinary American Journal of Play provides evidence for an important switch in perspective. All forms of play, especially the imaginative variety, appear critical to healthy human development. As study after study attests, researchers posit multiple developmental functions for play, including practicing adult roles (Sutton-Smith 1997); internalizing culture (Winnicott 1972); symbolic representation (Piaget 1962); narrative skills (Nicolopoulou 2005); making meaning (Bruner 1990); shaping identity (Meares 2005, 2016); establishing gender identification (Davies 1997); and considering play as a pathway to the social self (Henricks 2015), to name a few.

As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in developmental neuroscience, I previously have written in these pages about the fractal seeds of self in play (Marks-Tarlow 2010). I maintained that early imagination and pretend games serve to crystalize later identity, partly by establishing lifelong neural pathways for subsequent interests, vocations, and elements of self-expression. I have also written about how play functions within open-ended psychotherapy (MarksTarlow 2012, 2015a and 2015b), more at implicit than explicit levels. I proposed that formal games, most prototypically hide-and-seek, operate nonverbally at nonconscious levels to signal safety and danger within the therapeutic relationship and to express relational bids for engagement or disengagement.

Here, I hope to extend my scope of inquiry. Whereas my previous writings looked primarily at solo play, here I concentrate on how early forms of interactional play between parent and child can later influence the internal world and emotional coping style of the child. As always, I address these issues from the perspective of interpersonal neurobiology (Badenoch 2008; Cozolino 2002; Hill 2015; Schore 2012; Siegel 1999), the interdisciplinary study of how the brain, mind, and body develop in response to personal relationships. I concentrate specifically on regulation theory (Schore 2012; Schore and Schore 2008), which examines the role of early care givers in shaping a child’s brain, mind, and body, either as a unified or fragmented system. Whether or not a young child feels securely attached to others and generally safe in the world depends intimately on the presence or absence of attuned responses from primary care givers. As I will describe, if a parent systematically fails to tune into the needs and feelings of a child—and at the same time permits real danger in the environment—early forms of imaginative, interactive play can serve to narrow rather than expand that child’s later horizons.

Having been in private practice for more than thirty years, I make my case through an extended clinical example of a young woman I shall call Jen. At the time of writing this essay, Jen and I had been meeting for weekly psychotherapy sessions for about five years. I secured permission to write this story, both from Jen and from her half-brother, whom I shall call Zev. Jen was eager to have her story told, both to pierce the veil of silence and invisibility that shrouded her early years, as well as to further discussion of one of the most troublesome and controversial of topics—incest.

I plan to examine a case of multigenerational trauma, where self-similar forms of traumatic assault have manifested repeatedly from one generation to the next. In simple terms, this means that abuse begot abuse, with patterns of psychopathology and defense in one generation triggering nearly identical patterns in the next generation. Such patterns frequently extend for generation after generation until the cycle is broken. Because early play helps establish the rules of social engagement, I argue that in cases such as these, breakdowns in interactive communication, worsened by self-deception, actually help propagate traumatic transmission between generations.

I set the stage by introducing the evolutionary and developmental perspective of interpersonal neurobiology. This theoretical framework describes how early play bolsters emotional regulation and personal resilience and how play expands “affect tolerance”—the capacity to tolerate strong emotion, whether negative or positive—in human children and in juvenile social mammals. Next, I turn to the case of Jen, detailing her trauma history and the symptoms she presented at the start of psychotherapy. I highlight the evolutionary role of deception in nature, including mimicry and illusion, as a natural precursor to more formal and conscious deception in Homo sapiens. Self-deception can be pleasurable while offering survival value alongside personal risk.

Next, I connect Jen’s later symptoms and dissociative coping style with early forms of imaginative play that took place with Jen’s father. I address potential neurobiological origins of self-deception within the human brain—in the gap between left and right sides. If a functional separation also exists between cortical and subcortical levels of processing, dissociation can arise as a symptom. When this occurs, unconscious affects and experiences become completely walled off from conscious accessibility.

I end by celebrating Jen’s creativity as a healing force. I compare a poem this young woman wrote toward the beginning of our work together with another poem she wrote quite recently. Differences in style and content reveal the significant progress she has achieved within psychotherapy. Early games had taught Jen how to ignore body-based signals of interpersonal danger. She had learned how to use fantasy not only to escape but also to disappear inside herself. Yet, Jen’s solid early emotional foundation alongside her pursuit of the truth helped convert her capacity for fantasy and creativity into a healing experience. Through psychotherapy, Jen has become less isolated by the traumas of her youth.

Emotional, Motivational, and Relational Circuitry of Development

No human is an island. Instead, Homo sapiens are social animals who live and thrive in groups. Mammals are unique through their investment in child rearing, including episodes of play that extend into adulthood, as well as in their complexity of social living, elaborate tool and language use, and symbol manipulation. Ethologist Gordon Burghardt might protest that reptiles also possess the incipient capacity for play, and some birds also invest heavily in raising their young and gathering in groups. Yet, for the most part, parental responsibility for reptiles and fish generally ends with egg laying or birth in contrast to mammal babies that require further care.

From an evolutionary perspective, these differences are reflected in a hierarchical arrangement of neural structures. In mammals, the reptilian brain possesses the four emotional and motivational circuits—presented in all capital letters to emphasize their universality—that Panksepp (1998,2012) considers necessary for survival. The SEEKING circuit grants interest, curiosity, and the motivational urge to explore the environment to fulfill needs. Because it energizes many of the other circuits, primarily through the neurotransmitter dopamine, Panksepp considers the SEEKING circuit primary. The FEAR circuit detects and responds to danger by enabling an animal either to freeze or to take flight. The RAGE circuit helps an animal respond to danger with the self-protective instinct to fight, whether for food, territory, or sexual opportunity. Finally, the genetic imperative toward sexual activity to spread genes far and wide finds fulfillment in the LUST circuit.

With the later evolution of mammals came the addition of the social emotions, as supplied by the limbic system, once called the paleo-mammalian brain that sits atop the reptilian brain (MacLean 1990). In all mammals, including Homo sapiens’s most complex apex, the limbic system is the seat of emotion and the most interconnected system in the brain. Within the mammalian brain, the limbic system extends from subcortical roots in the periaqueductal gray and hypothalamus, through midbrain structures like the amygdala and insula, into the higher centers of the cerebral cortex—the nerve center of language, symbolic thinking, and conscious reflection, including self-reflection. The autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic branches) operates in conjunction with limbic circuitry by regulating stress as well as the intensity of emotion.

In mammals, the limbic system provides three more emotional and motivational circuits alongside the four possessed by the reptilian brain. The CARE circuit adds the attachment system by which parents love, care for, and protect their babies, who in turn, become attached to and highly dependent on their parents for a sense of internal comfort and external safety. The PANIC circuit operates in conjunction with the attachment system to signal separation anxiety and grief upon the loss of significant others. The PLAY circuit, which offers potential for the most complex behavior of all, generates joy as it dictates the rules, roles, and relationships of social and cultural engagement. Whereas in most mammals, play is restricted to the rough-and-tumble variety of interaction, in humans play extends to the symbolic movement of the mind and flight of the imagination.

Human Attachment Needs

Animals, such as amphibians and snakes, are characterized by closed neural loops, such that rigid wiring within brain circuitry limits animal response and behavior to a few fixed action patterns. Crudely speaking, frogs are limited to the four Fs: they fight or flee moving objects larger than themselves, feed on moving objects smaller than themselves, and copulate with moving objects the same size as themselves. Due to these limited response patterns, frogs among other amphibians, are born fully equipped to launch into the world without additional help from parents.

From the perspective of evolutionary strategies, reptile babies do not need further care partly because they play the numbers game: so many of them hatch from eggs that at least a few are likely to outlast hungry predators. Human families come in much smaller numbers. The attachment system ensures that each child is precious to parents who are wired to provide protection to their offspring. Human babies do not usually encounter predation in the same way other animals do. We are mostly safe from hungry beasts yet nonetheless subject to other sorts of predation from within our species, such as kidnapping, human trafficking, or sexual abuse, as the case to come explores. With incest, LUST combines with RAGE in complex ways that amount to an abuse of power and interfere with the CARE circuit, whereby we nourish rather than manipulate vulnerable others.

Mammals differ from reptiles in their capacity for learning and for exhibiting complex and flexible responses. The social emotions and motivations of CARE, PANIC, and PLAY all evolved to deal with more immature yet open brains at birth. As opposed to closed circuits, open circuits include feedback loops that take in information from the environment and allow for experience-dependent learning. Because human children develop much more slowly, they change radically as a result of their social experiences, while their brains develop in typical fashion.

Because of our need for maternal care, mammalian babies are born in smaller batches that can readily remain under the watchful eyes of parents. Whereas some species of mammals, like horses or giraffes, can walk and feed themselves from birth, human babies emerge from the womb helpless and dependent. Horses learn to walk in minutes; human babies take many months. An extended period of childhood, referred to as neoteny, goes hand-in-hand with the human brain’s ability to capitalize on its open wiring.

Both in the critical prenatal and perinatal developmental windows, the brain matures in a particular order. From an energetic perspective, this developmental trajectory resembles an oak tree whose entire form is embedded in the seed of an acorn. Both oak trees and the brain grow from bottom up and from inside out. The bottom of the brain consists of subcortical structures that regulate primitive aspects of survival, like breathing, internal homeostasis, and sleep-wake cycles. Higher up in the neocortex, which is unique to the human brain, midline structures are central to developing a sense of self. The brain also grows from back to front. The back of the brain involves sensory areas for taking in information, and the ancient structure of the cerebellum, critical to motor sequences. The last structures to mature lie at the top and front of the brain—the frontal lobes—seat of morality, judgment, and decision making. The frontal lobes do not become fully functional and integrated with the rest of brain circuitry until young adults reach their mid- to late twenties.

The interactions of parents and babies during the two years after birth lay down the critical, lifelong emotional and social foundations for the brain (Schore 1994, 2012). When the primary care giver, usually a mother, is highly attuned to the physical and emotional needs of her child, the infant feels safe in the world and full of agency, or personal power, for having her needs met. Young infants are filled with shifting, intense emotions. One crucial task they learn is called emotional regulation, which involves helping babies tolerate the quality and intensity of their needs and feelings. Emotional regulation begins interactively, as a two-person enterprise, requiring intimate coordination between mother and child of the rhythms of need and response.

There are two major aspects to interactive regulation. Mothers help babies soothe negative emotions through comforting touch, melodic tones of voice, and loving faces, all aimed at easing a baby’s discomforts and fears. At the same time, mothers help babies boost mood and positive emotions like joy, interest, and curiosity, which occurs primarily through play and what Trevarthan and Aitken (2001) and Meares (2005, 2016) call infant intersubjectivity and the “protoconversation.” Trevarthan and Aitken emphasize the nonverbal aspect of intense eye gaze, touch, and other sensory exploration and mutual contact. Meares emphasizes the verbal aspect of how mothers begin playing games right at their children’s births by speaking to them as if they fully understand. Although infants lack the cognitive capacity to process the content of their mothers’ words, they possess right from the start the social intelligence to understand the loving, caring intentions of parents, partly because they are sensitive to the emotional nuances of voices and facial expressions.

At the beginning of life, the infant’s feeling states are separated and rather extreme. When a baby is upset, she cannot help but involve her whole body in crying. Once mother soothes her, the baby returns to a calm, alert state. During the first couple of years, babies lurch from one feeling state to another, from fear to joy or anger to satisfaction, in a discrete, choppy, manner. As young children develop, they can increasingly blend emotions in more complex and integrated ways. An older child might feel disappointed he or she is not allowed ice cream after every meal, but simultaneously understand this is better for his or her body. In this way, the neocortex of the human brain differs from other primates. Alongside the capacity to symbolize and use language, an important aspect of a child’s later development includes the increasing cognitive and selfreflective capacities layered into ever more subtle feelings. Examples of these later developing, blended emotions include jealousy and righteous indignation.

The critical brain structure for assessing nuances of safety and danger in the environment is the amygdala, a bilateral (meaning we each have two) almond shaped structure, located near the hippocampus (seat of memory and learning), toward the front of the temporal lobe. The amygdala is a subcortical limbic structure that develops fully by the eighth month in the womb, equipping the baby with the ability to perceive safety, danger, and emotional nuance from the start of life. In this way, the words matter less than the underlying emotional climate, and nothing goes hidden. Because human children are born completely helpless, all infants depend upon primary care givers for meeting their earliest needs. Over time the child becomes increasingly able and empowered to feed, clothe, and protect itself, including the ability to self-regulate his own emotions.

The CARE circuit helps develop the adult capacity to love and empathize with others and maintain lasting connections, but the PLAY circuit helps develop our imagination and creativity and our ability to manipulate objects and produce symbols. Perhaps because PLAY is so central to the maintenance and evolution of human culture, humans retain the capacity to play into adulthood and, in this respect, are neotenous throughout the life span. If developmental researchers emphasize positive forms of adult play for life, like sports, creative expression, and adventure for its own sake, clinicians are also aware of negative forms of adult play such as video game addiction that can isolate adults from face-to-face contact or a retreat into fantasy as a disconnect from adult responsibility.

Trauma and Epigenetics

Brain–mind–body development is a delicate affair. Healthy development can easily go off track if primary care givers fail to attend to an infant’s emotional needs or fail to repair inevitable misattunements. All healthy babies are exquisitely sensitive. Try maintaining an unrelentingly unresponsive face toward a four- to six-month-old for even a minute. The baby will visibly collapse in despair by losing all muscle tone. Because an unresponsive mother is so traumatic for a baby, the “still face” paradigm (Tronick et al. 1978) has become the gold standard for studying neglect (Mesman, van IJzendoorn, and Bakermans-Kranenburg 2009). The still face underscores how a sequence of tiny, microassaults are enough to trigger relational trauma in a baby. If a baby is traumatized for a sustained period of time, stress hormones like cortisol will flood the brain, stunt cell growth, and even burn out brain cells in key limbic areas (Schore 1994, 2012). A critical window of emotional development exists during the first two years of life, the time when the emotion-processing, stress-regulating right brain develops (Schore 1994, 2012). Inadequate emotional support during this period can set a child on a trajectory for psychiatric and medical problems for the rest of his or her life. The earlier the emotional trauma, the fewer the prospects for corrective growth and healing.

Evolution designed human brains, minds, and bodies to be open and receptive and to grow in response to one another. Because we are intrinsically social beings, when our care givers tune in well—when they beam with our pleasures, clap at our accomplishments, and resonate empathically with our distresses—we naturally learn to “read” ourselves, by identifying and eventually naming and managing our own feeling states. Because self-understanding and understanding others are intertwined as faculties, we simultaneously learn to understand the minds of others. We learn how to read ourselves by reading how others read us. We develop a sense of self and of interior space from this interpenetrating discourse with others minds, which establishes a burgeoning sense of the Other.
If all goes well in our relationships to significant care givers, we grow up feeling safe with others as well as with our own full range of feelings. We learn to tolerate the intensity of life’s highs and lows. We develop the capacity to remain engaged in the present moment while receptive to the inner signals of our own feelings and bodies and to the cues of our physical and social surroundings. By contrast, if we become traumatized, we become haunted by the past in a way that dooms us to repeat it. If an infant, older child, or even an adult becomes severely emotionally traumatized, the effects sometimes tragically reverberate beyond the life of that individual.

During the last decade or so, neurobiologists have uncovered what they call “epigenetic” mechanisms by which gene expression is affected by a person’s experience and quality of care. When experience-dependent epigenetic mechanisms are at work, the underlying genetic code is unaffected. Instead, what shifts is which genes get expressed, plus how and when these genes turn on and off. Stress during early, critical windows of development, as early as in the womb, can turn on or off genes related to health, longevity, and resilience. A recent, sobering paper by Allan N. Schore (2017) details how boys are especially at risk for autism, schizophrenia, and conduct disorders. This vulnerability to later developing problems starts right in the womb if toxic chemicals or stress-related androgen (sex hormone) disruptors alter the flow of critical hormonal processes.

To understand how experience-dependent learning passes from one generation to the next, consider the very first epigenetic experiment, as conducted by Michael Meaney (2001). The concept may seem difficult to grasp, but the experiment was surprisingly simple. The set-up involved trauma to the attachment system. Meaney’s lab compared a group of “good” rat mothers, those who licked their pups vigorously shortly after birth, with a group of “poor” rat mothers, those who failed to lick their pups vigorously. In rats, licking provides the nurturing touch and loving care needed to activate secure attachments in rat babies. The well-licked pups developed into good mothers themselves who licked their own pups prodigiously. The insufficiently licked pups became relatively poor mothers who likewise failed to lick their own new litter of pups.

Meaney’s lab went beyond the behavioral, descriptive level to uncover the genetic mechanism by which particular genes got turned on or off through a process called “acetylation.” Meaney’s discovery of which genes were involved and exactly how they were affected by postnatal experience was literally groundbreaking, by breaking open the nature-nurture controversy. Scientists used to ask whether nature or nurture caused particular traits or problems. This dichotomy led them to seek underlying genetic markers or specific environmental triggers. We now understand that most complex human traits, especially ones that have to do with states of mind or well-being in the body cannot be reduced either to nature or nurture but instead tend to be a complicated blend of both as mediated by epigenetic mechanisms.

The study of epigenetics in human beings is currently exploding. For example, scientists have now discovered an “epigenetic clock” that is better able to predict longevity than chronological age (Jones, Goodman, and Konor 2015). With adequate care giving and attunement, epigenetic expression can lead to healthy emotional, cognitive, moral, and spiritual development. With healthy beginnings, human adults retain the capability to tune into the bodybased signals of our present-centered experience. We feel our faces blush; we take pleasure in acts of mastery; we laugh when something is funny; we cry when something is sad. By contrast, traumatized individuals display a very different sort of epigenetic expression, sometimes becoming so disconnected from primary experience that some feelings—especially those that involve emotional danger, like anger or fear—become dissociated from conscious awareness. If close family members share an emotional trauma, sometimes dissociation becomes the only way to preserve the appearance of trust and harmonious relationships.

Dissociation is a complicated clinical concept; researchers argue over its definition as well as whether it should be considered a discrete condition or part of a continuum. There is a normal kind of dissociation, as when we sit in a movie theater and narrow our conscious focus to the screen before us, as if the rest of our life does not exist. A more pathological variety of dissociation is the hallmark of severe emotional, physical, or sexual trauma. With this kind of dissociation, the separation between body-based levels of emotion and subjectively felt experience becomes so complete that it precludes conscious access. This divide happens if a person suffers horrors that are unthinkable and unbearable. In cases of severe dissociation, this unconscious struggle leaves an individual so apparently unaware that he or she seems to be in a trance. Unfortunately, when dissociation controls close relationships, the situation becomes ripe for the epigenetic transmission of trauma to the next generation. This is exactly what happened in the case of Jen, her half-brother, and her father, whose story I turn to now.

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This has been an excerpt from I Am an Avatar of Myself: Fantasy, Trauma, and Self-Deception by Terry Marks-Tarlow. To download the full article, and more excellent material for the psychotherapist, please subscribe to our monthly magazine.

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