Somewhere between birth and roughly age three, I suffered a substantial decline in social intelligence. My earliest memory of one significant incident was being left in the care of total strangers in St. Raphael’s hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. I went to sleep only to wake up in great pain – the result of having had my tonsils removed. I remember being given an orange Popsicle to eat. I also remember throwing it up before I was half way through.
It’s no accident that I’ve retained this memory for almost 60 years! Current traumatology research points to a very high probability of traumatic memory formed in the wake of any hospital procedure that uses a general anesthetic. In my case, it appears that my autonomic nervous system retained awareness that sharp implements were cutting pieces of flesh out of my throat. In response it sent out fight or flight chemicals (adrenaline, cortisol, etc.), the same as it would do if I were consciously awake and experiencing the pain of this traumatic assault. But, because my body was immobilized, what I ended up with was PTSD, and an intense dislike of orange Popsicles. And a growing fear of strangers.
The Power of Powerlessness
It’s freezing or being immobilized that seems to cause much of the problem, as evidenced by the next insult to my social intelligence. This took place at around age four. My older sister, Andrea was pushing me on a swing in the park across the street from our house on Carlyle Street. I can clearly recall the exhilarating feeling of going up just a little bit too high on the back swing and the thrill of arcing back down and then gliding up into the front arc. On the next downswing however, I was suddenly struck full in the face and knocked painfully to the ground. Blood began flowing freely, and my eyes filled with tears as I lay immobilized on the ground with my nose beginning to swell rapidly. Through those tear-filled eyes I saw my sister yelling at a girl who was running with her little brother out of the park. For no known reason, she had simply walked up and smashed me in the face as I swung toward her. This experience too, carved large inhibition grooves on my emerging social intelligence. It was becoming clearer: strangers were not safe.
The next incident I recall came when I started public school. I remember standing in the lunch line amidst a whole group of new kids, most of whom I did not know. Johnny Mathis, the one kid I did know, was standing behind me. Suddenly, he grabbed hold of my arms and held me as he yelled out to the other kids: “Look at Brady and his wimpy, pointed elbows!” I remember being held frozen and turning tomato-red as all the other kids stared at me, or rather, at my elbows and laughed. Strike three of dozens – hanging out with strange people had become way too hurtful for me. Still, it took a number of other immobilizing and painful experiences at the hands of strangers before my social intelligence was essentially reduced to zero. (One result: I spent seventh through twelfth grade public school never uttering a single word in any class).
The Tragedy of the Common
The tragedy of seemingly innocuous events such as these (when viewed through 1950s knowledge and sensibilities) is that they foster conditions that are completely antithetical to the way the brain is designed and ideally structured to unfold. As I’ve since learned from Peter Levine’s and Maggie Kline’s book, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, a typical childhood is filled with experiences of all kinds that disrupt, disorganize and delay optimal neural development. Many of them happen without any parental or adult awareness of grave damage done. Here are a few pictures of everyday incidents demonstrating what I mean:
In each of these pictures the experience of emotional overwhelm in combination with immobilization appears to store these experiences similar to the way it records and stores real life-threatening incidents. The same neurotransmitters are involved. The same brain disorganization results.
Waking Up to Brain Development
Parents, teachers and childcare workers would be wise to be aware of the neural disorganization incidents like these can produce. One good intervention in the wake of such experiences is to have the child stand up and move – walk or run. Repeating movements like Brain Gym or Smart Moves that cross the midline of the body (making the sign of the cross?) are also helpful. Finally, some kind of “triumphant action” is further useful to diminish the sense of powerlessness resulting from such overwhelming experiences. Actively working to transform it in this way provides greater power for developing confident social intelligence.