By Morgan Blair – MA, Intern
“Art makes the invisible visible.” Paul Klee
The Brain and Trauma
Before a discussion of how art therapy is beneficial to clients that have experienced trauma, an understanding of how traumatic memories are stored in the brain needs to be established. Developments in neurobiology have shown that the mind is unable to precisely recall memories. Instead, memory is an active process where the mind is constantly rearranging old impressions and interpreting them in new ways.
The experiences of our pasts shift as time passes, explanations change, associations with the events shift, and therefore the overall impact of those occurrences is altered. Despite neurobiology showing that a mind cannot store exact memories – only a personal understanding of such experiences – people with PTSD symptoms report exact sensations, images, and emotions attached to the traumas they have experienced.
The question then becomes, how?
How is it that people exhibiting PTSD symptoms are able to recall exact memories? The answer lies in the types of memories that they are reporting. People living with PTSD will commonly feel out of control, as if they were involuntarily reliving the memory, suggesting that the memories are somatic in nature. Meaning, the memories are stored within the body and experienced through the person’s senses – i.e. smell, touch, images, sounds, taste (Talwar, 2007). The memories aren’t exact recollections of the events, but storage of deep emotional pain and arousal within the body.
Another common term for somatic memories is flashbacks. PTSD flashbacks are intensely vivid sensory experiences where a person feels as if they are reliving the memories. The key, once again, is the word feels. Flashbacks are sensory experiences which are recounted due to the storage of the traumatic events in the amygdala of the brain. The amygdala is associated with emotional memory – particularly events derived from fear.
During a traumatic event, the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that categorizes the specifics of the memory (who was there, when it happened, etc.), is shut down because there isn’t room for those details. At that moment, the brain is only concerned with keeping the person alive. Due to the fact that the hippocampus wasn’t present when the incident was taking place, the recollection of traumatic events becomes jumbled. The person who experienced the trauma instead stored sensory associations in replacement of specific details as the basis for recalling the events. As explained earlier, sensory recollections are understood as somatic memories (Brewin, 2011).
Why Use Art Therapy?
Somatic memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is commonly understood as the “creative” side of the brain. It regulates emotions, intuition, imagination, and sensory experiences. The issue with processing trauma in a traditional talk therapy format is that language is stored in the left hemisphere of the brain. Therefore, verbally processing trauma is asking a client to take a largely emotional experience and translate it into words. This is very challenging and often an unsuccessful feat for many clients who have experienced traumatic events (Conley, 2012).
As explained earlier, research has shown that in trauma treatment it is not the verbal account of the event that is stored within a person’s memory, but the non-verbal aspects such as fragmented sensory and emotional elements of the traumatic experience (Gerrit, Niet, Knipscheer, Kleber, & Hutschemaekers, 2014). For this reason, art therapy is gaining popularity among therapists in treating trauma because it is primarily recognized as a therapeutic method that is able to tap into the non-verbal realm of imagery (Talwar, 2007).
Art Therapy uses art (like drawing, painting, collage, and sculpting) alongside talk therapy in a purposeful and methodical way to treat psychosocial problems and mental disorders with the intention of eliciting change, development, and acceptance. This process allows a client to process traumatic experiences by accessing and integrating them through images (Conley, 2012). “During an art therapy session, it is not uncommon for a client to put into pictures a speechless terror that cannot be put into words. It is the trauma that is frozen in the somatic memory” (Talwar, p. 23, 2007). Art aids in therapeutic breakthroughs because it serves as a way to integrate the right and left brain functions through non-verbal methods. In turn, art therapy is able to help in the integration of somatic memories and cognitive processing, which ultimately leads to healing (Gerrit, Niet, Knipscheer, Kleber, & Hutschemaekers, 2014).
Conley, Peggy Leyva, Holistic Healing through Music & the Arts (July 24, 2012).
Gerrit, Niet, Knipscheer, Kleber, & Hutschemaekers. (2014). The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in
Treating Traumatized Adults. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 1, 1-9.
Talwar, S. (2007). Accessing traumatic memory through art making: An art therapy trauma protocol
(ATTP). The Arts in Psychotherapy, 34, 22-35.
Brewin, C. (2011, April 14). The Nature and Significance of Memory Disturbance in Posttraumatic Stress
Disorder. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 7, 203-227.