Bending the Brain

The founder of Brookline’s trauma center offers a new take on PTSD.


The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Published by Viking, 464 pages, $28

Trauma can almost literally rewire the brain: Busy brain scans convey the agitation of flashbacks, while dissociation produces bleak, lonely-looking images. In his latest book, trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk offers wide-ranging scientific information about such effects of war, sexual abuse and other emotional disasters. Medications, he believes, have limited usefulness. What is effective is embodying (and “enlanguaging”) the experience to bring the suffering mind, body and brain into a new equilibrium.

One approach, EMDR, guides patients through eye movements during recollections of traumatic experiences, fostering a kind of dreamy, comforting focus. Another, IFS, puts suffering at a bearable distance by compartmentalizing the mind, assigning each part its own memories and functions while offering calming protocols. Neurofeedback teaches self-regulation, measuring brain waves in real time and rewarding desirable responses. Yoga and dance can help bring about groundedness, human connection and even joy, counteracting trauma’s hostile takeover of the body. And experiential methods—like play-acting confrontations with abusers—can bring emotional integration. There’s even a look at how troubled kids have used Shakespeare as a therapist, exploring the power of their anger through the Bard’s plays. Throughout, van der Kolk brilliantly shows how the rational and emotional brain can be brought into balance.

From page 51: The drawing depicted what he had seen the day before: an airplane slamming into the tower, a ball of fire, firefighters, and people jumping from the tower’s windows. But at the bottom of the picture he had drawn something else…. I had no idea what it was, so I asked him.
“A trampoline,” he replied….“So that the next time when people have to jump they will be safe.”

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