Many are the wonders of this world, and among the greatest is wonder, itself. The human mind has the ability and inclination to consider not only what is, but what might be. We manage perception, conception, and volition. We remember and forget. We analyze, interpret, interpolate, extrapolate, and decide, and we do it in intimacy with a complex organ in our head, the human brain.
We learn. Yeah, well, so does the transmission in my wife’s car. Last week we took it in for a checkup, and the memory was reset. It is a bit smoother this week, and we seem to be getting better gas mileage (at least, when I drive).
Oh, how I wish I could reset parts of my memory. That is a part of the story of BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT, attempting to prevent certain memories of traumatic events. Okay, I was wondering, a real power of writing fiction.
There is no such thing as learning as there is no such thing as intelligence. There are many things that can be called learning and many forms of aptitudes that can be called intelligence. In simplest terms, we can categorize learning as behavior or something else which I shall call cognitive, requiring thinking or cognition.
Well, the condition we diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of behavioral learning. Part of it is through training. There was a time when I could disassemble and assemble an M-14 rifle or caliber .45 pistol in a few seconds blindfolded. I was also trained to react to shots being fired in my direction.
How does one know if the shot is in one’s direction? Well, if the projectile exceeds the speed of sound—rifles, for example—it breaks the sound barrier and leaves a sonic boom. This is called a ballistic crack, a frighteningly distinctive sound, as it passes hopefully overhead.
I react as if on instinct. I drop, look, and try to return fire. If my rapid assessment is that I have been caught in an ambush, I must do something very counterintuitive. I must get up and run directly toward the bullets. Sound dumb? Well, if I am in an ambush, I am in a killing zone, trapped between two or more lines of fire which may include command detonated mines. All other directions are within the trap. I have to run over the ambush or die.
Survival is a great motivator even for learning. In basic terms, stress produces a reaction among the five Fs. FEAR is the first reaction. Our strongest inclination is to FLEE, and we run into more trouble and probably die. FIGHT is the reaction of choice, at least giving us a chance for survival, so we run into the fire. FREEZE is the most dangerous, staying in the killing zone. The fifth F is for your imagination or another time in our discussion, but it makes no sense in an ambush.
We learn to react by fighting because it means survival. We learn a whole lot of other behavioral responses to threats of combat with no real thinking at all. A smell of gun smoke or nuoc mam (fish sauce), the sight of black pajamas or jungle shadows, sounds of ballistic cracks or fireworks, the feel of damp air or rucksacks, tastes of metallic fear or oily sweat. Any may trigger an F response without any thought.
We have learned how to live in combat.
How do we live in good, old, USA? How do we enjoy 4th of July fireworks, deer hunting, Asian restaurants, or tropical vacations? How do we, back in the bosom of our families, live, hope, and trust, again.
Many of us never do. That is what I would like to change.
Part of the condition that is PTSD can be labeled behavioral, but that is related to changes in the brain. We shift our response control to our automatic brain rather than our thinking brain. The amygdala grows in size and importance for processing perceptions, sending data to our primitive brain (our dinosaur brain) and we react without thinking. The hippocampus, which holds bits of information for thoughtful processing (our working or short-term memory) shrinks. Yes, the structures really change in size.
Combat makes us less thoughtful and more automatic in our perceptions and reactions. That may well have kept us alive. Now, it makes us miserable.
My approach to recovery is awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. We have to learn, but our brains are damaged. Cognitive learning is more difficult. Our working memory is diminished and less effective. Hyper vigilance interferes with concentration. Constant, low grade rage squelches hope. So what?
We learn new ways of coping including making modifications in our own learning strategies. We accommodate our limitations. We learn to learn. We learn, again, to wonder, hope, and trust.
Enough. Next week I’ll try to give you a glimpse of PTSD from the inside, the feel of a dinosaur dump (wild emotional ride on our primitive brain).