The Meaning of Trauma and the Place of Neuroscience

  • C. Fred Alford


Arguing that neuroscience has not contributed very much to our understanding of trauma theory, this chapter takes a detailed look at the limits of neuroimaging. Bessel van der Kolk, a proponent of neuroimaging, is seen to actually make a significant contribution to our understanding of trauma, but only because he praises neuroimaging while practicing an eclectic therapy based on body work, such as massage, as well as more traditional approaches. The question we should be asking is what trauma means, and the answer is that trauma is an experience that makes it impossible to live in and enjoy the present. The chapter concludes by arguing that there is something about our culture that makes individuals particularly susceptible to PTSD.


Reductionistic Explanation York Time Magazine Oedipus Complex Developmental Trauma Disorder Universal Brotherhood 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Asari, T., Konishi, S., Jimura, K., Chikazoe, J., Nakamura, N., & Miyashita, Y. (2010). Amygdalar enlargement associated with unique perception. Cortex, 46, 94–99.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Bickart, K., Wright, C., Dautoff, R. J., Dickerson, B. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2010). Amygdala volume and social network size in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 163–164.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  3. Blanchot, M. (1995). The writing of the disaster (A. Smock, Trans.). Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  4. Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays (J. O’Brien, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  5. Dao, J. (2013, June 14). Researchers find biological evidence of Gulf War illnesses. The New York Times, p. 1-A.Google Scholar
  6. David, S. P., et al. (2013, July 25). Potential reporting bias in fMRI studies of the brain. PLoS. Retrieved from
  7. Fassin, D., & Rechtman, R. (2009). The empire of trauma: An inquiry into the condition of victimhood (R. Gomme, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Foucault, M. (1994). The birth of the clinic: An archeology of medical perception (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage.Google Scholar
  9. Freud. S. (1895). Project for a scientific psychology. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 1, pp. 283–397). London, UK: Hogarth Press, 1956–1974 (24 vols.) (Hereafter The standard edition).Google Scholar
  10. Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Goldhagen, D. J. (1997). Hitler’s willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York, NY: Vintage.Google Scholar
  12. Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2013). The autistic brain: Thinking across the spectrum. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Google Scholar
  13. Habermas, J. (1985). Theory of communicative action: Lifeworld and system (Vols.) 1–2) (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  14. Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  15. Hippocrates. (circa 400 BCE). On the sacred disease. Retrieved from: Scholar
  16. Hubbard, E. (2003). Review of the book The new phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain, by W.R. Uttal. Cognitive Science Online, 1, 22–33. Retrieved from Scholar
  17. Interlandi, J. (2014, May 22). A revolutionary approach to treating PTSD. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from
  18. Kamitani, Y., & Tong, F. (2006). Decoding seen and attended motion directions from activity in the human visual cortex. Current Biology, 16, 1096–1102.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Kaufman, J., et al. (2001). Corpus callosum in maltreated children with PTSD: A diffusion tensor imaging study. Paper presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, San Juan, Puerto Rico.Google Scholar
  20. Kihlstrom, J. (2010). Social neuroscience: The footprints of Phineas Gage. Social Cognition, 28, 757–783.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. MacFarquhar, L. (2007, February 12). Two heads: A marriage devoted to the mind-body problem. New Yorker, 56–69.Google Scholar
  22. McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107, 343–352.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. McIntosh, A. R. (1999). Mapping cognition to the brain through neural interactions. Memory, 7, 523–548.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Meloni, M. (2012). On the growing intellectual authority of neuroscience for political and moral theory: Sketch for a genealogy. In F. Vander Valk (Ed.), Essays on neuroscience and political theory: Thinking the body politic (pp. 25–49). London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Miller, G. (2008). Growing pains for fMRI. Science, 320(5882), 1412–1414.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Norman, M. (1989). These good men: Friendships forged from war. New York: Crown.Google Scholar
  27. Satel, S., & Lilienfeld, S. (2013). Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  28. Schwartz, C. (2015, June 24). Tell it about your mother. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from
  29. Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York, NY: Scribner.Google Scholar
  30. Shilling, C. (2012). The body and social theory (3rd ed.). London, UK: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Tallis, R. (2011). Aping mankind. Durham, UK: Acumen.Google Scholar
  32. Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Theodoridis, A., & Nelson, A. (2012). Of BOLD claims and excessive fears: A call for caution and patience regarding political neuroscience. Political Psychology, 33, 27–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Uttal, W. R. (2001). The new phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  35. van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking.Google Scholar
  36. Watters, E. (2010). Crazy like us: The globalization of the American psyche. New York, NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
  37. Winnicott, D. W. (1965a). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 37–55). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.Google Scholar
  38. Winnicott, D. W. (1965c). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 140–152). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.Google Scholar
  39. Winnicott, D. W. (1971). The location of cultural experience. In Playing and reality (pp. 95–103). New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  40. Winnicott, D. W. (1992). Mind and its relation to the psyche-soma. In Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis (pp. 243–254). London, UK: Karnac.Google Scholar
  41. Young, A. (1995). The harmony of illusions: Inventing post-traumatic stress disorder. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. Fred Alford
    • 1
  1. 1.University of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations