Solomon and Siegel on Healing Trauma

With contributions from researchers, clinicians, and theorists, this edited collection offers a neurobiological perspective on trauma treatment and healing. On a first look, this book stands out especially for its introduction to the developmental origins of factors thought to place some individuals at greater risk of long-term effects from trauma.

Rating: 3

Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain

Edited by , 2003. ISBN 0393703967. W.W. Norton. xxi + 357 pages.

While I’m certainly not a specialist in the area of trauma, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this book’s interdisciplinary nature and the promise of insight into therapeutic processes via the window of neurobiology. Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated specifically to introducing something of the developmental origins of factors thought to place some individuals at risk of suffering long-term effects from trauma. The second half draws upon some of the material presented in the first half to consider approaches to treatment.

On a first glance, contributions in the first half have much to recommend them as general introductions, although ironically enough I personally found the very first chapter, by Siegel — “An Interpersonal Neurobiology of Psychotherapy” — to be the weakest by far. I found it difficult to take the neurobiology in this chapter very seriously at all. (For readers with some background in the area, if I tell you that the chapter’s description of how memory works pretty much begins and ends with Hebb, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) Nonetheless, I believe many readers may still find much of use here.

The key to using the material effectively, I believe, is to be content with forming impressionistic views of the conceptual territory, and to resist any temptation to try and paint complex pseudo-scientific pictures using the very limited material presented. To put it differently, the material seems to me to offer just enough detail to encourage the telling of what philosophers of science sometimes call ‘just so stories’ (after those by Rudyard Kipling) — narratives which sound plausible enough in a ‘connect-the-dots’ sort of fashion, but which are so grossly underspecified as to make them literally immune to scientific evaluation. These types of stories are particularly popular when the topic is evolution, where it is very easy to tell perfectly plausible stories about adaptation without in any way connecting up with verifiable scientific hypotheses, but this chapter also demonstrates this approach in action when it comes to the topic of connecting up low-level neurobiology with higher level human experience.

The second half of the book suffers from the ‘just so’ problem as well, although at least when it comes to treatment, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak: whether or not the conceptual framework motivating a particular approach to treatment is good science or bad science, the end result of applying that approach can still be measured via outcome studies. Unfortunately, this type of evaluation is relatively thin on the ground, in comparison to extended descriptions of theoretical models ostensibly grounded in the neurobiology of the first half of the book. The contributions in this second half specifically cover EMDR, accelerated experiential-dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), and short-term intensive dynamic psychotherapy focusing on defense mechanisms; a final chapter addresses attachment relations within the context of couples therapy.

While intriguing, my initial impression of this book is that it is ultimately unsatisfying — it contains many references to scientific research done by other people, and it contains a great deal of theory ostensibly built atop that science, but between those two there is a rather huge gap. In contrast to more empirically-linked work by the likes of Bowlby, for example, a disappointing proportion of this book seems to be occupied either with the real science or the real theory, with comparatively less occupied with connecting them up.

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