Trauma & adaptation: a scientifically informed phenomenological account
McDonald, MaryCatherine Youmell
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This dissertation examines the phenomenon, understanding, and treatment of trauma at the intersection of phenomenology, psychology and neuroscience. I argue that Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological method, with its emphasis on the conscious and embodied nature of human phenomena, provides crucial insights into the nature and treatment of combat trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By situating the discussion of trauma and adaptation within research on the topic in neuroscience and psychology, the dissertation demonstrates how phenomenological understanding of trauma contributes fundamentally to the understanding of trauma proffered by the sciences. After discussing the history of trauma in psychology, phenomenology and neuroscience, I address traumatic memory as a prevalent feature of trauma. In traumatic memory, the victim relives rather than simply remembers the traumatic experience. I show how traumatic memory differs psychologically, neurologically, and phenomenologically from non-traumatic memory. In particular, I argue that phenomenological analysis of traumatic memory dramatically reveals the subjective and embodied character of human experiences, thereby providing psychological and neuroscientific accounts of trauma with a necessary, largely overlooked dimension of the experience. No serious study of trauma can neglect the question of adaptation. Using Merleau-Ponty’s work on adaptation, I argue that PTSD is better understood as the result of an attempt to adapt to a traumatic event than as a mental illness. In the last chapter of the dissertation I demonstrate how, against the backdrop of this interdisciplinary understanding, one specific adaptive tool to PTSD, namely, narrative therapy, can contribute positively to the process of adapting to trauma. This dissertation is the first detailed examination of combat trauma in the phenomenological tradition. Moreover, it offers new philosophical insights into the understanding and treatment of trauma. As an in-depth example of how insights from phenomenology, psychology and neuroscience can be fruitfully combined, it also provides a model of the potential of phenomenological inquiry to enhance our scientific accounts of human phenomena.