Deep Imagery and Neurobiology of Emotional Trauma

by Debra Vickroy

In May 2003 I attended a conference called “The Neurobiology of Emotional Trauma” and found it to be enlightening as to recent research into brain functioning as well as how alternative therapies like deep imagery actually help heal the effects of trauma better than more traditional talk therapies. The goal of the conference planners was to bring together practitioners of a variety of non-traditional therapies with researchers who study the brain.

I would like to summarize some of the information about brain functioning because I found that it accounted for the long lasting effect of trauma in a manner consistent with my experience of deep imagery. This research has provided a way for me to present deep imagery to people who might have found it a strange approach in psychotherapy.

The neurobiological research presented was based in experience and focused on experience (just like the Personal Totem Pole Process). The research began at the beginnings of the brain, in utero, and tracked the development and organization of the human brain through experience. Relationship literally shaped our brains. Early life experience between zero to five years of age formed the foundation or templates of neural structures. These templates developed through somatic experience. It can be said that at this stage of life, love was behavior. To develop a foundation of trust, humans must have experienced consistent and pleasing caregiving. As newborns we have moved from a existence in which we did not have to breathe or eat. It was fluid and warm. The constant sound that permeated this environment was a maternal heartbeat. At birth, we were thrust into a world of chaos in which we had to breathe, regulate our own body temperature and eat among all the other functions that our bodies began to assume. When we were held close to our mother’s heart, we once again heard a familiar beat and this calmed us with it’s familiarity. When we were swaddled, we felt securely held as we had been prior to birth. When we needed our diaper changed for the first time, this came as a new set of sensory experiences and our brain’s system of arousal increased and we felt afraid. But when this new experience was followed by relief and closeness to our mother, we began to associate this new experience with pleasure. The next diaper change was less alarming and our brain began to learn what to expect. Our brains have been exquisitely designed to be organized around pleasure and alarm.

Bruce Perry M.D.'s diagram of the triune brain.

Bruce Perry M.D.’s diagram of the triune brain.

The brain, in simplistic terms, can be viewed as having three integral systems; referred to as the triune brain. The three systems are the brainstem, the limbic brain and the neocortex. The brainstem (reptilian brain) manages autonomic functioning and self preservation. Novel stimuli are treated as potentially threatening, unless proven otherwise. This is the alarm system of the brain. It has a great deal of sensitivity to our experience to promote our survival. When activated, it will prompt us to act in one of three ways; fight, flight or freeze. The limbic brain (emotional brain) regulates the autonomic nervous system, mood, memory, motivation, gratification, aggression and general behavior. The neocortex (thinking brain) manages rational functions, provides the ability to comprehend and analyze events, decision making and learning. Memory was defined as the sequential acquisition of experience; a gestalt of images, feelings, thoughts and sensations.

The brain has the capacity to bring elements of an experience from one moment in time to another moment. Pattern and repetition, sequencing in experience, fosters the creation of a neural network of memory. Systematic exposure to stimuli thus allows for the development of cognitive potential. As we gain experience, new experiences are compared to older experiences or templates. If the new experience matches a template the brain does not create a new memory. Only new experiences are stored as new memory or a new gestalt of the experience. Memories can be stored at every level of the brain because an event will be experienced by every level of the brain. Memory is also “state specific;” meaning that the gestalt of experience the human being was in at the time the memory was created must be re-created for memory to be re-activated. In other words, “state” involves the sensation, emotions, thoughts and imagery that became active during a given experience.

Trauma or wounding happens when humans are faced with a “threat” of some kind and are not able to completely resolve it through fight, flight or freeze behaviors. A threatened human mobilizes a great deal of energy to negotiate the threat. If the energy is not completely discharged, this residue of energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreck havoc with body and spirit. The energy can only be discharged by completing the survival action chosen by the brainstem, in other words by resolving the threat. The neocortex or thinking brain is not involved in reacting to threat, in fact the brainstem and limbic system cut off the neocortex from taking action because it would react too slowly.

chart of brain responses from

chart of brain responses from

Much of the trauma that seems to surface in deep imagery occurred during childhood. Children have few viable ways to fight or flee a threat and often survive through freezing. Unlike animals who use freezing as a final avenue of escape from predators, human children most often have this as their only course of action. Animals in the wild appear to have died when they freeze. They often move from a state of running at high speed to immobility in a few seconds. When the predator reaches them, the animal will be able to die without a great deal of pain because the immobility produces a numbing paralysis. If the predator is fooled by the immobility and moves away, the animal’s senses return. The animal will move quickly to reach a safe place. Then, the animal will shake uncontrollably from head to tail. The shaking discharges the residual energy. The animal returns to the herd or activity without any lasting trauma.

Human children are not usually that fortunate. They survive the original threat, whether physical, sexual or emotional, but are seldom able to resolve the threatening situation. Most often, children must live with the threat and adapt to it. In the brain this prolonged alarm reaction means an altered nervous system. The brain begins to operate at a level of hypervigilance or dissociation in order to promote the survival of the human organism (see chart). This is often experienced as fear, anxiety, anger, numbness, fainting and disengagement.

Healing, from the point of view of the brain, is simply the creation of new memory. When the old gestalt and old neural pattern is replaced by a new one, the trauma reaction changes because the neural pattern changes. Therapies that focus on reliving the traumatic experiences or encourage catharsis often end up reinforcing the old memory and the old neural pattern, instead of replacing it with a new one. There were a variety of alternative therapies represented at the conference including somatherapy, EMDR, neurofeedback, music, art and play therapy, but not deep imagery.

It seems to me that the Personal Totem Pole Process is an exquisitely sensitive process for the creation of new memories and thus, new neural patterns. Deep imagery trusts the knowing of the individual, their nervous system, body and spirit by allowing the inner guides to lead the healing process. Inner guides know what needs to be handled first and in what manner. They know what “state” needs to be experienced in order to bring about the healing. Old emotions, sensations and images are gently changed. The animal guides are constantly inviting us to create new memories, new gestalts and new templates out of old, wounding experiences. It seems to me that deep imagery also works in all the levels of the brain. Also, since memories contain a gestalt of sensation, emotion, imagery and thought, they mirror our use of the four windows. If we were able to track our healing processes in some way, I wonder if we would end up with a web of healing that weaves in and out and through all of the four windows as well as all of the chakras.

I feel excited to have found this crossroads with neurobiology and brain research. When I talk to my clients about how the brain functions in trauma, their almost universal response has been, “That makes sense, it fits my experience.” I find that I can bridge from exploring brain responses during trauma to presenting deep imagery as one means of healing their trauma. It is almost as if deep imagery makes sense to them even before they have a direct experience of it. Also, since I have to deal with the world of managed health care, this connection to brain functioning has provided a means of explaining deep imagery as an effective healing process to an audience who is only interested in getting results (meaning, remission of symptoms) in the shortest time possible (meaning, for the least amount of money).

I now find myself wondering what it looks like inside my brain when I am doing deep imagery. If we could watch the brain with a SPECT (single photon emission tomography) scan, what parts would be active when I am guided by my heart animal? What parts would be active when I am guided through the window of sensing? When a novice if guided for the first time, what happens compared to an experienced traveler? Although I do not need to verify the healing potential of deep imagery, I know by my own experience that I have been changed and healed through this process, I am very curious. I wonder if this could be a bridge to engaging new people in healing through deep imagery.

Resources and References

Gallegos, Eligio Stephen. Into Wholeness: The Path of Deep Imagery. Moon Bear Press, Velarde, NM. 2001.

Levine, Peter. Waking the Tiger Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences.North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA. 1997

Neurons to Neighborhoods. 2003. 7-14-03. <>

(Handouts and links to conference presenters especially: Bruce Perry, PhD, MD; Pat Ogden, PhD; and David Grill, MFT)

Newberg, Andrew and Eugene D’Aquili. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine Books, New York. 2001

Perry, Bruce PhD, MD. Brain Structure and Function Part 1: Basic Organization. Childhood Trauma. 2003. 7-14-03.<>

Perry, Bruce PhD, MD. Neurodevelopmental Impact of Childhood Trauma. Oct. 2002. 7-14-03.

Perry, Bruce PhD, MD. The Amazing Human Brain and Human Development. Child Trauma Academy. 2003. 7-14-03. <>

Perry, Bruce PhD, MD. The Six Core Strengths for Healthy Childhood Development. Scholastic. 2003. 7-14-03.<>