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Van Der Kolk, B.A. Van Der Hart, O. (1991). The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma. Am. Imago, 48(4):425-454.

(1991). American Imago, 48(4):425-454

The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma

B. A. Van Der Kolk and Onno Van Der Hart

Who can find a proper grave for the damaged mosaics of the mind, where they may rest in pieces?

(Langer, 34)

The current revival of interest in the role of overwhelming experiences on the development of psychopathology has stimulated a fresh look at how memories are stored in the mind and continue to affect day to day perceptions and interpretations of reality. Over a century ago, the very foundation of modern psychiatry was laid with the study of consciousness and the disruptive impact of traumatic experiences. Struck by the observation that some memories could become the nucleus of later psychopathology, Charcot and Janet at the Salpêtrière, and William James in the U.S. devoted much of their attention to studying how the mind processes memories. They recognized, on the one hand, the flexibility of the mind, and on the other, how certain memories became obstacles that kept people from going on with their lives. William James wrote in 1880: “the new conceptions, emotions…which evolve [in the mind] are originally produced in the shape of random images, fancies, accidental outbirths of spontaneous variations…which the outer environment simply confirms or refutes, preserves or destroys.” At the same time the psychologists and psychiatrists around the turn of the century were fully aware that some memories are not evanescent and that “…certain happenings would leave indelible and distressing memories—memories to which the sufferer was continually returning, and by which he was tormented by day and by night” (Janet 1919/25, 589).


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