There have been many times when I have experienced that awful feeling of simply not being able to speak. It’s not that I don’t want to verbalise my thoughts, sensations or feelings, I simply do not have any words. Sometimes I’ve been sitting in a therapy room, sometimes I’ve been on my own, sometimes with a friend. It happened several times when I was giving my evidence to the police.
I discovered only recently – in November 2018 – that this inability to find any words is not because I’m going mad, it’s not because I’m being awkward, it’s not because somehow my morality is preventing me from speaking an untruth. I have come up with all of those possible explanations for sitting, sometimes with my mouth open, with no words coming out.
The reason for not having any words is because the part of brain that produces language goes offline when we try to verbalise trauma. Broca’s area, or the Broca area, is a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left, of the brain with functions linked to speech production.
Bessel Van der Kolk describes some experiments he did in the 1990s in his book, “The body keeps the score; Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma”, (the re-print has changed to “the healing of trauma”). He asked people who had had a traumatic experience to have a script of the incident read to them while they were lying in an fMRI scanner, which was able to show “live” imaging of the brain.
Van der Kolk was surprised to notice that Broca’s area showed a significant decrease in activity. If this area isn’t working properly, we can’t put our thoughts, feelings and memories into words. This research showed me that when I am triggered and am “back there”, in the place/state/emotional distress/terror of the past event, that my brain is not letting me speak. This discovery was really helpful for me in understanding what Der Kolk calls the, “speechless horror”, that I had so often experienced. I am, in fact, behaving normally. For a traumatised person, anyway.
I think that when I write, I am somehow bypassing Broca’s area and so am able to find and use words. This is why it has been crucial to me since I was a child to sit and simply record whatever comes along my arm into the hand holding the pen. I try to think little when I write, I simply let the pen move, and the words then often flow. I have often been surprised at what appears on the page. I usually write when I am distressed and/or am trying to process my last therapy session. My mind will often let me know through the pen what it is that has been bothering it, bringing something into focus that was just outside my range of vision, something that I couldn’t quite grasp or understand.
When my friend, Ann fell down the stairs at home in 2004, she sustained severe head injuries. She had to have surgery to release the building pressure in her brain and to remove some of the damaged tissue. Her operation was on the left-hand side of her head. When she eventually came round, she had no speech. It took us many months of doing our own version of speech therapy (the first assessment she had while she was in hospital said that she didn’t have any speech, so couldn’t have therapy) to get some words out.
I had a large exercise book, of course, in which I wrote down all the new words that she managed to find. We ended up with a couple of pages after a few weeks. Eventually, she had built up a vocabulary which enabled her to mostly communicate what she wanted to say, albeit sometimes with unusual grammatical structure and with some missing or unwanted words.
That was my first encounter with Broca’s area, which I researched while waiting for Ann to come round from the induced coma after her surgery. The fact that she was able to retrieve some speech shows that the brain can be very plastic, i.e. it can re-learn when some function is lost due to trauma.
The discovery that this part of the brain can stop traumatised people from speaking showed me that I am not mad, merely traumatised. I’m not quite sure why we have developed this reaction. Perhaps, like the smoke detector in the brain that I talk about in my next blog, it is an old part of the brain which is trying to protect us. It may or may not be necessary for the recovery from trauma for a person to be able to verbalise what has happened to them. If they are stuck in, “speechless horror” and what to escape it though, writing or drawing or using objects to show, rather than tell, may help.