115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Exploring Bergson’s Theory of Memory: A Way to Understand PTSD

Nan Darbous Marthaller, American Military University

This paper entitled, “Exploring Bergson’s Theory of Memory: A Way to Understand PTSD,” explores the symptoms of PTSD through the lens of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory. Traumatic memories, flashbacks and recurring nightmares are all symptoms of posttraumatic stress. As remembered events, whether voluntary or not, they are directly linked to memory.

Proposal: 

This paper entitled, “Exploring Bergson’s Theory of Memory: A Way to Understand PTSD,” explores the symptoms of PTSD through the lens of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory. Traumatic memories, flashbacks and recurring nightmares are all symptoms of posttraumatic stress. As remembered events, whether voluntary or not, they are directly linked to memory. Understanding how memories are stored, remembered, and forgotten is an important part of how we see ourselves and how we perceive others.

During WWI, “shell shock” was a major concern for battle weary soldiers serving in the trenches of the European theatre. Shell shock was considered and discussed by philosophical peers of Bergson, like Sigmund Freud who labeled it “war neurosis” and prescribed that it was best treated through psycho-analysis rather than the established method of physical electro-shock therapy. New literature continues to document war stress trauma in veterans of the Civil War, Vietnam, and those who have served since. Survivors of large scale terrorist events experience PTSD as well. More important is the controversy over treatment as a mental disease. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added PTSD as a diagnostic code to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Multi-disciplinary resources including clinical, historical, theoretical, and philosophical, as well as personal and semi-autobiographical fictional accounts of traumatic battle events provide a deeper understanding of Bergson’s theory of memory, and how it relates to PTSD and its different forms of treatment. In addition, evaluation of Bergson’s memory theory and other philosophical literature offers new insight into the operations of one’s mind and the minds of those around us. This multi-disciplinary research showed increasing new consideration about how memory works and new ways in which PTSD might be understood and perhaps treated. It also demonstrated that clinical traditions are changing when treating not only PTSD, but memory disease in general. The challenge to this research is boundary driven since Bergson’s theories are philosophical whereas clinical treatment is physical because it relates to human body functions. This research did find that information and studies about war stress and/or PTSD are increasingly common as well as the reconsideration and reflection about memory theory in both academic journals and popular journalism. Perhaps the most striking description of and insightful awareness about shell shock, war neurosis, or PTSD is offered in memoir both autobiographical or fictionalized by actual veterans who experienced traumatic wartime events firsthand.

In addition to traditional forms of treatment, relating memories in workshops, writing classes, and other shared venues offer not only therapeutic value, but serve to document important insights into how we view ourselves, our environment, and those around us during traumatic events. If researchers and clinicians examine Bergson’s theory of memory and consider the implications of perception and archive in the role of remembering as well as forgetting, understanding and treating PTSD could be dramatically different. Society might benefit from what Bergson can teach us, how we perceive our own memories, and the effect our memories have on ourselves and those around us.

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