Do you know anyone who has over-the-top reactions that don’t make any sense in the present? They may have had an UNCONSCIOUS FLASHBACK. There are two kinds of flashbacks, conscious flashbacks and unconscious flashbacks. When a car backfire triggers a memory of mortar fire to pop into a combat veteran’s mind and he feels a flood of fear he is having a conscious flashback, when a car backfire subconsciously triggers the memory but it never reaches his conscious mind and he just gets the flood of fear and an urge to cover his head he is having an unconscious flashback.
Over the past 20 years I have had the honor of working with a number of combat veterans, they are proud and disciplined. The rigors of combat have strengthened them – trained them to ‘soldier up,’ to trudge through the most stressful of situations, putting one foot ahead of the other always focused on carrying out their orders – regardless of how tired they are, how scared they are, how much physical or emotional pain they are experiencing at the moment.
John was a strong, proud and determined combat veteran. He didn’t want or need to talk about his combat experience. He assured me that his military days were ancient history, that he had ‘put it out of his mind,’ that he never thought about the war and therefore it had no effect on his current life.
One bright and sunny day John came to his appointment and as usual he was 10 minutes early. “If you’re not 10 minutes early – you’re late,” was one of his favorite sayings. When I walked out to meet him in the waiting room, I immediately sensed that something was different. He was usually so calm and stoic, but today all the color had drained from his face. The firm handshake and big smile that he always greeted me with never happened. He marched into my office. He sat on the edge of the big soft chair that he usually sat all the way back in. He looked down at the floor without making any of his usual eye contact.
Obviously there was something big he had to say. I just sat there waiting. There were no need for words or questions, I could see him building up the nerve to tell me what was going on. These are the situations that we are all familiar with, the ‘I have shockingly bad news to tell you’ moments of life. I thought maybe someone close to him had died, he had lost his job – something like that. But it wasn’t any of those – he looked up, made iron clad eye contact and said, “I was driving to this appointment, going 70 mph on I-91, when I think a car backfired. What did I do? I took my hands off the wheel and covered my head.
I don’t know what happened, I just got terribly scared. I must have blanked out or something because the next thing I know, I’m shaking, I’m sweating bullets and I realize that I have both of my arms covering my head. By the time I looked up …the f***ing car was in the next lane and was headed towards the median. Its a miracle that somehow I snapped back to reality in time to get control of my car. I could have killed myself. I could’ve killed innocent people.”
That day we found that there was a very good reason that he had covered his head. Back in his days in combat, his platoon was under mortar fire. There was a loud noise as a mortar round exploded near him, killing his friend. Covering his head with his hands and arms not only helped to save his life but it kept his friend’s blood from covering his face.
His reaction of covering his face was an extremely smart thing to do on the battlefield even though it was an extremely dumb thing to do on I-91. The reaction made no sense in the present but it made perfect sense in the past. It was simply the right reaction but in the wrong place and time.
But how could this be? How could a memory that never came into consciousness cause him to do something so stupid and inappropriate – nearly killing himself and possibly others by taking his hands off the wheel?
Anyone who watches movies knows that when you have a flashback that the memory pops into your mind, right?
Well, as it turns out, the flashbacks in movies are conscious flashbacks – something triggers the memory and it immediately intrudes into the character’s mind, complete with slow motion effects and a menacing soundtrack. The character in the movie may go into a panic or a rage – something that doesn’t fit the situation or the character but the surfacing of the memory lets the audience and the person know just where the emotions came from.
Unconscious flashbacks occur when something triggers the feelings, urges and impulses associated with an emotionally charged memory – but the memory never reaches consciousness. This causes a reaction that doesn’t make any sense to the person or people around them because it isn’t coming from the present, its coming from a mystery memory from the past.
- Blank, A. S. (1985). The unconscious flashback to the war in Vietnam veterans: Clinical mystery, legal defense, and community problem. In S. M. Sonnenberg, A. S. Blank & J. A. Talbott (Eds.), The trauma of war: Stress and recovery in Vietnam veterans. (pp. 293-308). Washington, D. C.: American Psychiatric Press.
- LeDoux, Joseph E. (1996). The emotional brain : the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Öhman, Arne, Carlsson, Katrina, Lundqvist, Daniel, & Ingvar, Martin. (2007). On the unconscious subcortical origin of human fear. Physiology & Behavior, 92(1-2), 180-185.