CATEGORY: BOOK REVIEWS
written by Michael S. Scheeringa
Read time: 3.9 minutes
Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score was the strike of lightning every science popularizer wishes for. Since publication in 2013, it has parked on the non-fiction best-seller lists, often at #1. At the time I am writing this, it is ranked number ten among all books sold on Amazon. Due to its popularity, it became the bible of a new social movement for trauma-informed care.
In the first half of the book, van der Kolk explained that psychological stress and trauma lodges in the body and damages the operation of many brain functions. The dysfunctions include thoughts, memory, relationships, personality, and the most basic capacities to live, work, and enjoy life. These dysfunctions are vast, ergo, the only logical conclusion is that trauma is the supreme public health crisis.
In the second half of the book, van der Kolk then promotes “body treatments” that follow from that conclusion, including sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing therapy, psychomotor therapy, EMDR, neurofeedback, theater, yoga, singing, and dance. According to van der Kolk, these treatments are superior to standard treatments, namely cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, because they treat the soul, the whole self, by connecting at the visceral level.
Consequently, the book became for the nascent trauma-informed approaches movement what Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was to climate change activists. Whenever progressive bills and projects have been proposed for saving children from violence, preventing crime, or transforming the culture of public schools, this book is almost always cited as the fountainhead of evidence that trauma is the root cause of every group’s problems.
Does trauma really damage the brain? Van der Kolk is provably wrong on every neuroscience claim he makes about trauma damaging the brain. I published a booklet in 2023 that debunked every one of the 42 different claims he made (Analysis of The Body Keeps the Score).
Are the “body treatments” really that great? There is no solid evidence that these treatments are better than conventional treatments, mainly because few controlled studies have been conducted with them. The evidence is so sparse that it’s arguable whether they are even treating PTSD; they could simply be helping with distress from related or separate problems, which get conflated with trauma symptoms. The treatments undoubtedly help some types of people with some issues, but they are not the potent answers to healing trauma, the self, or the soul as van der Kolk suggests.
The stunning lack of evidence begs the question of what was the real purpose of this book? If so much effort was put into making dozens of wrong science claims, and alternative treatments were promoted so strongly on nearly non-existent evidence, why was the book written? In my booklet, I concluded that the point was to create a fabricated reality. The aim was to construct a view of human nature that brains are fragile; experience, not genetics, molds nearly all human behavior; and only those who believe this message are the best type of people who have the right morals to truly care about disadvantaged people.
The moral high-handedness in this narrative leaks out everywhere in the book. Van der Kolk calls out nearly every constituency for treating patients wrong because they are ignorant or greedy: psychiatrists, “mainstream medicine,” therapists, medical journals, and drug companies. He even blames patients for wanting medications as a shortcut instead of dealing with their problems the right way. The disdain seems like a feature, not a bug, of his writing style. Shaming is the point when we realize that this is really about creating an ideology. It seems inconceivable that his aim was to get the facts right; the point was to have the right beliefs.
Why Did This Happen?
Thus, the most illuminating issue may be to ask why the book resonated so strongly with so many people. It clearly seems to have filled a gap that many people were waiting to have filled.
Viewing the popularity of the book as an index of public appetite, the book is a thick, satisfying sandwich that pretends to address the entire self and soul and experience of being human. It is a revolt against the reductionist, evidence-based thin sandwiches of science that can address only what is actually true and known. It feels better to attach oneself to a belief that promises more, even if it’s not true. The message in this book is that nurture, particularly the negative experiences of nurture, not nature, determines almost completely how we turn out. This narrative is part of a radical leftist ideology that runs from Locke’s blank slate, through Rousseau’s noble savage and Marx’s proletariat, that there is no such thing as human behavior due largely to genetics; all personality traits are developed mostly by life experiences. We all start with the same potential for success, and it is only the forces of oppression that mold some people to be disadvantaged, ipso facto, we need to revolt against the establishment, which, in van der Kolk’s expert manipulation of language and ideas, is the handmaiden of trauma.
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