It is often recommend that people seeing a therapist should seek to journal their thoughts. The advice of how to journal can be diverse, but there is evidence that journaling provides a useful therapeutic tool to aid in the process of recovery.
There are probably multiple mechanisms that go into why writing can be therapeutic. In many cases, it may be beneficial to simply write about one’s thoughts and feelings to help people to discover and reflect what is going on in them. I certainly agree with tihs idea, but I want to suggest from my own experiences that there may be another benefit, particuarly in cases of post traumatic stress: the restoration of our linguistic capacities so as to be able to effectively comprehend and integrate our live experiences.
One of the effects of long-term, persistent physiological response of stress is the steady stream of cortisol that is put into the blood stream. Coritsol is incredibly helpful is enable us to respond effective to the stress of the immediate circumstance. However, the value of cortisol is more so for the short term, whereas in the long run it can have deleterious effects on a person’s well-being and mental capacity. One particularly pernicious side effect is the damage that is done to memory through damage to the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is responsible for encoding and recalling most of our memories.
It has been theorized that the hippocampus is an important part of our usage and understanding of language. A famous patient known HM who had both of his medial temporal lobes surgically removed began to have severe memory problems, including all memories after he was 16 and basic life facts such as his age, what he had just eaten, etc. In addition to these memory deficits, he also was largely unable to learn the meanings of new words.1 Developing a hypothesis for this reason, one of the roles of the hippocampus in encoding and recalling memories is integrate and activate information from various sensory modalites elsewhere in the brain to fire synchronously. This allows us to remember various details such as a person’s first date with their spouse, the excitement we had when we first got a driver’s licence, the pain we experienced when someone we love died, etc. It would also likely have a role in our memory of the basic concrete conceptualizations for the words we use, such as associated the word ‘dog’ with a animal that has a littany of features that we might consider prototypical of dogs such as four legs, a tail, barking, often a pet, etc. While episodic memory is more complex than semantic memory in virtue of episodic memory being filled with a lot more necessary details, both require the ability of the brain to integrate various information from throughout the brain into a composite whole.
If there is this vital connection between the hippocampus and the semantic memory of language, then we are one step away from possibly explaining the instrumental role of journaling in healing from trauma. Through writing, it can suggested that we are retraining our brains in the usage of memory so as to be able to more effectively integrate life experiences, past and future. Journaling and other forms of thoughtful, reflective writing, in effect, offers a form of “exercise” for the hippocampus in order to overcome the deleterious effects that perpetually high degrees of stress can cause. The hippocampus happens to be one of the few areas of the brain where adults reguarly have neurogenesis in which the hippocampus integrates new neurons. Just as the hippocampus is suscpetible to degradion under stress, it is also able to be made new.
If this is the case, it isn’t necessary the case that we need to write directly about traumatic memories or other problems that ail us. It is only necessary that we write about things that are related to our trauma. Upon the emergence, strengthening, and consolodiation of semantic memories, the hippocampus is further ‘strengthened’ so as to also be able to the concepts uses in language to also process and integrate traumatic experiences. This reintegration can happen outside of our cosncious thoughts about the trauma, as the brain processes a whole lot more than what goes on in our conscious awareness.
I am also left with a curiosity about the possible value of learning a new language for traumatied people. In the past month, I have spent every day trying to learn German, while also taking small bits of time to try to refresh my somewhat rusty Greek, my largely forgotten Hebrew, and my Latin that I have engaged with in very shorts spurts since taking it in college. I have found that my thinking has been benefitted while facing this linguistic challenge, althugh I am not sure if it is the confidence that comes from successfully learning a language or from the stand point of broading my languages skills that provides a mental benefit. Probably a combination of both.