By Amanda Murray - Psychologist
Seeing red. It’s a loaded statement. Anger? Blood? Both?
In this case, neither. Let’s go more literal and start with the experience of seeing the colour red.
It may sound strange, but bear with me, because as a postgraduate psychology student back in 2003 this concept completely blew my mind. To this day, I grapple with it, allowing it to influence my practice as a psychologist and the way that I operate as a compassionate human being.
Now this is a thought experiment. That means you really need to consider the reality of the situation I’m about to describe, and what that reality means in terms of how we understand ourselves, others and the world around us.
Set aside any apprehension or disbelief, and join me down the rabbit hole…
The story goes that there is a neuroscientist named Mary (for a summary of the thought experiment and related concepts see Chalmers, 2004). Mary has studied visual perception for many years.
She understands light.
She understands the way this works within the mechanics of the eye to produce a series of images that are interpreted by the brain.
She understands the science of colour perception including wavelengths which correspond to particular labels for colour.
Mary understands all there is to know theoretically about visual perception…. yet Mary lives within a black and white room. For all intents and purposes, Mary is blind to the experience of colour.
What would happen if Mary stepped outside of this room?
What if Mary were to stand next to you and look at the colour red for the first time in her life?
What would that experience be like for her?
Yourself and Mary can now be looking at the exact same thing, the colour red, yet have completely different experiences of it.
You will never know or completely understand what it is like for Mary to look at the colour red. Mary will not know what it is like for you. You will both call it, seeing red.
Birth experience is like that as well.
Two people can experience very similar sounding births when the label is applied: c-section, vaginal, hospital, home, emergency, elective, long, induced, short (to name a few); but the experience of it, the potential impact, could be completely different.
In a study looking at the birth experiences of women (Guittier et al., 2014), researchers found that overall women that had emergency c-sections were more likely to report negative emotional experiences and a lower level of birth satisfaction. Similarly, it has been reported that women who have instrumental deliveries experience similar emotions. Yet not all women in the study reported the same thing and the authors pointed out that across different studies of birth experience, the results have been mixed. Why?
Psychology is interesting for many reasons and one of those, for me at least, is the balance between common themes in the experiences of people and individual differences between people. While many of us have shared experiences in some way, it is the unique narrative of the individual that interests me the most.
How we interpret, understand and process our experiences begins, at latest, from the time of our own birth (for a great description see Young, Klosko & Weishaar, 2003). In an influential article on the neurodevelopmental impact of trauma and neglect, Dr. Bruce D. Perry talks about brain development as being “use-dependent” (Perry, 1997).
This means that the brain develops according to the way that it is used within the environment it happens to be in. In terms of the developing brain, what we know, is that in the very early years (0-3), the connections between neurons go through a process of blooming. Connections form at a rapid rate and you will reach the maximum number of connections within your lifetime.
Following this, there is a process of pruning which continues through to your twenties (Pasko Rakic, as cited by Purcell & Zuckerman, 2011; Valentine-French, 2019). This is when connections which are used often are strengthened and those which are not used will fade away. It is during this time (often called our formative years) that we learn who we are within the world and how the world and people within it can be expected to behave.
When we go into any given experience, we already have all of that with us. It forms part of our context in terms of our concepts about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. All of this does mean that it’s easy to make assumptions. In fact, the brain anticipates outcomes and actions for the sake of efficiency. It requires a lot of energy and needs to work quickly (Swaminathan, 2008). Sometimes that can go a little wrong, particularly when an experience doesn’t match our expectations.
When a woman says, “I had a c-section”, we CAN'T automatically understand what it was like for her to experience it.
We are unable to know how it felt physically or emotionally, the other people or life experiences that have become associated with it, or the automatic thoughts or memories that it provokes.
They will not know the same for you.
We can start to bridge that gap when we reflect honestly and talk openly (with trusted others), without assumption or fear. When we do that, we can connect over shared experience, and compassionately support one another through the nuanced differences.
Maybe we can all be a little bit brave and start that dialogue here?
Copy and complete the following sentences, then paste in the comments below…
- The official term for the type of birth I experienced was...
- To me this means/meant...
- I felt...
- My mind told me...
- My supports were...
- The birthing team was...
- When I look back on my birth experience I feel...
- What I most wanted during the birth was...
- What I most wanted afterward was...
- When I thought/think about a future birth I...
Chalmers, D. (2004). Phenomenal Concepts and the Knowledge Argument. In: P. Ludlow, Y. Nagasawa, & D. Stoljar, (eds.), There’s Something about Mary: Essays on Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument Against Physicalism. MIT Press.
Guittier, M., Cedraschi, C., Jamei, N., Boulvain, M., & Guillemin, F. (2014). Impact of mode of delivery on birth experience in first-time mothers: a qualitative study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 14, 254.
Valentine-French, M. L. & S. (2019). Physical Development in Infancy and Toddlerhood. Retrieved March 30, 2021, from https://chem.libretexts.org/@go/page/10187
Swaminathan, N. (2008). Why does the brain need so much power? Scientific American Mind. Retrieved March 30, 2021, from Why Does the Brain Need So Much Power? - Scientific American
Perry, B. D. (1997). Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the "cycle of violence." In J. D. Osofsky (Ed.), Children in a violent society (p. 124–149). The Guilford Press.
Purcell, A., & Zuckerman, W. (2011). Brains synaptic pruning continues into your 20’s. New Scientist. Retrieved June 19, 2018, from Brain's synaptic pruning continues into your 20s | New Scientist