Within psychology, the concept of qualia refers to subjective or personal conscious experiences. The most common manner in which the concept of qualia is described is with the question ‘Is the colour red that you see the same colour red that I see?’ Basically, what this means is how can two people, who have different biological, neurological, genetic and epistemological makeups, be certain that they are seeing the colour red in exactly the same way? Philosophically speaking, it is not possible to know this.
How can we relate the concept of qualia to people who have experienced trauma and the trauma professionals who claim they can help them?
When an individual is exposed to a traumatic event, only the individual themselves can understand the emotional depth of how saddened, terrified, depressed, scared, helpless, powerless, fearful, and/or enraged the event personally made them feel. One person exposed to a traumatic event may feel much more or less saddened than another person exposed to the same or similar event. What may be traumatic to one may not necessarily be as traumatic to another.
Let’s put the concept of qualia in relation to trauma this way. When you place your hand on a stove, the speed at which you reflexively move your hand is related to a few factors. The temperature of the stove, habituation to hot temperatures, callouses on the hand, skin thickness, nerve and pain sensors, and/or belief systems (think fire walkers). Now let’s say that the stove is set on 50 degrees Celsius. I put my hand on the stove for 2 seconds before I simultaneously withdraw my hand and scream something along the lines of ‘shit that’s hot’. Now how can I be certain that another person putting their hand on the same stove set at the same temperature is going to feel exactly the same level of pain that I just felt? Unless they are an exact biological, genetic, epistemological clone of myself, I can’t accurately presume or say how the other person experienced, or will experience, the hotness of the stove.
How is this resolved?
How can trauma professionals and others alike, help someone to overcome trauma when in reality they cannot truly understand what the client has experienced and felt. Since we all live within solipstic bubbles (solipsism is the notion that one can only be sure that their own mind exists but cannot be sure that another’s mind exists), society is governed by what is known as ‘inter-subjectivity’ or ‘inter-subjective agreements’. What this means is that whilst we can only truly know our own experiences and sensations, there are similarities in experiences between people that can be agreed upon.
Let’s use the stove example above to see what inter-subjective agreements can be made. Whilst everyone will experience the hotness of the stove uniquely, all parties can agree that in most cases, but not all, a person will remove their hand from a stove when the temperature of the stove becomes too hot for THEM to handle. Therefore, since we do not know exactly how hot one person felt the stove to be in comparison to another, we as a society make an inter-subjective agreement that says something like ‘It can be assumed that the other has felt a similar experience of hotness in comparison to another, regardless of other extraneous variables (i.e., stove temperature, callouses in hand etc) when they are forced to remove their hand from the stove, due to the unbearable hotness, at a speed similar to the first individual’.
Or, perhaps the inter-subjective agreement may say ‘It can be agreed that two people have felt the same level of hotness depending on the extent to which they have suffered a burn to the hand (i.e., 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree burn)’. Now these inter-subjective agreements are not 100% accurate and/or true. They are just relatively accurate approximations which help society agree on certain experiences between two or more people when the alternative is to have no common experiences/ground at all. The alternative would just lead to constant disagreements and conflict.
You will note earlier that I said in most cases, but not all, a person will remove their hand when the stove becomes too hot for them. Some people are born with congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). An individual with this condition cannot feel, nor has ever felt, physical pain. So, if someone with this condition touches the stove and doesn’t remove their hand, what happens? The inter subjective agreement breaks down. Questions need to be asked. Investigations need to be carried out as to why this person does not fit the inter-subjective agreement for hot stoves. This is after all, how the individual comes to be diagnosed with CIP.
Going back to trauma, whilst it is true that a trauma professional can never truly understand what a client has experienced, and must therefore respect the clients uniquely personal experiences, the therapist can make relatively accurate conclusions and assumptions about what the client is likely to have experienced (due to trauma related inter-subjective agreements made by society) which can help them to understand and treat their client. Such inter-subjective agreements may be for example ‘sexual abuse survivors will likely exhibit patterns of behaviour related to trust and intimacy, have a higher rate of developing depression and anxiety, have an increased risk of self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol etc’.
The trauma related inter-subjective agreements are based upon repeating clinical or societal presentations of similar behaviours manifested by most, but not all, sexual abuse survivors. Whilst not all sexual abuse survivors will exhibit the symptoms and/or behaviours assigned to the sexual abuse category, they may manifest some or all of them. So, when a trauma professional is presented with a sexually abused client, the professional can keep the sexual abuse inter-subjective agreements in mind and, if manifested or vocally expressed by the client, can proceed to help the client to understand and modify those symptoms and behaviours which are negatively impacting the client’s life.
Since all trauma survivors experience their traumatic experiences so uniquely, they may feel or believe that nobody could possibly understand what they have experienced nor know any way, or anybody, capable of helping them to heal and move forward. This may prevent the individual from talking to others about what has happened or from seeking professional help. This can ultimately send them into a greater spiral of depression, despair, self-blame, shame, guilt or helplessness.
This is why trauma professionals assert that they understand their client’s experiences and believe that they can assist them on their path towards recovery and healing. It is also why trauma professionals encourage trauma clients to educate themselves and become familiar with others that may have experienced something similar and have found a way to heal or manage better in their day-to-day lives. It’s a way for the trauma professional to instil HOPE within the client. Hope that their experiences, whilst horrifying and devastating, and wholly personal and unique, have been similarly, but not exactly, experienced by others and can therefore be understood by others.
This helps the client to overcome any real or perceived notions of being isolated. Of being uniquely damaged or not understood. Of being untreatable or unworthy of treatment. A sense of hope is the greatest predictor for recovery and healing from trauma.
Gillespie, Alex; Cornish, Flora (March 2010). "Intersubjectivity: towards a dialogical analysis" (PDF). Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 40 (1): 19–46. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.724.7095. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00419.x.
Unger, M. P. (2005). Intersubjectivity, Hermeneutics, and the Production of Knowledge in Qualitative Mennonite Scholarship. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 50–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690500400304
Vaknin, Sam. (2014). LECTURE Extremes of the Human Mind: The Most Terrifying Place of All. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWT22Ow_B04