Study Fails to Find that Trauma Leads to Dissociation

Some psychologists theorize that child abuse eventually produces, in its victims, “dissociation”—the perception that one’s mind is disconnected from one’s emotions or even from one’s body. This theory can support a child abuse accusation in two ways. First, a person’s suffering dissociation can be considered to corroborate a memory of abuse years earlier. Second, psychologists believe that dissociation interferes with memory; hence an accuser’s poor memory of his or her alleged abuse can be considered evidence the abuse produced dissociation, rather than evidence there was no abuse.

Critics of the theory that child abuse produces dissociation have complained that no long-term study has tested it. Now we have the results of a 19-year study that sought such a connection. That study found no association between trauma suffered in childhood and dissociation suffered as a young adult. Rather, the study found lack of parental responsiveness in infancy predicted dissociation. Childhood verbal abuse was the only kind of childhood trauma that increased the likelihood of dissociation later.

For the full report, see Dutra, Lissa; Bureau, Jean-Francois; Holmes, Bjarne; Lyubchik, Amy; and Lyons-Ruth, Karlen, “Quality of Early Care and Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Developmental Pathways to Dissociation,” in The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 197(6):383-390, June 2009.