How Do You Get Help When You’re in Crisis? Well, It Depends.
When was the last time you needed help? Were you able to imagine how and from where you were going to seek this help? Jennifer Newberry, associate professor of emergency medicine, predicts that people will seek help differently based upon their level of stress and the extent to which they can “imagine” how to get help. In a recent presentation to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows, Newberry presented a research agenda for studying the effects of trauma on the brain and the role that imagination plays in this process.
Newberry’s interest in the role of imagination and trauma began while she was doing research in Uttar Pradesh, India. She was conducting surveys with survivors of intimate partner violence and domestic violence. She and her collaborators found that these survivors struggled with the survey instrument because the survivors could not picture the scenarios outlined in the survey. Seeking help and sharing about an experience of violence beyond close family or friends was not an option they had seen or considered and was difficult to imagine.
[T]he same cognitive processes that are negatively affected by trauma and stress may also negatively affect survivors’ imaginations, decreasing their ability to find new ways to get help when they most need it.
Since this experience, Newberry has been exploring how the imagination facilitates trauma survivors’ abilities to get help. She defines imagination as “the power or capacity to form internal images of ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses.” This ability to form internal images of objects and situations is a highly cognitive process. However, in research on help-seeking in crisis, this role of cognition—including the role of imagination—is missing, she argues. Simply put, “a lot has to go on in our brain in order for us to get help.”
Newberry breaks down this cognitive process of help-seeking, which includes mental imagery, episodic memory retrieval, spatial navigation, and executive functioning. When individuals are under stress, as survivors of intimate partner violence often are, different parts of their brain are downregulated while others may be upregulated – adaptions that help us initially but that may become maladaptive when experienced chronically. Newberry predicts that the very parts of the brain that are downregulated are likely the ones that facilitate survivors’ imagination for getting help. In other words, the same cognitive processes that are negatively affected by trauma and stress may also negatively affect survivors’ imaginations, decreasing their ability to find new ways to get help when they most need it.
Based upon these predictions, Newberry laid out her research agenda. She aims to answer the following questions: What is the impact of physical and psychological trauma on neuroanatomy relevant to imagination? What happens to these systems under stress or if an individual has experienced some form of trauma? And, which parts of the brain are at work when seeking help?
Newberry is currently exploring various pathways forward to test her predictions. Current survey instruments on imagination have not been broadly tested, she said. As a result, Newberry and her team view functional MRI as the most promising way forward. This process would involve examining people’s brain activity as they move through a series of tasks. Newberry would see how this activity changes across different populations who have experienced trauma, such as survivors of intimate partner violence. This type of research design could unlock important insights into how imagination and stress can empower and constrain help-seeking in at-risk populations.