Collective Pain and the Brain on Grain

A hypothesis on the origins of human collective trauma

Anna Mercury


Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

I’ve been getting really into deep history and the eco-sociology of early civilization these days. Here’s why:

I’ve long been a political activist, passionate about social justice and collective liberation. As a good radical, I kept attempting to strike more and more accurately at “the root” of societal issues, and began to understand so many collective social ills as symptomatic of collective trauma.

I realized trauma is what’s been beating at the heart of every war, woven into the walls of every prison, trailing unspoken in every -ism suffix. Actions of violence are responses to, or reenactments of, trauma: the perpetuation of harm by those who were harmed. European colonialism, which is at the root of the majority of global social ills today, has its roots in Europeans being conquered by more localized empires and having their own lands stolen. Empire begets empire. Imperial, traumatizing social orders produce imperialistic, traumatized societies. Collective violence is a symptom of collective trauma.

Which led me to the question: how did we get so traumatized? Was it always like this?

The answer I’ve learned is: No, it was not always like this. We’re living in ways today that are very unhealthy to us. Our contemporary lifeways, indeed, can be downright traumatic to us. The fundamental aspects of industrial society are both pathological and pathogenic.

I’m not sure how we first got traumatized, which aspects of the shift were causal and which were compensation, but gradually, bit by bit, we reached a point a majority of humanity is living in ways that are unsustainable and traumatic. Unsustainable lifestyles and trauma, I’d argue, go hand-in-hand. As I’ve written about before, I believe (along with ecopsychologists like Ralph Metzner and Chellis Glendinning) that our disconnection from the natural world is a form of trauma on its own.

There is, plainly, a correct way for humans, a way that allows for regenerative, collaborative relationships with our ecosystems and more harmonious, nurturing relationships with each other that set us up for the long-enduring survival of our species. This way of living has been…