PTSD as an information processing disorder


Posttraumatic stress disorder is a challenging condition, as people become captured by their past experiences and have difficulty engaging with the present. At the core of this condition is the role of traumatic memories, which orientate the individual's awareness and reactivity to reminders of the instigating traumatic event. The role of traumatic events has not been fully understood and grappled with in the full range of psychopathological conditions. This has important implications for the application of EMDR as a treatment for disorders above and beyond posttraumatic stress disorder.

However, the problems with information processing in PTSD go above and beyond the fear circuitry and reactivity to traumatic memories. Individuals with PTSD also have major difficulties with their self-orientation, which is reflected in deficits in default networks, the idling systems of the brain. These changes are indicative of problems in self-registration and free-floating reflection. Dissociative symptoms may relate to these abnormalities of individuals resting states as they reflect a sense of disconnection and integration of internal states into consciousness.

Secondly, posttraumatic stress disorder is associated with major problems in dealing with neutral environmental information. This is reflected in the symptoms of difficulty with concentration and emotional numbing. The underlying neurobiology of the working memory abnormalities in posttraumatic stress disorder will be highlighted. These studies show that, in PTSD, relatively simple attentional tasks recruit neural networks normally reserved for more demanding and higher order tasks. When confronted with more demanding challenges, individuals with PTSD do not have any further capacity to allocate to processing complex environments.

Individuals with PTSD also demonstrate a problem with switching their attentional focus from an idling to active state. The data suggests that they continue to use visio-spatial networks more than language-based systems for dealing with verbal tasks. This observation is in keeping with a broad body of literature, which suggests that there are problems with the processing of verbal memory tasks in PTSD. EMDR, as a treatment, may have an advantage, as it is not so dependent on verbal representations of traumatic experiences as other treatment approaches.

Finally, an important development in the field is a better understanding of the patterns of abnormal cortical arousal that accompany the peripheral arousal abnormalities in PTSD. Quantitative EEG has given insights into the instability of the cortical neural networks. Neurotherapy represents a treatment that can further assist clinicians in the management of these patients. It is important to consider the underlying psychosomatic aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder and ensure that treatment addresses these components as well the traumatic memories. Treatment should be thought of as a staged process where the processing of traumatic memories is only one component of a disorder that impacts on a range of information processing domains.






Alexander McFarlane

Original Work Citation

McFarlane, A. (2010, June). PTSD as an information processing disorder. Keynote presented at the 11th EMDR Europe Association Conference, Hamburg, Germany



“PTSD as an information processing disorder,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed October 28, 2020,

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