Etching Lightly — Releasing Negative Samskaras

Rene Spitz, a retired professor of psychiatry at my medical school, once showed me pictures from his work with children in a South American orphanage and in a nearby prison in the early 1940’s. Having witnessed many epidemics of infectious disease spreading from infant to infant at the orphanage, the well-intentioned administrators set up a thoroughly modern facility.

Every baby had its own immaculately maintained crib separated from the others. Professional nurses and aids were required to wash their hands and don sterilized gloves before working with a different tot. The institution seemed to do everything possible to provide the children with the most modern care to prevent infection, malnutrition and the other rampant pediatric problems.

Meanwhile, in the nearby prison with drastically worse living conditions, the children were cared for by their mothers but housed together in a jumble of dirty, squirmy babies. On admission, the prison children lagged developmentally behind the children in the home and also were skinnier. Surprisingly, though, the immaculately clean orphan babies getting professional care became socially withdrawn, apathetic, listless, often failed to thrive and within two years 37% had died and the others had dramatic delays in their expected development or were frankly retarded. All the filthy prison children were alive five years later.1

Spitz basically documented the results of emotional neglect, one of the severest forms of stress. The stress of not having a soft, warm body and smiling face in front of the orphan children was literally enough to kill them. Sixty years later, we have not only come to accept that cuddling kids is as basic a requirement as food and shelter, but we even have insight into how stress gets transformed into permanent mental disease.

Rats are good swimmers, but if you force one to swim in an inescapable tank of water, after an initial vigorous attempt to save itself, it assumes an immobile posture, making the bare necessary movements to keep its head above water. The first day in the tank, it takes them about 15 minutes to learn this behavior mimicking human depression. But on subsequent days, they spend more time in this immobile posture, and assume it after a shorter time. Interestingly, if you give them antidepressant drugs, they become more eager swimmers, showing that the forced swim stress emulates human depression.

Rats hopelessly treading water behave a lot like rats that are exposed to an inescapable shock in the tail, and also to humans with depression. The rats become sluggish and listless, lose their appetite and weight. If pre-exposed to an inescapable shock, just like humans they not only fail to learn another escape response, but often don’t even try.2 Researchers call this behavior learned helplessness, but learned hopelessness could also describe it.

Apathy and depression are also the two main presenting symptoms of children who have had emotional abuse, and may also be present in physical and sexual abuse. A tender, vulnerable child is already nearly helpless, and with abuse has actually learned to be both helpless and hopeless.

Normally, a stress reaction allows you to get your bearing by adapting your mind and environment to changing circumstances. Brain changes are transitory. Every day you may make dozens of these adaptations in response to small episodes. But if you happen to be vulnerable, usually due to traumatic early life events, what should be a natural process can become pathological and chronic, lasting years.

The exciting thing about hopeless, resigned rats is not that they mimic humans, but that they function as a model so scientists can study what actually happens in post-traumatic stress and depression. Using evoked potentials (the measuring of the waveform of a stimulus by a brain electrode) researchers are beginning to discover which parts of the brain are involved in storing stressful impressions and which hormonal factors boost the impression into one that hampers learning and coping.

Exactly how memories are stored is still not totally understood, but one of the most important mechanisms is the long-term strength of the connections (synapses) between adjacent nerve cells.3 When the synapse is strong (called synaptic efficacy) adjacent nerve cells communicate freely and only a small stimulus is required to fire and trigger pathways of nerve conduction. Enduring emotional memories seem to be stored in augmented arrays or synaptic pathways, resulting in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder when the stored experience is negative.

Fortunately, we are endowed with a remarkable ability to sustain trauma without undue imprinting on our long-term memory, a term called synaptic plasticity. Our nervous systems, depending on our past experiences, can be rigid (resisting new learning) or flexible and compliant.

For humans, like rats, stress can either potentiate or inhibit learning and performance, a relationship I learned as a springboard diver in college. My freshman year I had to learn an entirely new repertoire of dives, and none of them became well enough grooved into my nervous system to be executed at will. Under a stress like the pressure of competition, I instinctively went into survival mode, just like the immobile rats. The execution of the dive, to my (and my coach’s) horror, had nothing in common with what I had practiced. Three years later, the dives had become routine with repetition. My brain had succumbed to what researchers call long-term potentiation of synapses, required for memory formation. In the stress of competition, the strongest imprinting, the one I had practiced, was the most likely of all possible responses to be executed.

Erasing Samskaras

The oldest term for the fixing of an image, memory or impression in the nervous system is the Sanskrit word samskara. We have two kinds of samskaras: the imprints we come into this world with and those we acquire. Imprints present at birth represent the sum total of the experience of our parents, our species, and even species that predated mankind. Our innate impressions are literally the legacy of eons of experience, endowing us with talents, faults, likes, dislikes, fears, prejudices and predispositions. Newborn goslings prefer to follow a mother that looks like a goose rather than a man. Yet because their tender nervous systems are so compliant (or naïve), in the absence of a goose they will imprint and follow a man. Mice who have never seen an owl or a sparrow will seek cover on seeing the silhouette of an owl above, but aren’t bothered by the silhouette of a sparrow. The fear-provoking memory has been imprinted in the mouse’s DNA. We, too, come into the world with these samskaras, the ingrained fears, stress responses, compulsions, drives and coping mechanisms that overshadow our thinking and behavior. Theologians call this original sin.

The other impressions are the ones that are acquired, etched into our memory by our present life experiences. The depth or degree of etching is the synaptic plasticity and is a function both of the power of the impression and the subject’s impressionability. A powerful impression — a life-altering stressor like being degraded, physically abused or witnessing violence (whether real or fictional) — prevents branching and shrinks the growing ends of nerve fibers in the hippocampus of the brain, suppressing the formation of new synapses.4, 5 Due to these changes, brain images of chronically depressed patients can show the hippocampus, which is a small area of the brain associated with emotion and learning, to be shrunken and atrophied.6

To be endowed with a good memory is not at all like owning a big, fast computer hard drive. The best memory is the one that is able to forget, to not mark every experience indelibly into its record, and to let useless or negative impressions go. Purifying, filtering and discriminating what is imprinted allows your nervous system to be free for important things like loving, creating, imagining, discovering and the finding of pleasure in simple things like the savoring of silence. The most useful spiritual techniques for eliminating samskaras and culturing plasticity are the ones that train our brains to forget and release impressions. Proper meditation, to nearly every non-meditator’s great surprise, does not involve concentration, but rather learning to let go and not mind intrusions. Stress blocks learning (as in the rat’s inability to save his life or escape from pain after suffering inescapable shocks) by making the nervous system less plastic and more rigid. A deeply etched trauma is like a line scraped into stone. The impression is permanent, albeit sometimes unconscious. Such imprints underlie our deeply held stresses, our hang-ups, our black dogs.7 As your nervous system becomes more flexible, for example with spiritual practices, a similar impression will not persist as long. Like a line in the sand, after a few days the line has disappeared. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder crave to live free from their samskaras. They just want their troubled mind to give them a break. In the language of samskaras, they want experiences to flow frictionlessly in and out of their awareness without creating lasting impressions. Like a line sketched in water it should disappear almost as soon as it is drawn.

Giving children a life free of animosity, threats, fear, and hopelessness is the best way to preserve their innate synaptic plasticity. Inevitably, though, stresses creep in. Techniques to remove the debris of deeply imprinted samskaras are a precious legacy from the ancient masters. Yoga, meditation, pranayama (neurorespiratory integration) and the like are useful for healing traumatized lives as well as for spiritual growth. Researchers at the University of Colorado, for example, documented improvement in every measure in Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who were taught Transcendental Meditation, including anxiety, depression, alcohol use, emotional numbness, physiological response to stressful stimuli, insomnia, family problems, etc. compared to a group receiving psychotherapy which did not improve significantly on any measure.8

In a spiritual sense, to live a life of true freedom, we need to purify our nervous systems of the bitter and the sweet, our triumphs as well as our traumas. An experience of extreme joy creates samskaras just as much as one of horror and pain, and can lead us to live for our memories instead of savoring the moment at hand. To experience the deepest spiritual realities, our nervous system has to be free of samskaras. Like a glass of muddy water that can only provide a muddy reflection of the sun, a nervous system full of the mental mud of samskaras can only provide you with a murky reflection of the divine. Ultimately we want our nervous systems to have complete synaptic plasticity, free from the rigidity created by samskaras. Impressions stored by such a nervous system are recorded in the best place of all: nowhere and everywhere. They are available to all parts of the brain, yet not localized and intrusive. Experiencing the cosmos in this state would be like sketching a line on air. It leaves no trace at all.


  1. Spitz, R. A. (1945). “Hospitalism.” In R. S. Eissler, (Ed.), The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (Vol. I). New York: International Universities Press. Spitz, R. A. (1946). “Hospitalism: A follow-up report.” In R. S. Eissler, (Ed.), The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (Vol. II), New York: International Universities Press.
  2. Rene Garcia. “Stress, Synaptic Plasticity and Psychopathology.” Reviews in the Neurosciences, 13, 195-208 (2002)
  3. Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Fuchs, E and Gould, E (2000). Eur, J, Neurosci. 12, 2211-2214.
  5. Synaptic connectivity is felt to be mediated by the flow of calcium ions across the nerve cell membrane. The process is down-regulated (inhibited) by stress-related hormones such as glucocorticoids (e.g. cortisol) thus explaining the impairment of learning under stress. It is promoted or up-regulated by an increase in the local expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
  6. Sheline, YI, Sangavi M, Mintun MA and Gado MH. (1999). J. Neursci. 19, 5034-5043.
  7. A term used by Winston Churchill to describe the dark moments that dogged him all his life.
  8. Brooks, J.S., & Scarano, T. (1985). “Transcendental Meditation in the Treatment of Post-Vietnam Adjustment.” Journal of Counseling and Adjustment, 64, 212-215.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.