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Indian student at Pratt devises a sanctuary for trauma survivors

The 20th century saw radical changes but somewhere along the way, in an effort to grow, society has ignored the devastation it has caused to the human mind by pushing forward ruthlessly. One manifestation of this damage is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is being understood as a condition that haunts survivors of all kinds of trauma. A traumatic event leaves behind imprinted memories that affect people and their families, histories and even cultures.

According to psycho-traumatologists, the part of the human brain that ensures the organism’s survival gets reactivated at the slightest hint of danger, engaging brain circuits and secreting massive amounts of stress hormones. This begins a chain reaction of disturbing emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These incomprehensible post-traumatic reactions can feel overwhelming. Survivors of trauma begin to fear that they are broken beyond repair. The sequence of cause-and-effect does not limit itself to one person, but extends and affects their loved ones.

Kartikaye Mittal, a New York based artist of Indian origin, is converging the fields of psychotherapy, design, engineering and wellness to create an innovative system that addresses PTSD. His prototype, Reboot, embodies the concept of a private space, an idea that has been welcomed and lauded by artists, designers and psychotherapists.

To study PTSD, Kartikaye visited New York City PTSD Support, a group to discuss  one’s situation with those who have shared experiences. The meetings help people compare their circumstances, traumas, therapies/therapists to keep them well-informed and better equipped to manage their challenges. An essential function of the group is giving members agency and choice by opening the door to a discussion on therapies and their efficacies. There is a shift from the dependence on a therapist to being part of a community that can help a survivor determine her/his individual needs and look for the solutions that work for her/him. Ultimately the group buttresses the scaffold of psychotherapy, by informing users and helping them make effective choices. The group also helps its new members find the support they have been looking for so that they do not feel isolated or alone.

Attending the group meetings as a silent observer helped Kartikaye discover the area of design intervention for the times when panic is triggered in a trauma-survivor in a public place, where she/he doesn’t have immediate access to help. The  meetings informed Kartikaye’s understanding of ‘agency’ – a concept that played a key role in his design-thinking. The drive to empower the user influenced the outcome of his research.

Kartikaye designed and engineered the prototype of a collapsible space installed in public buildings that can be used by survivors of trauma in moments of panic. The collapsible space alters sensory stimulus and creates an environment in which a person can manage her/his emotions without disturbance or distraction. It gives the user the option to retreat into privacy whenever needed, to practice a therapeutic exercise prescribed by their therapist, or to just be. The clinical psychologists who were consulted for the project wholeheartedly approved of the idea and its design. Similar to the function of the PTSD support group, this project introduces a smaller system that would augment and strengthen the structure of psychotherapy for PTSD.

Kartikaye designed several models with his primary objectives of dampening the surrounding environment while keeping the look and feeling of the structure benign and non-evocative; collapsible and adaptable to the available space in existing buildings; and spatial comfort.

Having access to a private space that is devoid of sensory stimulus may help an individual regain control over his/her emotions during a panic attack, by creating a safe barrier between the user and his/her external environment. It would provide a break from sensory input. The purpose of this space is to provide agency to a survivor of trauma outside his/her meetings with a therapist. It is expected to support mainstream therapy in the form of a plug-in.

Reboot addresses the psychological state of panic, by exploring the effect of the absence auditory stimulus during a panic attack. Auditory stimulus is any stimulus capable of eliciting auditory sensation. This usually refers to distinct airborne sounds, but can also include vibrations produced by conduction or by internally generated events. The effect of the absence of sounds on the human mind is the main idea for Reboot’s experimental hypothesis.

The workings within human physiology explain how vibrations from sound can affect the human body. Neurophysiological research suggests that noises first activate the amygdalae, clusters of neurons located in the temporal lobes of the brain, associated with memory formation and emotion. The activation triggers an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol. Consistently loud environments can often lead to chronically elevated levels of stress hormones in people. Silence can be defined as the absence of sound. The absence of sound leads to the absence of the effects that sound produces on the human mind. One may then ask – what effect can silence itself produce, other than the negation of the effects that sound produces?

It can be seen that even though we define silences as a lack of input, our brains are structured to recognize them, whenever they represent a sharp break from sounds. And, when silence continues, the auditory cortex settles into a state of relative inactivity.

Project ‘Reboot’ blends statistical data with an experimental hypothesis, using an interdisciplinary methodology. It aims to create innovative tools to approach the complex subject of trauma. The prototype designed and developed for Reboot is a private space that alters sensory stimulus. Its purpose is to help an individual regain control over her/his emotions during a panic attack. This private space creates a safe barrier between the user and his/her external environment.

The study and accompanying prototype together represent Phase 1 of Kartikaye Mittal’s ongoing research practice. Phase 2 is scheduled to commence at the end of the year 2020 under a funded residency of the STEAMplant initiative by the Math & Science department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Kartikaye Mittal is a graduate student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY Photo: Kartikaye Mittal
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