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Article

Third-Degree Impasses From a


Neurophysiological Perspective

Transactional Analysis Journal


2015, Vol. 45(1) 38-47
International Transactional Analysis
Association, 2015
Reprints and permission:
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DOI: 10.1177/0362153714565783
ta.sagepub.com

Sissel Knibe

Abstract
This article considers the neurophysiological processes active in forming a third-degree impasse and
presents case material to illustrate these ideas. The author also reflects on cultural issues between
herself as a Norwegian and her client, who was a Taiwan Chinese, and describes how a neurophysiological understanding of third-degree impasses facilitated the therapy.
Keywords
protocol, the somatic Child, implicit memory, implicit memory, working memory, memory of
emotions, somatic ego states, third-degree impasse, Taiwanese culture

Introducing May and Therapeutic Work With a Third-Degree Impasse


May came to counseling because she felt pain in her ears and stomach every time she heard loud
voices. She was puzzled by her reaction because it was obvious that the loud voices did not represent
any danger to her. Nothing in her remembered history explained her symptoms, although she had
early childhood memories of fear connected to loud voices.
Mays grandmother did not want her son to marry Mays mother, and the mother-in-law had
wanted Mays mother to abort her. Doing so would have provided a valid reason for the motherin-law to demand that her son break off his relationship with Mays mother. However, the son
refused to obey his mother. The mother-in-law and Mays mother had many heated arguments about
May, with the former accusing the latter of ruining the family. Mays mother was also angry because
her mother-in-law did not welcome her and her daughter into the family. May reported listening to
these two women angrily argue as long as she could remember. If they were not angrily arguing, they
had angry faces (in Chinese Lyan-bu-hau-kan) both toward each other and May. She thought she was
not wanted and that she was trouble, even though she tried her best to please them and not show her
feelings. As a result, May was afraid of trying new things or exploring unfamiliar places for fear of
not succeeding.

Theoretical Perspectives on Third-Degree Impasses


Eric Berne did not speak about third-degree impasses, but he did talk about the Zero-based ego
state, which was meant to signify at birth (Berne, 1969, p. 111). Berne (1972) wrote, The first
Corresponding Author:
Sissel Knibe, 4532 Oysleboe, Norway.
Email: oftenes@gmail.com

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script programing takes place during the nursing period, in the form of short protocols which can
later be worked into complicated dramas. Usually these are two-handed scenes between the baby
and his mother (p. 83). He went on to say that this program forms the original skeleton, or anlage,
of his script, the primal protocol (p. 98).
Cornell and Landaiche (2006) referred to Bernes (1955/1977) writing in which he defined
the primal images as the pre-symbolic, non-verbal representations of interpersonal transactions
(p. 67). Cornell and Landaiche (2006) continued, In essence, a primal image is an impression made
on the childs body by a significant others mode of relating (p. 68) (p. 202).
Steere (1985), in his article titled Protocol under the subheading Archaic Thinking, wrote that
the best explanation for the phenomenon of protocol is that the Child ego state preserves in particular
psychomotor patterns an often repeated sequence of events from formative years. Our earliest way of
thinking, from birth to 18 months according to Piaget, is in the form of sensorimotor schemes (1951,
1952, 1954, 1969) (p. 254). Steere continued, These sensorimotor constructs contain all the cognitive substructures that will serve as a point of departure for later perceptual and intellectual development, as well as the elementary affective reactions that shape emotional life (p. 254).
Waldekranz-Piselli (1999) wrote that our deepest convictions are created and recreated by the
body (p. 35).
These authors all wrote about the somatic Child and how it is seen and experienced in the adult
person. This article will focus on the formation of the somatic Child and the neurophysiological processes that are active in creating a third-degree impasse.
Robert Goulding (see Goulding & Goulding, 1976, p. 47) brought the theory of impasses into
transactional analysis. According to him, a third-degree impasse occurs so early in life that the infant
is not psychologically separated from the mother. Thus, it represents an I-I conflict rather than an
I-Thou conflict, the latter of which is the case with first- and second-degree impasses. Goulding and
Goulding (1979, p. 48) located the third-degree conflict in C1 (the biological Child of feeling, sensations, reflexes, and primitive adaptations) between the two sides of the persons Little Professor: the
Little Professor who adapts and the Little Professor of the Free Child.
Sterns (1985) view differed with respect to whether or not the infant is separated from mother in
early infancy. He pointed out that infants begin to experience a sense of an emergent self from
birth. . . . They never experience a period of total self/other undifferentiation. There is no confusion
between self and other in the beginning or at any point during infancy (p. 10). His view suggests
that infants do not experience a totally undifferentiated I-I period, that there will always be an I-Thou
experience since there is no confusion between self and others.
Mellor (1980, p. 214) had difficulty with the Gouldings view because the latter described firstand second-degree impasses in terms of structural ego state theory but third-degree impasses in
terms of behavioral ego state theory. Mellor connected the third-degree impasse to structural ego
state theory and related it to primal protocol (Berne, 1972). Mellors view is that a third-degree
impasse is in the P0-A0-C0 structures (the somatic Child) between P0 (which involves implicit memory and represents the infants sense of being contacted by the environment/mother that is somatic,
behavioral, and/or emotional) and C0 (the seat of a number of relational needs), and not in the C1
structure between the Adapted Child and Free Child ego states.
All of these authors address impasses as a conflict between ego states within the person, which is
treated by making a redecision. In their article Impasse and Intimacy: Applying Bernes Concept of
Script Protocol, Cornell and Landaiche (2006, pp. 197-198) described impasses as the experience
of being stuck in a working relationship through such concepts as parallel processes, transference,
countertransference, and projective identification. They suggested that third-degree impasses are
rooted in the level of experience that Berne called protocol and that they are enacted within the
working relationship. Change occurs as they are reorganized (rather then redecided) within the therapeutic relationship (p. 198).

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J. Allen (personal communication, 16 August 2012) said, All our experiences seem recorded in
networks. Is it possible that the third-degree impasse is between an early C0 network, one that feels
comfortable, and an early C0 network of being uncomfortable?
Advances in neuroscience over the past few decades have increased our understanding of how the
brain stores memories. This can help us better understand what takes place in the brain that might
produce a third-degree impasse.

Neurophysiological Processes That May Underlie Third-Degree Impasses


The Right and Left Hemispheres
The right hemisphere of the brain develops earlier than the left, which becomes more active about
age 3. Allen (2003) described the biological underpinning of the development of ego states and
injunctions: Ego state networks elaborated in earliest childhood are characterized by activation
of the right hemisphere; the motor system, including the basal ganglia; the sympathetic nervous system; and implicit memory (p. 130). He later elaborated these ideas in much greater detail (Allen,
2010a). Van der Kolk, Burbridge, and Suzuki (1997) added that the right hemisphere is thought to be
highly integrated with the amygdala and may be sensitive to emotional nuances, especially to negative emotions such as fear and anger (p. 108). The child at age 3 has little or no capacity to reason or
communicate to caretakers about what he or she experiences.
The left hemisphere and explicit memory develops later than the right hemisphere and implicit
memory (van der Kolk et al., 1997). The left hemisphere is thought to organize problem solving,
process information in a sequential manner, and label perceptions (p. 108). The left hemisphere
and explicit memory develops around 2-3 years of age. By the time the child is 3, both left and
right hemispheres have been integrated by the corpus callosum and the combined action of the
sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. (In the first year of life, the sympathetic system
is more active and mainly in the right hemisphere.) Language becomes available, both implicit and
explicit memory is present, and the childs play begins to involve family dramas (Schacter, 1987,
pp. 501-518).
Some Differences Between Implicit and Explicit Memory Neural Networks
The differences between the implicit and explicit neural networks are shown in Table 1.
As seen in Table 1, implicit memory involves behaviors and feelings that are experienced in the
here and now as remembered by the individual. Such memories are not accompanied by a sense of
time or self over time or the sense that something is being remembered. The memory is somatic,
behavioral, and/or emotional and inaccessible to consciousness. Schacter (1987) drew attention to
this when he mentioned some of the problems that arise when implicit memory is reenacted. For
example, implicit memories may be reexperienced intrusively and cause distress when remembering
trauma, and often both children and adults do not recognize the connection between these responses
and prior trauma. This was the kind of experience that brought May into therapy. Her pain in
response to loud voices was what Kupfer and Haimowitz (1971) described as a rubberband that
returns the person to early implicit survival conclusions (English, 1988). These are early implicit
memories.
Terr (1988) described the same thing in children as young as 28 to 36 months who experienced a
traumatic event. They did not have verbal memory of it, but they did have behavior memories that
they would sometimes repeat with their toys, friends, or family (pp. 98-101). Several TA therapists
(Berne, 1972, p. 98; Greve, 1976, p. 57; Steere, 1985, p. 248) described the same thing. The protocol
is observable in a scheme of bodily behaviors that reappear in consistent sequence as script signs
(Steere, 1985, p. 250).

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Table 1. Memory Neural Networks (from Allen, 2011, p. 223; reprinted with permission of Karnac Books).
Implicit

Explicit

Involves: Behaviors, sensations, and affect


Qualities: No sense of time
No sense of space
Neurological Amygdala, prefrontal cortex,
Underpinning: basal ganglia, cerebellum
Subjective experience: No sense that one is
remembering
Attention: Attention at time of event not necessary
Appearance: Present at birth

Involves: Facts and autobiography


Qualities: Sense of time
Sense of place
Neurological Hippocampus and
Underpinning: thalamus
Subjective experience: Sense that one is remembering
Attention: Attention necessary at time of event
Appearance: Comes on line between two and three
years

For his part, Panksepp (1998, p. 215) found that the brain is predisposed to reacting with anger to
a potentially threatening configuration more readily than it does with a pleasurable tone or pleasant
face. This develops in the first few year years of life, before explicit memory has developed.
Allen (2003) pointed to the importance of facial expression in trying to understand injunctions:
There are certain cell groups in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex that are specifically responsive to
facial expression. Their activationsay, by a parents negative lookcan rapidly dampen a childs
enjoyment and may be the mechanism of action of the electrode (Berne, 1972, pp. 115-116). This
seems to occur through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which comes on line after
age 2 and can act as a brake on the excitement of the sympathetic nervous system, a phenomenon that can
be expected to be experienced by the child as some sort of discomfort (Allen, 2000). (p. 131)

This was what May reported in describing her stomach and ear pain.
To further understand the pain May reported, it is helpful to note LeDouxs (2002) comment:
The lateral nucleus of the amygdala (lateral amygdala) serves as the input zone. It receives information
from the various senses, allowing the outside world to be monitored for threatening information. When
the lateral nucleus detects some threatening stimulus, the central nucleus initiates the expression of
defensive behavior (like freezing) and other bodily responses associated with fear reactively (change
in blood pressure and heart rate, stomach contractions, sweat gland activity, etc.). (pp. 121-122)

There is some evidence that when we pay close attention to what someone is saying, we contract the
middle ear muscle (J. Allen, personal communication, 16 August 2012). What LeDoux and Allen
were talking about may explain the stomach and ear pain May experienced when she was exposed
to loud voices, even as an adult.

Explicit Memory, Working Memory


May also had explicit memories, which were verbal, such as I am worthless. When she was older,
her explicit memory system developed (and coexisted with her implicit memory system) and contained memories and experiences (implicit and explicit memory) of her mother and grandmother
arguing angrily. To use Bernes (1966/1994) way of saying things, these memories had an address
and a telephone number (p. 298). Explicit memory differs from implicit memory in that it is accompanied by a sense of time and a sense that something is being remembered. Explicit memory
includes two major forms: factual (semantic) and autobiographical (episodic) (Tulving, Kapur,
Craik, Moscovitch, & Houle, 1994). LeDoux (2002, p.179) illustrated the relationship between
explicit memory and the working memory as shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. Working Memory (from LeDoux, 2002, p. 179).

Figure 2. Brain Systems of Emotional Memory and Memory of Emotions (from LeDoux, 1996, p. 202).

LeDoux (1996) described the relationship between explicit memory and working memory in this
way:
The capacity of working memory is complex and is involved in all aspects of thinking and problem solving. The working memory is not a pure product of the here and now. It also depends on what kind of
experiences we have had in the past. In other words it depends on long-term memory. (p. 271)

The working memory can process information from different sources, as seen in Figure 1 (sensory
systems A-B-C), and it will compare, contrast, integrate, or otherwise cognitively manipulate it by
the so-called executive function. LeDoux (2002) described the executive function as a specialized
system that is directed to certain specific stimuli and ignores others, depending on what the working
memory is working on (p.178). To perform these mental operations, the working memory (also
called short-term memory) must be able to store the information temporarily.
LeDoux (1996) mentioned that some areas of the frontal lobe that have been implicated in working memory function include the lateral prefrontal cortex and the orbital and anterior cingulated cortex (p. 279). He also said that different hormones are released, such as acetylcholine (ACh),
noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin (p. 289).
LeDoux (1996, p. 202) explained Figure 2 as follows:

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The conscious, declarative or explicit memory is mediated by the hippocampus and related cortical areas,
whereas various unconscious or implicit forms of memory are mediated by different systems. One implicit memory system is an emotional (fear) memory system involving the amygdala and related areas. In
traumatic situations, implicit and explicit systems function in parallel. Later, if you are exposed to stimuli
that were present during the trauma, both systems will most likely be reactivated. Through the hippocampal system, you will remember who you were with and what you were doing during the trauma, and will
also remember, as a cold fact, that the situation was awful. Through the amygdala system the stimuli will
cause your muscles to tense up, your blood pressure and heart beat to change, and hormones to be
released among other bodily and brain responses. (p. 202)

What LeDoux said seems especially relevant to May. As I understand it, May had early implicit
fear reactions from the time when her mother and grandmother argued, which she incorporated as
angry voices and faces. After age 3, her explicit memory system and working memory became available. Using these new systems, she could remember times when that happened and also the decisions
she made about herself (Im not wanted, Im trouble, and I will not show my feelings) and
also how to behave (Be pleasing and Be strong).
Before age 2-3, May had not yet developed a working memory, so she did not have a means by
which to understand and deal with what was going on around her along with the fear and pain she
felt. Her bodily reactions of fear and pain were stored in implicit memory, and as Schacter (1987)
pointed out, reexperienced in response to reminders of the trauma (loud angry voices).
Hargaden and Sills (2002) wrote about the early structures of P0-C0 and said that C0 is experienced as bodily-affective states that include the sense of being contacted by the environment
(mother), which is, in turn, represented by P0. They indicated that the core self is the source of self
senses: the self with others (P0 and C0). They also identified C0 as being the seat of a number of
relational needs. We are born with a need for fellowship, and infants seek stimulation from the
beginning, when emotions are experienced as sensations. Stern (1985) referred to vitality affects
(p. 54), describing them as surging, fading away, fleeting, bursting, drawn out, and
so on. He continued, We are never without their presence, whether or not we are conscious of
them (p. 54).
The infant experiences vitality affects from within (C0 ) as well as in the behavior of other persons
(P0). Stern (1985) said that different feelings of vitality can be expressed in a multitude of parental
acts, such as how the mother picks up the baby, folds the diapers, grooms her hair or the babys hair,
reaches for the bottle, unbuttons her blouse, and so on. The infant is immersed in these feelings of
vitality. The way I understand Stern is that these feelings of vitality create perceptions of physiological conditions in our bodies (Allen, 2010b) both in infancy and as adults (Stern, 1985, p. 54).
For example, when May heard the loud, angry voices and saw the angry faces of her mother and
grandmother, she became immersed in those uncomfortable, angry vitality feelings. Those were then
recorded in her P0-C0 as body memories in her implicit memory system in two different early P0
networks and corresponding early C0 networks. Loud voices and unpleasant faces (later experienced
by May as anger) were recorded by a P0 network containing angry vitality affects caused by the two
women and an early C0 network of being uncomfortable (later experienced as fear). The opposite
would happen if mother were happy, smiling, and enjoying contact with her infant (recoded in a
happy P0 network and a comfortable C0 network).
Instead of using Schiffs (1977) explanation of P0-A0-C0, I use Hargaden and Sillss (2002)
description of P0-C0, though I have a different view of A0. Using neurophysiology, I see A0 as containing what Schiff (1977) referred to when she described infants A0 as having some innate abilities
of preference or avoidance, such as spitting out baby food they do not like.
Thus, from the perspective of neurophysiology, I see the ego states involved in third-degree
impasses as follows:

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 P0 involves implicit memory, a sense of being contacted by the environment (mother) that is
somatic, behavioral, and/or emotional. Happy or unhappy maternal behaviors or/and emotions
immerse the infant in positive or negative vitality feelings that are recorded in P0.
 A0 involves some innate abilities to register preference or avoidance, such as spitting out disliked food. Explicit and working memories are not available before 2-3 years of age.
 C0 involves seeking contact, which all infants do. If contact is positively rewarded, positive
vitality affects will cause activation of the amygdala and result in automatic activation of the
networks that control the expression of a variety of comfortable responses. If contact is not
rewarded positively, then the infant will experience negative vitality affects that cause activation of the amygdala and result in automatic activation of the networks that control the expression of a variety of negative responses.

Along with Mellor, I see the third-degree impasse as a conflict between C0 and P0, one that occurs
early in infancy, at least from birth and perhaps even prenatally, until the child is around 2 years old.
The impasse might occur, from the perspective of neurophysiology, because the explicit and working memory have not yet developed. Thus, for example, Mays A0 did not have the capacity to compare, contrast, interpret, and evaluate the danger of the angry loud voices that she heard and the
angry faces she saw, so the vitality affect (later experienced as fear) May experienced activated muscle tension in her small body that remained as body memories in her implicit memory system. As an
adult, May experienced those memories of vitality feelings in her implicit memory as pain in her ears
and stomach.

Using Transactional Analysis in the Chinese Culture


Mazzetti (2011) wrote, In my opinion, Berne was right: transactional analysis does seem to be
effective cross-culturally. . . . I think that its strength lies in the fact that Berne seemed to understand
people and what made them tick (p. 190). Mazzetti went on,
I think that the effectiveness and strength of the approach lies in the fact that Bernes theories, while
theoretically sound, arose out of his intuitive sense of what people needed. As a result, much of TA theory is transferable to a number of context and situations, and their relational dynamics (Hargaden & Sills,
2002). In other words, in all relationships we can observe primary and secondary intersubjectivity
(Hargaden & Fenton, 2005). (pp. 190-191)

I agree with Mazzetti. That is also my experience after 25 years of using transactional analysis as a
tool in therapy with Chinese clients in Taiwan.
In Chinese, as well as in other Eastern cultures, face is important and has different meanings: to
lose face (negative) and to give someone face (positive). As mentioned earlier, Lyan-bu-haukan translated directly means face does not look good because of anger. In Chinese culture, life
centers around harmony. Losing face is negative because it disturbs and prevents harmony. I think
Chinese people are more sensitive to confrontation because they feel they might lose face. They also
express their disagreement with a therapist less than Westerners do. Please others is a common
driver behavior in Chinese culture. One way to avoid causing someone to lose face is to communicate nonverbally, and facial expressions and ulterior communication are extremely important. Working with Chinese clients it is, therefore, crucial to pay close attention to nonverbal communication. It
is also important to explore by asking the meaning of a nonverbal expression because it may have
different meaning than in Western culture.
Chinese culture is also based on filial piety. I find it more difficult to use two-chair redecision
work with Chinese clients because of the respect and fear they have for people in authority positions
(e.g., child/parent, student/teacher, client/therapist). Additionally, in Chinese culture it is taboo to

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express dissatisfaction toward the dead because they could become angry and might seek to avenge
negative comments. On the other hand, doing redecision work using transference reactions within
the relationship between the client and therapist is more accepted and works quite well.

Using the Neurophysiology of Third-Degree Impasses to Understand


the Therapeutic Process
From Mays intake history, I was aware that what had caused her problem was related to early body
memories and therefore most likely involved a third-degree impasse. My experience is that a neurophysiological perspective on such impasses not only expands my understanding of how thirddegree impasses develop but also gives me a way to deal with negative vitality feelings that are
stored in the clients implicit memory (in both P0 and C0). Tomkins (1962) pointed to the face as
being the center of (1) sensory intake through the eyes and ears, (2) emission of messages through
the voice, and (3) both transmission and reception through the muscle and receptors of the face
(p. 224). This is not, of course, exclusively related to clients with third-degree impasses but to everyone because both implicit and explicit memory are always involved. What is particular to individuals
with third-degree impasses is that they rely on this route to transfer messages that can, if repeated
sufficiently, create new positive vitality affects in P0. These then replace the old destructive ones.
These changes also influence and change the early C0 network from an uncomfortable feeling to
an early C0 network feeling of being comfortable.
Chinese people pay a good deal of attention to relationships, so the relationship between client
and therapist is an important factor to use in therapy. In therapy with someone who has a thirddegree impasse, I am particularly careful about the messages I give through nonverbal communication. Clients will carefully read my face and interpret what they see or what they think they see
(transference). LeDoux suggested that in traumatic situations (and May had experienced trauma
in infancy), implicit and explicit memories function in parallel. If the person is exposed, as May was,
to stimuli that was present during the trauma, both systems will most likely be activated. For example, May was sensitive to my face and tone of voice but especially to loud voices in the environment.
She often told me that she knew that these were not threatening to her, which is why she was so
puzzled by her reaction. I explained that her implicit memory contained negative vitality affects created when she heard and saw her mother and grandmother arguing and that those feelings were experienced as pain in her ears and stomach. May found this explanation useful, even though it did not
take away the fear and pain.
I will not describe here how I worked with May on a second-order structural level (first- and
second-degree impasses) but stay focused on the third-order structure (the third-degree impasse).
As Mays trust in me grew, she brought up messages that she thought she heard in my words or
observed on my face or any other nonverbal cues she took from my behavior. If her observation was
correct, I would deal with it. When this was a transferred implicit message, such as introjective/C0
longings and/or transformational transference that influenced our relationship at the moment, then it
became a good opportunity to make that part of Mays implicit world available so new relational
possibilities could be created. As a child, Mays Ao had been limited because it was not yet fully
developed, so she was unable to understand why her mother and grandmother were quarreling. Making use of the introjective transference that emerged from Mays unmet childhood needs and her
requirements of the environment as experienced with me, May was helped with my good-enough
mothering, which was empathetic and sufficiently attuned to her needs to get Mays C0 needs met
as well as getting a good-enough mother incorporated into her P0. In Sterns (2004) words, New
ways of being with others (p. 165) could be created for May, without fear of not doing things
well enough or not pleasing me and others and, not the least, with freedom from pain in her stomach
and ears.

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Conclusion
I find the neurophysiological view of third-degree impasses useful because it explains how vitality
affects are formed and stored in implicit memory. It is also helpful to know that in trauma, both
implicit and explicit memory is involved, especially when working with clients who have suffered
trauma in the present as well as in early childhood and who might thus have a third-degree impasse.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests


The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.

Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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Author Biography
Sissel Knibe is a registered nurse and a Teaching and Supervising Transactional Analyst (psychotherapy) with a masters degree in transactional analysis from Middlesex University in conjunction with the Berne Institute. She is now retired from the Taiwan Transactional Analysis Association,
which she cofounded and directed for many years. She can be reached at 4532 Oysleboe, Norway;
email: oftenes@gmail.com. The author is grateful to James Allen for encouraging her to write this
article.

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