Unlocking the Emotional Brain
Finding the neural key to transformation
By Bruce Ecker
As therapists, we're all too familiar with the strength and tenacity of ingrained emotional schemas—unconscious templates of feeling and behavior, usually established during childhood, that can seem immune to our best clinical efforts. For example, a woman goes into anxious, compulsive attempts to please her husband whenever he seems even slightly upset or impatient with her; a man flies into uncontrollable rage when any small mistake or misstep is called to his attention; a bright and promising graduate student repeatedly drops out of school programs just before successfully completing them; a woman plunges into deep, crippling shame when treated disrespectfully by others. All sorts of family-of-origin rules, roles, and attachment patterns operate through such embedded schemas, as do behaviors or moods unconsciously triggered by ordinary daily events or relatively insignificant mishaps. At times, our clients appear to have put an "issue" to rest, only to have a new situation trigger a relapse.
The tenacity of such symptoms reflects the durability of the underlying emotional schemas, which persist through the decades. These schemas are made up of our own living knowledge, acquired in emotionally intense episodes of life, yet they're largely or completely unconscious and nonverbal. Even more curiously, one's own schemas respond to situations autonomously, without our conscious awareness of either the knowledge they retain or the experiences that originally formed them.
For many years now, we've known that these schemas are laid down in the limbic system, underneath the cerebral cortex, in what neuroscientists call implicit memory—a specialized type of memory that stores and applies unconscious knowledge. But what do we know about how these potent schemas and their neural circuits get dismantled and dissolved, eliminating symptoms at their roots?
The Old Biology
Until a few years ago, the answer to that question, based on a century of research on learning and memory, was that truly dissolving these schemas simply wasn't possible. It seemed well established that when some new emotional learning first becomes installed in stable, long-term memory—a process called "consolidation"—its neural circuits in the limbic system are there for the individual lifetime. The synapses forming the circuits have been considered to be permanently locked in place. Hundreds of studies indicated that even after complete extinction of a learned emotional response, the circuits of that response are only suppressed, not erased, remaining intact and fairly easily retriggered.
For psychotherapists, this meant that the best we could do to reduce unwanted behaviors, moods, or thoughts that arise from emotional learnings
was to suppress them by counteracting them—building up new, separate learnings and responses. Counteracting, a characteristic of most techniques used in cognitive-behavioral therapy, includes any direct attempt to make a symptom happen less and some preferred pattern happen more. It pits the conscious self and its resources against an underlying self and its implicit, symptom-inducing knowledge. This increases internal conflict and the sense of having a "divided self," still leaving the person vulnerable to having old responses reevoked. Nevertheless, for many years, therapists and researchers alike have assumed that counteracting and suppressing behaviors and old learnings is the best, in fact the only, effective remedy for unwanted automatic emotional responses.