This method is a simple process instruction that can be done without any knowledge of the content of the traumatic event, making it straightforward and respectful of a client’s privacy. The session with John took about 40 minutes, most of which was spent convincing him to try the process, since he’d previously been through hundreds of hours of therapies that had required him to relive the horror fully, but hadn’t changed his response.
In a videotaped follow-up interview about a month after the session, John said that the day after the session, he went to a weekend seminar with his wife. At the end of the first day, she said to him, “What’s happened with you? You’re different. You used to jump when people came up behind you, and you’re not doing that anymore.” Thinking back, he realized that she was right, but he hadn’t noticed it. This response is typical for people who make a thorough and congruent change: the new normal is so unconscious that they often don’t notice the difference unless someone else points it out.
John reported that he was now sleeping well and waking up rested, and that his nightmares were a thing of the past. He added that the first time he’d watched the movie The Boys from Company C, about the Vietnam War, “It was hell for two weeks.” When he watched it again after the session, he didn’t have any problematic responses. Also, he’d become good friends with two Asian people, and had gone to a Japanese restaurant, where he’d ordered the meal in Japanese, a language he hadn’t used in a dozen years. Deeply moved, he said how grateful he was for his renewed ability to connect with Asians as people, rather than as reminders of past horrors.
Putting neurobiological analysis aside, the structure of John’s problem was simple: he’d been through horrible experiences, and when he remembered one, it was as if it were happening to him again in the present. The solution to his problem was just as simple: teaching him how to view the horrible memory at a distance, as if it were happening to someone else in a movie. This technique is often called “being objective.” Seeing himself experiencing horrible feelings out there implies that he doesn’t have to experience them here in his body.
Seeing things objectively is a mental skill that everyone has, but few people realize it, and fewer still can use it selectively to neutralize their responses to unpleasant events. This skill gives people the ability to remember horrible events while leaving behind the terrible feelings, retaining for their own protection whatever needs to be learned from these experiences. This process becomes a life skill that clients can apply to many other difficult experiences beyond the scope of their presenting problems.
John didn’t have to continue to rehearse the process or consciously use this skill with each of his awful memories one at a time. Research in cognitive linguistics shows that we typically put all similar memories into a single category—which can include subcategories and may overlap with other categories—and that we use a prototype experience to represent the entire category. Typically, in the case of repeated trauma, the worst example of it—which is often the first example because of the shock and surprise—will become the prototype for that category. If you change this prototype, all the other examples in the category will change, and this happens instantly.
Of course, we could describe the therapeutic process John went through in neurological terms by calling it memory reconsolidation. He did, in fact, recode his past traumatic memories. But that wouldn’t tell us how to do anything we don’t already know how to do, and it wouldn’t help us get the same results with someone else suffering from PTSD. Even if we assume that most of our current neuroscience information is valid, as the proponents of memory reconsolidation do, it remains to be seen how any part of this knowledge could have improved on the changes that John experienced from a simple visualization process.