Memory Reconsolidation in Action
Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laura Hulley
Throughout its history, many in the field of psychotherapy have been pessimistic about people’s ability to liberate themselves from the past. This way of thinking, however, doesn’t reflect our current understanding of how memory functions, nor do the therapeutic approaches that aim simply to manage or circumvent entrenched emotions, beliefs, and behaviors rooted in painful past experiences.
While most neuroscientists once believed that implicit memories, avoidance reactions, and rigid schemas were locked permanently in the brain’s synaptic pathways, recent brain research shows that, under certain conditions and within a brief timeframe, we can not only unlock these neural pathways, but actually erase them and substitute new learning. What psychotherapy has added to the discoveries of the research lab is a range of experiential methods that make it possible for therapists to help clients move on from the past, allowing it to release its terrible grip on the present.
Locked and Unlocked Emotional Learnings
Even highly competent, mature people who are rational in most areas of life can be suddenly undone when a current circumstance---often perfectly innocuous in itself---triggers an ultradurable emotional learning from the past that’s still tightly enmeshed in their neural wiring. Once the implicit memory is triggered, they’re seized by an emotional state that has a life all its own, with no cognitive awareness of why such a reaction is happening. It could be self-criticism or volcanic rage, numbness or raw panic, underachieving or inconsolable sorrow. Regardless, one’s calm, cognitively evolved state of mind is no match for such a flare-up from the emotional implicit memory system. It should be obvious, then, why it’s so hard to triumph over old conditioning. In a very real way, we’re going up against nature.
Remarkably, what the brain requires to unlock and erase a particular learning follows the same three-step process used to adopt it in the first place: reactivating the emotional response, unlocking the synapses maintaining it, and then creating new learning that unlearns, rewrites, and replaces the unlocked target learning.
Emotional learning circuits unlock and become erasable only when a vivid new experience mismatches what a reactivated emotional learning leads an animal or person to expect. However, once a neural circuit has been unlocked, if nothing is done to erase and overwrite it during the next few hours, the synapses automatically relock---or reconsolidate---and the circuit restabilizes, preserving the original learning.
Ready for Unlearning
The moment of viscerally felt contradiction is what we call the juxtaposition experience in Coherence Therapy. The particular usefulness of our Coherence Therapy approach is that its steps match those of the reconsolidation process: first, evoke into direct experience the emotional learnings underlying the client’s unwanted patterns. Then find a vivid knowledge or experience that contradicts those learnings. Finally, combine those two into a juxtaposition experience and repeat it several times.
Using Coherence Therapy to dispel a hair-trigger temper was the challenge with Raoul, a 36-year-old carpenter who installed fine maple and oak cabinets in expensive kitchens. He came to his first appointment to deal with frequent flare-ups of anger that baffled and demoralized him. In a variety of situations, he found himself bursting with rage, shouting at his wife, his two young children, or his best friend.
The discovery work began by engaging Raoul in looking closely at several recent explosive interactions, and he readily came to a new awareness: his anger flared when he thought that the other person had broken an agreement between them, even if only in some minor way. A few seconds after this recognition, another realization came, revealing why broken agreements were such a hot button. Five years earlier, he’d started a business with another talented carpenter. Together they’d installed Raoul’s treasured tools in a rented cabinet shop and set out to build custom kitchens, agreeing to split the profits down the middle.
One morning, Raoul drove up to the shop and discovered that it had been stripped completely of tools, including a set of fine Japanese wood chisels he’d inherited from his father. The partner was gone, as was all the money remaining in their bank account. In a state of deep shock, anger, and sorrow, Raoul was forced to declare the business bankrupt, let go of a long-treasured dream, and start over as a hired hand for general contractors.
Raoul’s shock at his business partner’s betrayal had engraved rigid emotional responses in the neural pathways and synapses of his brain’s implicit memory networks. Whenever an interpersonal interaction seemed reminiscent of the betrayal, a web of neurocellular pathways would become activated, instantly launching an urgent, self-protective response---anger.
Through several rounds of symptom deprivation, Raoul experienced three distressing dilemmas that he’d been avoiding with anger, and he verbalized them with the therapist’s help:
“Without my anger, I feel powerless and defenseless against being deceived again, so I need my anger.”
“Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”
“Without my anger, I feel he totally got away with it and there’s no accountability or justice in the world. Letting go of my anger would be letting go of my demand for accountability and justice—and that’s totally unacceptable to me.”
The therapist then helped Raoul dig deeper, resulting in this statement: “I can’t risk feeling this vulnerability because it’ll make me be seen by everyone as weak. I’ll be stuck forever in shame and excluded forever from things that are important to me.”
The therapist wrote this on an index card and asked Raoul to read the card every day between sessions. In his next session a week later, he reported an inner shift: “I’d look at a neighbor or at friends we were having dinner with, and think, ‘Really? This person would judge and exclude me like that? I don’t think so!’” Raoul was describing juxtaposition experiences that arose in daily life as a natural result of holding the schema consciously.
The therapist asked him to again say aloud the sentence on the card, and now it was flat and void of emotional resonance. His emotional schema had been dissolved. With the old social punishments no longer expected, his sense of vulnerability was greatly reduced, and the need to avoid it was no longer urgent. So his anger was no longer needed and the sentence was obsolete.
Of course, neuroscience has yet to magically transform psychotherapy, making all that was opaque, hidden, and out of control now clear, open, and well regulated. So after years of fascination and even infatuation with brain science, it’s understandable that some therapists have grown a bit disillusioned with the whole subject.
Yet a new wave of neuroscience centered on memory reconsolidation offers us specific knowledge of the steps through which people change their subcortical minds deeply and transformationally, altering their understanding of how the world functions, what their most intimate relationships mean to them, and how to expand their ability to respond flexibly to life’s challenges.
This blog is excerpted from "Unlocking the Emotional Brain." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!
Brain Science & Psychotherapy