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The Brain's Key

A Three-Step Process for Undoing Negative Emotional Learnings

Bruce Ecker

Throughout its history, many in the field of psychotherapy have been pessimistic about people’s ability to liberate themselves from the past. It can even be argued that most modern cognitive-behavioral approaches are based on the assumption that, at best, therapists can only incrementally create new emotional and behavioral habits that work around—but don’t actually transform—the deep-seated emotional programming that causes clients’ most visceral distress. 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

Therapeutic breakthroughs don’t come easily for good reason. As relatively puny, hairless, vulnerable creatures in a world of stronger, more aggressive predators, we’ve evolved to favor false positives—reacting to learned signs of danger even in the absence of actual danger—over false negatives—ignoring potential threats.

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. Since 19th-century Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s day, even lab studies of the extinction of implicit learnings never achieved erasure, only temporary suppression. It’s no wonder that, until recently, brain researchers believed that the main problem in overcoming old conditioning was that the brain lacked any mechanism for actually erasing negative emotional learnings. The neural circuits of such learnings were known to be held together by ultradurable synapses that were believed to be immutable for the lifetime of the individual, whether animal or human.

Nature, however, turns out to be more ingenious than that. The brain does come equipped with a key to those locked synapses—and we have the resilience to become radically free of our early emotional learnings. This key became evident in 1997, when several labs began publishing reports of a brain process that hadn’t been recognized before. This process turns off a learned emotional response at its roots, not by merely suppressing it—as in a behavioral-extinction procedure—but by actually unlocking the neural connections holding it in place and then erasing it within the nervous system. Brain researchers named this process memory reconsolidation, and went on to demonstrate how it works in nematodes, snails, sea slugs, fish, crabs, honeybees, chicks, mice, rats, and humans. Remarkably, what the brain requires to unlock and erase a particular learning follows the same three-step process in all those species: reactivating the emotional response, unlocking the synapses maintaining it, and then creating new learning that unlearns, rewrites, and replaces the unlocked target learning.

What induces the brain to use its built-in key to unlock synapses in this process? The answer was discovered in 2004 by researchers who experimented with, of all things, a group of crabs, whose clearly visible fear responses to predators made them superbly suitable subjects. Héctor Maldonado’s lab in Argentina placed crabs in a test area into which the moving image of a predator was introduced repeatedly. Needless to say, this seemingly near-death experience conditioned an extreme fear response in the crabs. Then one subgroup was placed in the test area one at a time, but the predator image wasn’t introduced, and each crab in this group was simply returned to its safe cage. Crabs in another subgroup were placed back in the test area, but saw the predator coming as usual. Put another way, while one subgroup of crabs simply experienced the familiar “bad” event in the test area, the other group experienced a counterevent that created a sharp, powerful mismatch between learned expectations (“This is where the predator shows up!”) and reality (“Hey, the predator didn’t show up!”).

Previous researchers thought reactivation of emotional learning alone unlocked a learned schema. But Maldonado’s breakthrough with his crab test showed that an additional experience was required to loosen the hold of the fearful schema: a vivid contradiction of the reactivated learned pattern about how the world functions—what researchers call a mismatch experience or a prediction error experience. This contradictory experience, coming while the initial fearful learning was still intensely felt, quickly made the normally robust neural circuits of the target learning become labile and fragile. Then, through an ingenious procedure borrowed from earlier studies—use of a chemical agent that permanently shuts off labile, unlocked synapses but doesn’t affect locked ones—Maldonado and colleagues proved that this prediction error was the key to the measurable erasure of the conditioned fear memory: only crabs that experienced the mismatch no longer responded fearfully in the test chamber.

As this experiment showed, 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. The animal or person is then back at square one—still just as likely to be triggered by a stimulus reminiscent of the original terrifying event.

For the field of psychotherapy, the enormous relevance of later research on the neuroscience of memory reconsolidation is that it’s shown conclusively that using experiential methods to achieve erasure and transformation of the brain’s neural circuits is just as effective as dousing it with chemicals, as was done with Maldonado’s crabs. In fact, in controlled studies with human subjects, experiential methods have successfully erased learned fears, heroin cravings, and other types of emotional learning.

We’ve now had 20 years of learning how to facilitate the erasure process in therapy and training therapists to use it. Out of this exploration has come a large body of clinical observations and case studies showing that the needed sequence can indeed be guided systematically in therapy, yielding the same markers of profound change that researchers regard as the distinctive signature of erasure. The clinical examples that follow show the emotional depth and versatility of the therapeutic reconsolidation process, as well as the freedom of style and technique available to therapists within the three-step blueprint.

Reconsolidation in Therapy

Carol was in her mid-thirties and had an 11-year-old daughter. Despite her emotional closeness with her husband, she had an aversion to sex with him, which baffled and saddened her. In therapy, one of our female associates initiated guided discovery work to find out why, in Carol’s world of nonconscious learnings, it was important to avoid sex with her husband. Soon, in a quiet voice, with her legs crossed and her head in her hands, Carol recalled that when she was 15 years old, her mother had walked into the bathroom, found her masturbating, and become overjoyed. Her mother, who was flagrantly open about her own erotic behavior, then deeply mortified Carol by telling her father and several family friends about this “beautiful news.”

In revisiting this episode, Carol became aware of the unconscious emotional learning, or implicit schema, that resulted from that experience: sexuality has no boundaries within a family. What that meant to her emotional brain in her present family life was that enjoying sex with her husband would make her similar to her mother and mortify her own daughter through a violation of sexual boundaries. That expectation had been making avoidance of sex urgently necessary.

Carol’s implicit schema certainly had formed as a result of an insecure attachment bond with her mother, but it couldn’t be decisively contradicted and disconfirmed through a relationship with a trusted female therapist, as strict attachment theory would dictate. Instead, our colleague approached emotional contradiction through another route. When Carol left the session, she carried an index card on which the therapist had written her new, now explicit awareness: “I hate to admit it, but experiencing sexual pleasure with my husband makes me more like my mother. So, even though it’s hurting my marriage, I’ll continue to avoid sexual contact, because it’s better to sacrifice pleasure and intimacy than to risk doing to my daughter what my mother did to me.” Carol was now facing and feeling the previously unconscious emotional schema that was driving her dread of being sexual. It’s this emotional learning or schema that would now be the target for erasure.

Her homework was simply to read this card every day. Doing this would integrate her new awareness of her problematic learning into everyday consciousness, laying the foundation for a mismatch experience. In her next session, she told her therapist that something had shifted, because the sentences on the card—which had been deadly serious to her before—had begun to seem “almost silly.” With delight in her self-discovery, she said she’d realized that her sexuality was her own, not her mother’s. That lucid realization was the contradiction of the target learning, and it created the mismatch needed for unlocking synapses.

Each time Carol had read her card, she’d encountered that contradiction and juxtaposition, and then over the next several minutes, this intriguing disconfirmation drew her attention repeatedly. This repetition brought about the new learning that rewrote and replaced her schema about family sexuality, making the schema feel no longer emotionally real. We’ve guided this process and seen it unfold in sessions hundreds of times, but often it happens with a life of its own between sessions, as it did for Carol.

She called this shift a “freeing experience” and said that it had already improved her relationship with her husband. Her description of “almost silly” and her positive readiness to engage sexually with her husband were clear markers that a nullification of the past problematic learning had taken place in her brain.

Ready for Unlearning

This case illustrates how different techniques can be used to facilitate the brain’s core process of profound unlearning. That’s why this process can be fulfilled within many different systems of experiential 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.

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.

What we’ve observed in our work demonstrates how the discoveries of brain science can help us create liberating breakthroughs for our clients more consistently than was ever thought possible. We may even find that memory reconsolidation is a core process detectable in all therapies that regularly yield transformational change, as our own examinations of published case examples is indicating. While neuroscience may speak in an esoteric, polysyllabic language, it’s offered us a profound new understanding of how to alleviate some of the oldest forms of human suffering. In the future, it will surely tell us a great deal more.


This blog is excerpted from "Unlocking the Emotional Brain" by Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laurel Hilley. The full version is available in the July/August 2013 issue, Searching for the Therapeutic "Aha": Brain Science and Clinical Breakthroughs.

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Photo © Ocean/Corbis

Topic: Brain Science & Psychotherapy

Tags: attachment | behavioral conditioning | brain | brain development | brain functions | brain plasticity | brain research | brain science | Bruce Ecker | conditioning | corrective experiences | emotional learnings | fear | juxtaposition experience | learned helplessness | phobia | severe attachment disorder

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Saturday, July 9, 2016 4:39:04 PM | posted by karen
This approach reminds me of the use of paradoxical interventions I learned decades ago in my social work internship. They worked powerfully and now, with the research on memory reconsolidation, I understand better why that is so.

Saturday, July 9, 2016 3:17:31 PM | posted by Capt Tom Bunn MSW LCSW
This is very confusing. The article begins with so-called news that the impossible has become quite possible: implicit memory can be unlocked, contradicted, and relocked (consolidated). In the case cited, insecure attachment is said to be an implicit schema. That s only partly true. Attachment includes both implicit and explicit elements. In secure attachment, implicit feelings are linked to unconscious relational vagus system calming (ref: Stephen Porges) which may be linked as well to explicit memory of a challenging situation. In insecure attachment, implicit feelings are not adequately linked to relational calming; the unconscious arousal regulation system is underdeveloped. If Carol was insecurely attached, so what? That is the case with many people. They simply lack internal working models of relationship to automatically and unconsciously regulate arousal. This leaves them needed to regulate arousal via control of situations, relationships, and if control is inadequate, to turn to avoid, stay distracted,, or dissociate. Doesn’t every experience create both implicit and explicit memory elements? The writer claims the masterbation encounter with the mother created an unconscious, and thus implicit, memory. I see no reason to regard what is unconscious of as necessarily implicit. Implicit memories can be conscious or unconscious. So can explicit memories. The writer proposes that finding sex pleasurable caused an unacceptable identification with her mother. But, can’t we assume that Carol already disliked being identified with there mother? And can we assume that Carol already knew her mother liked sex. So, the so-called implicit learning in the masterbation encounter did not involve new learning about those facts. The only possible new learning was learning that the family lacks sexual boundaries. There is nothing implicit about that. I’m mystified as to how an interpretation along the lines as have been done for over one-hundred years is supposed to illustrate a breakthrough in memory revision. But, the interpretation, though it helped, was off base. Secure attachment requires non-judgmental responsiveness by the primary caregiver. With insecure attachment to the mother, Carol’s feelings were judged by her mother. Automatic judgment, means automatic condemnation (or shame). By being observed having sexual feelings, Carole's relationship with her mother made her feel automatically judged, and thus automatically condemned for having feelings, which caused Carol shame, regardless of the mother’s stated joy. That, most likely, was unconscious. But implicit? I don't get it. This does not approach the kind of implicit learning caused by when by trauma in a situation that cannot be escaped causes the brain to partly shut down and inadequately record the event. Maybe someday there will be treatment that unlocks traumatic implicit memory, but this example has nothing to do with that.