Nearly 90 years since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his classic The Great Gatsby,
the new film version has given renewed currency to the novel’s famous final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” What’s afforded this passage such staying power is not only its haunting poetry, but the worldview it expresses—however hard we may try to reinvent ourselves, we’re doomed to remain captives of our pasts. Another celebrated author, William Faulkner, put it this way: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Eugene O’Neill penned these words: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”
Throughout its history, many in the field of psychotherapy have been similarly 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,…
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