The break-through discoveries in neuroscience are a definition of hope in the field of therapy. When PTSD was first established as a diagnosis in the 1980’s, it was considered an anxiety disorder and was commonly treated with systematic desensitization. Despite good intentions, exposure therapy came with the unwanted side effect of retraumatization. Thankfully, all of that change twenty years ago.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest there is a less painful way to heal memories. It began in 2000, when scientists identified a methodology called memory reconsolidation. What researchers discovered is that memory is not fixed. When activated, it becomes pliable. Which means it can be updated. By 2010, brain scientists cracked the code to unlocking emotional learning. That was the game-changer.
Imagine a small child being scared by a big, barking dog. Now imagine. This child is terrified and forms neural pattern that says, “All dogs are bad.” If this thought goes unchallenged, it becomes part of the child’s implicit, unconscious belief system. Understanding how the brain functions, means we can retrieve old learning and give it a much needed reality check. This is all thanks to neuroscience.
The Way to Change
We now know that the only way to transform embedded memories is to access the emotional brain. That’s because the “emotional,” or mammalian brain is where we store the majority of our neural networks for attachment schemas, implicit memories, and habitual patterns. Most of the patterns stored in the emotional brain are learned experientially and activated outside of awareness – which is why they must be “activated” to be updated.
Our wonderfully adaptive emotional brain isn’t fazed by rational discussions or intellectual insight. It can only be engaged by a compellingly felt experience. Talk continues to play a crucial role in therapy. We absolutely need to identify core beliefs and tell our story, but to rely exclusively on talking to heal past trauma keeps us in our head. To create lasting change at the deepest level, we must access the limbic system.
We access the mammalian brain through evocative imagery and sensory-rich experiences. As a therapist, the goal is to provide clients with a compellingly different experience of themselves. Memory reconsolidation provides the structure for this life-giving task. This is done by accessing the “file” on the emotional memory. Then, we introduce a contrasting experience. This “mismatch,” along with repetition of the new learning, is the key to lasting change.
Why It Works
The emotional brain thinks in terms of probabilities based on past evidence. This is nature at her finest. To have to think through each and every thing we do isn’t sustainable. Energy economy commands that we find the swiftest way. Enter probability.
In the field of neurobiology there is a saying, “the more neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more sensory input that gets activated during an event, the more entrenched will be that particular learning. Of course, personality, attachment style, traits, resources and disposition also contribute to the degree of neural wiring.
Getting back to why it works. When unconscious material is brought into awareness and then juxtaposed against new, compellingly experienced material it gets coded as a separate learning. This creates a prediction error which lays down new wiring next to the old learning. In doing so, it changes the meaning of the memory. This is a good thing. We want the old wiring to slow its roll and make room for an updated narrative.
We are in the most exciting time in the field of psychotherapy. Never before have the various modalities for healing dovetailed together as they do now. Freud was right about unconscious learning. The behaviorist nailed it when they said behavior is shaped by associative learning. Cognitive therapy are right about the mind, we need to identify maladaptive beliefs. Experiential and somatic therapist showed us how to engage the body to feel what we talking about. While the humanists remind us of the importance of warmth, empathy and attunement.
It’s no longer about who’s theory is right. They each contribute to the healing process. What the latest findings in neurobiology have taught us is that the sum is greater than the parts. To create effective change, we must be open to it all. We no longer have to rely on speculation. The key to transformation is now within reach.