A Primer on Memory Reconsolidation

and its psychotherapeutic use as a  core process of profound change

by Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic and Laurel Hulley

 from The Neuropsychotherapist, Issue 1, April-June 2013

 

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Emotional learnings underlie and drive the vast majority of unwanted behaviors, emotions, thoughts and somatization addressed in psychotherapy. For example, consider a man in his early 40s suffering from pervasive social anxiety, who seeks relief in therapy. He is guided by the therapist to bring attention into what he is actually experiencing emotionally and somatically when among people, and for the first time in his life he becomes explicitly aware of expecting harsh rejection from others if he were to “say or do anything wrong.” This previously nonconscious but fear-generating expectation had wordlessly defined the world of people for as long as he could remember. His emotional brain had learned this implicit model of how human beings respond from many, many frightening interactions with his explosively angry, rejecting father in childhood, plus a few sizable reinforcements by two schoolteachers, male and female.

His autobiographical memory and conscious narratives contained much about suffering his father’s anger, but nothing about the generalized model that he carried into all social situations, so his social anxiety had been for him a mysterious affliction. With the shift from implicit to explicit knowing of what he had learned to expect, his anxiety now made deep sense to him as the emotion that naturally accompanied his living knowledge of how people respond. These learned constructs had never appeared in his conscious experience of anxiety. Such implicit constructs and models formed in emotional learning are well-defined, yet rarely show up in conscious experience themselves, much as a colored lens just in front of the eye is not itself visible.

A vast range of miseries is maintained by non-conscious emotional learnings, such as depression that is really the deeply forlorn state of having learned from cold, critical parents that one is unworthy of love. Being completely unaware of one’s own most life-shaping learnings is remarkably commonplace. Unfading across the decades, emotional learnings display an inherent tenacity that is the bane of psychotherapists and their clients, yet this extraordinary durability appears to be a survival-positive result of natural selection, which crafted the brain such that any learning that occurs in the presence of strong emotion—such as core beliefs, constructs and coping tactics formed in the midst of childhood suffering— becomes locked into subcortical implicit memory circuits by special synapses (see for example LeDoux, Romanski & Xagoraris, 1989; McGaugh, 1989; McGaugh & Roozendaal, 2002; Roozendaal, McEwen, & Chattarji, 2009).

And it appeared that natural selection had not created a key for that synaptic lock. After more than 60 years of research on the extinction of acquired responses in animals and humans, neuroscientists had concluded by 1989 that the consolidation of a learning in emotional memory was a one-way street, making consolidated learnings indelible, unerasable, for the lifetime of the individual. Acquired emotional responses could certainly be suppressed temporarily in various ways, such as when an exposure procedure suppresses fear learnings through the process of extinction, or through methods of affective regulation (for example, teaching relaxation techniques to counteract anxiety or building up resources and positive thoughts to counteract depression). However, the research had shown that such counteractive measures do not actually dissolve or erase the original, problematic emotional learning (Bouton, 2004; Foa & McNally, 1996; Milner, Squire, & Kandel, 1998; Phelps, Delgado, Nearing, & LeDoux, 2004). Rather, they only create a second, preferred learning that competes against and can regulate or override an unwanted response under ideal conditions, but usually not for long under real-life conditions. Relapses are almost inevitable, particularly in new or stressful situations. No wonder therapists and clients often feel they are struggling against some unrelenting but invisible force.

Indelibility implied that despite their limitations, counteractive methods were the only possible psychotherapeutic strategy for reducing symptoms based in emotional memory. Their extreme durability makes negative emotional learnings one of the biggest causes of suffering in human life, and it seemed we were forever stuck with them…

 

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