Bruce Ecker, LMFT
Psychotherapists’ use of memory reconsolidation for guiding potent change with unprecedented consistency is the revolution I see soon changing the face of the mental health field. This fundamental new development began coming into focus for me in late 2005, when I read eye-opening research findings that had been published by neuroscientists since 1997.
THE BRAIN’S PROCESS FOR UNLEARNING
In a major discovery, researchers had demonstrated that the brain has a natural process for unlocking the synapses of neural circuits storing a specific piece of emotional implicit learning or conditioning, allowing that particular learning to be completely unlearned and erased by a new learning experience.
Most of the symptoms and problems addressed in therapy are generated by underlying emotional learning, clinical experience had taught me, so it was clear that this new knowledge was going to drive a big leap in the evolution of psychotherapy.
The memory reconsolidation findings were a striking turnaround because neuroscientists and psychologists had concluded, on the basis of a century of memory research, that emotional learnings were indelible for life and that no process of true erasure exists. The recent studies, however, had suddenly identified a specific sequence of experiences that launches a built-in but previously unknown neurological process, one that allows a new learning experience to actually erase an existing learning.
Normally new learning doesn’t achieve elimination of a problematic target learning; rather, new learning forms its own separate memory circuits that co-exist with and merely compete against those of the target learning, creating conditions for instability and relapse, not to mention increased inner conflict or “divided self.”
However, if new learning occurs in the special manner discovered by researchers, it impinges directly on the existing learning and re-writes and updates the latter’s neural circuits. An unwanted emotional learning that is replaced in this way by a new learning is completely eliminated from memory, so relapse cannot occur.
This is lasting, liberating, transformational change at the emotional roots of symptom production, and it is the ideal effect that we therapists strive for in nearly all of our sessions, but achieve only occasionally. Every day in our offices we are confronted by the remarkable tenacity of the underlying emotional learnings that maintain for decades so many of our clients’ painful emotions, behaviors, thoughts and somatizations. Brain research had identified exactly what unlocks and dissolves those underlying emotional learnings.
What could be more valuable for therapists than that? It was apparent to me that the process that had been detected was a master key that would allow therapists to facilitate deep breakthroughs consistently, on a daily basis, in their practices, for a new level of effectiveness across all therapy systems and independently of theoretical frameworks.
Ever since, I’ve focused my work on spreading awareness and understanding of memory reconsolidation among therapists, because I feel so clear that this will be the next big—very big—breakthrough in the mental wellness field.
INDEPENDENT CLINICAL DISCOVERY
Since the early 1990s I had been using in therapy the special sequence of experiences subsequently identified in memory reconsolidation research, so I had already seen for myself the leap in effectiveness that it achieves. Clinical observation of a large number of single cases that I had scrutinized with my collaborator, Laurel Hulley, had led us to this very sequence as the key to deep therapeutic breakthroughs. For guiding this sequence we developed a focused methodology and described it in our 1996 book, Depth Oriented Brief Therapy. The name of the approach was changed later to Coherence Therapy.
When neuroscientists using the rigor of controlled studies subsequently arrived at the same process for dissolving a target emotional response with both animals and human subjects, we felt that our clinical findings had received a significant validation.
A unified account of reconsolidation research and how it translates to psychotherapy, with many case examples showing its wide applicability, is the subject of our recent book, Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. The upcoming first issue of The Neuropsychotherapist magazine will feature an article adapted from that book, titled, “A Primer on Memory Reconsolidation and Its Psychotherapeutic Use as a Core Process of Profound Change.”
NEW PARADIGM FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY INTEGRATION
Coherence Therapy was created to embody that core process explicitly and unmistakably, but the process is inherent in the brain and happily does not belong exclusively to any one system of psychotherapy. There are quite a few systems of focused, experiential therapy that are congenial to the core process, which would take place most consistently if the therapist is aware of the crucial sequence of experiences.
We have emphasized this point in the new book by listing about a dozen such therapies and examining previously published case studies from four of them: AEDP, EFT, EMDR and IPNB.* We’ve shown that the key sequence of experiences required for memory reconsolidation is present in all four cases, though it is not identified as such by the author or by the therapy system.
Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s only known process capable of erasing an emotional learning, so it makes sense that its distinctive sequence of experiences can be found in any therapy sessions that permanently eliminate a longstanding emotional reaction and associated symptoms. The fact that the core process was identified independently through both clinical observation and neurobiological research on animals suggests that the process is an objective feature of the brain, not just an artifact of theorizing or metaphorical description.
This core sequence has the potential to fulfill the clinical field’s long quest for a unifying framework of psychotherapy integration. It could do that by giving proponents of diverse therapies a common language and shared understanding of how their respective methodologies facilitate the innate process of transformational change—as well as a rich appreciation of the panoply of ways of doing so.
I believe our new knowledge of memory reconsolidation is poised to create transformational change not only for our individual therapy clients, but also in the shape of the therapy field itself.
*These four therapies are:
AEDP: Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy
EFT: Emotion-Focused Therapy
EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
IPNB: Interpersonal Neurobiology