source: Bruce Ecker et al, “Unlocking the emotional brain”, in Psychotherapy Networker (U.S.), July-August 2013
A very promising discovery for psychotherapy: how the brain can unlock old emotional learnings and replace them by new ones. 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 which had been considered to have ultra-durable synapses believed to be immutable over the lifetime of the individual.
However, the brain does come equipped with a key to the locked synapses of these neural circuits. This key became evident in 1997, when several labs began publishing reports of a brain process unrecognized before.
This process turns off a learned emotional response at its roots, not by merely suppressing it – as in a behavior-extinction procedure – but by actually unlocking the neural connections holding it in place and then erasing it within the nervous system. Researchers demonstrated how what is called the “memory reconsolidation” process works in various animal species as well as in humans.
In all these species, what the brain requires to unlock and erase a particular learning follows the same 3-step process: 1) reactivating the emotional response, 2) unlocking the synapses maintaining it, 3) creating a new learning that unlearns, rewrites and replaces the unlocked target learning.
What induces the brain to use its key? A “mis-match experience” has to happen.
In 2004, Maldonado experimented with crabs which had been made intensely fearful of predators and then experienced the counter-event consisting in the predators not being there when expected. When this contradictory experience comes quickly – while the initial fearful learning is still intensely felt – then the normally robust neural circuits of the target learning become labile and fragile. During this short interval, using a chemical agent which permanently shuts off labile, unlocked synapses but doesn’t affect locked ones, the researchers proved that this “mis-match” or “prediction error” was the key to the erasure of the conditioned fear memory: only crabs that had experienced the mismatch no longer responded fearfully in the test chamber, in contrast to the “control” group of crabs which had not experienced it.
Thus, emotional learning circuits unlock and become erasable only when a vivid new experience mis-matches what a reactivated emotional learning leads the 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, thereby preserving the original learning. In this case, the animal or person is then just as likely to be strongly triggered by a stimulus reminiscent of the original fear-inducing event (or other negative emotional experience – as if no mis-match had happened at all.
For psychotherapy, research on the the neuroscience of memory reconsolidation has shown that using experiential methods to achieve erasure and transformation of neural circuits is just as effective as special chemical agents were with Maldonado’s crabs. Indeed, in controlled studies with human subjects, experiential methods have succeeded in erasing learned fears, heroin cravings and other types of emotional learnings.
The needed sequence of 3 steps can be guided systematically in psychotherapy, yielding the same markers of profound change that researchers regard as the distinctive signature of erasure. A clinical example is given: the therapy process of Carole, 35 years old. She has a strong avoidance of sex with her husband which was discovered to be based on a violation of sexual boundaries in her family when she was 11. The case vignette of Carole shows how the memory reconsolidation process worked successfully with this woman, who in a short number of sessions was able to distance herself enormously from this fear; the vignette also portrays the freedom of style and technique available to therapists within the 3 steps.
The therapy method ECKER’s team has developed around the 3-step Memory Consolidation process is called Coherence Therapy. If this method’s discoveries are integrated into other cognitive-behavioral therapy methods, psychotherapy for trauma can become much more effective.