Coherence Therapy


The art & science of lasting change




Memory Reconsolidation FAQ


Have you read about memory reconsolidation, but keep having more questions as you learn about it? You aren't alone. It's a new and somewhat complex phenome-
non. Here are Bruce Ecker's answers to a range of questions about it. If your question isn't covered, please email it to us so that Bruce can answer it here.

 

Q: I've read that understanding psychotherapy in terms of memory reconsolidation is a "nontheoretical" approach. What does that mean?

 

Q: What induces destabilization of the synapses storing a target learning, opening the five-hour "reconsolidation window" during which the target learning can be erased by new learning?

 

Q: The process of extinction consists of experiences that contradict the target learning, so I don't see how reconsolidation is any different than extinction. Is reconsolidation a type of extinction?

 

Q: When my panicky therapy client drives on the highway and the feared terrible fiery crash doesn't happen, that seems to be a mismatch experience, as needed to launch reconsolidation, yet it doesn't unlock or erase the learned fear. Doesn't this show that the model is incorrect?

 

Q: On what basis do you maintain that the process found by neuroscientists to induce memory reconsolidation is actually carried out in Coherence Therapy? Neuroscientists' procedures in reconsolidation experiments seem very different from what can happen in therapy sessions.

 

Q: You call it a juxtaposition experience that unlocks and erases a target learning through memory reconsolidation, but isnąt that really the same thing as a corrective emotional experience, which isn't new at all?

 

Q: Neuroscientists describe reconsolidation as applicable to the erasure of fear memories and traumas. Is Coherence Therapy restricted to treating fears and traumas?

 

Q: In the 2010 NYU study published in Nature, Schiller et al used wrist electrodes and a computer screen with colored squares. Is that how Coherence Therapy is done?

 

Q: The terminology is confusing: neuroscientists refer to the entire process as "reconsolidation," but isn't it the very last stage of the process where reconsolidation occurs?

 

Q: Neuroscientists always wait at least 24 hours before testing the outcome after a new, contradictory learning experience has been administered during the reconsolidation window. In Coherence Therapy, do you likewise have to wait until the next session to know whether a juxtaposition experience has been effective?

 

Q: Are juxtaposition experiences in Coherence Therapy ever unsuccessful?

 

Q: Does reconsolidation actually erase the physical existence of the neural circuits storing an implicit memory? Or do the neural circuits still exist, but with altered contents of the memory that is encoded by them?

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Q: I've read that understanding psychotherapy in terms of memory reconsolidation is a "nontheoretical" approach. What does that mean?

 

A: It means that this framework for understanding deep change consists almost entirely of empirical observations, with very little reliance on speculative conceptualization or metaphorical explanation. It consists of well-replicated reconsolidation research findings that have identified the well-defined steps of a process innate to the brain, combined with a large and growing body of clinical observations that when therapists guide the same sequence of experiential steps that reconsolidation researchers have identified, they observe the same markers of profound change that reconsolidation researchers have observed; and, in reverse, so far as we can tell so far, whenever those markers of transformational change are observed in therapy, the key experiential steps can be found to have preceded them, even if they were not noticed as they occurred.

 

So, by understanding memory reconsolidation, therapists come into possession of both a reliable process of deep, lasting change and a unifying, integrative understanding of a core process shared by a wide range of seemingly very different therapy systems.

 

Q: What induces destabilization or unlocking of the synapses storing a target learning, opening the five-hour "reconsolidation window" during which the target learning can be erased by new learning?

 

A: When reconsolidation was first detected conclusively in 2000, neuroscientists initially jumped to the incorrect conclusion that every time a particular learning is reactivated, the memory circuits storing that learning are destabilized or deconsolidated, launching the reconsolidation process. In other words, they thought that reactivation alone launches the reconsolidation process. This incorrect interpretation of early results spread widely among both neuroscientists and science journalists, and still sometimes shows up in their new writings.

 

The correct understanding of destabilization first emerged in research published in 2004 and has had many confirmations since then. (For a list of confirming studies, see Table 2.1 on p. 21 in Unlocking the Emotional Brain, and additional confirmations have been reported since that book was published.) It is now definite that reactivation alone does not trigger destabilization. Rather, what is required is reactivation plus an additional experience that significantly mismatches what the reactivated target learning expects or "knows" about how the world is or behaves. The crucial ingredient for unlocking synapses and launching reconsolidation is what neuroscientists call a mismatch experience or prediction error experience.

 

For example, suppose the target learning was previously created by several repetitions of turning on a blue light and delivering a mild electric shock several seconds later. If the blue light is turned on again now, that learning is reactivated immediately, but its memory circuits are not destabilized because no mismatch experience has occurred. Researchers have shown that even if the blue light stays on without any shock being delivered, a decisive-enough mismatch or prediction error has still not occurred because, with the light still on, the shock might still happen, so destabilization still is not induced. It is when the blue light is turned off with no shock occurring that a decisive mismatch experience occurs and synapses unlock, because now it is definite that no shock will occur even though the blue light came on. This shows us that what does, or doesn't, constitute a mismatch experience depends on the specific makeup of the original learning.

 

In psychotherapy, the learnings involved are more complex and involve more memory networks than does the above example of classical conditioning, but the same principle applies. Detailed examples of carrying out this process in therapy are given in chapters 3-6 of Unlocking the Emotional Brain.

 

Q: The process of extinction consists of experiences that contradict the target learning, so I don't see how reconsolidation is any different than extinction. Is reconsolidation a type of extinction?

 

A: No, reconsolidation is not a type of extinction or an enhancement of extinction. It is true that both reconsolidation and extinction begin with a non-reinforcement experience, that is, a reactivation of the target learning followed by non-occurrence of what the target learning expects to happen. Researchers have shown that reconsolidation and extinction are two distinct processes both neurologically and in their behavioral results. It is the time structure of the non-reinforcement experiences that determines which process occurs; and there are special cases that can trigger both processes at once.

 

The brain evolved two different processes for canceling something it has learned, reconsolidation and extinction. Permanent cancelation occurs through reconsolidation, which can erase the learning. Temporary cancelation occurs through extinction, which only suppresses a learning and readily allows it to be reinstated.

 

Q: When my panicky therapy client drives on the highway and the feared terrible fiery crash doesn't happen, that seems to be a mismatch experience, as needed to launch reconsolidation, yet it doesn't unlock or erase the learned fear. Doesn't this show that the model is incorrect?

 

A: We have to look closely at the content of the problematic learning in order to recognize which experiences do, and which ones do not, actually serve as a mismatch or prediction error experience. In this case, the original learning is not that a car crash happens on every drive; it's that a crash might happen unpredictably on any drive. That learning is not mismatched or disconfirmed by an accident not happening on any one drive or on any number of drives.

 

The point is that the specific elements of the target learning determine whether or not some experience is an actual contradiction of what the learning "knows." The overall look of the situation is not a reliable gauge of this. The specifics of the target learning have to be brought to light and recognized in order for a truly contradictory experience to be found or created.

 

Q: On what basis do you maintain that the process found by neuro-
scientists to induce memory reconsolidation is actually carried out in Coherence Therapy?
Neuroscientists' procedures in reconsolidation experiments seem very different from what could possibly be happening in therapy sessions.

 

A: Reconsolidation research was done initially with animals and chemical agents, but at this point, at least six studies with human subjects have demonstrated the erasure of an implicit learning in humans with no use of chemical agents. (For details see p. 25 in Unlocking the Emotional Brain.)

 

Each of those studies followed this process: create an emotional learning; then reactivate it so that the person is actively expecting the occurrence of what was learned; then create an experience that differs from what the reactivated learning expects to happen. The novel or contradictory experience during reactivation is the critical ingredient in response to which the synapses storing the target learning unlock. Then, additional experiences of new learning directly revise and rewrite the target learning, permanently altering the content of the target memory.

 

Coherence Therapy consists of the same specific process: reactivate the symptom-generating emotional learning or schema to be erased, making the person vividly aware of what he or she knows and expects according to that schema; then create a concurrent experience that contradicts what the emotional schema knows and expects (which is called a "juxtaposition experience" in Coherence Therapy); and repeat the contradictory experience a few times, so it serves as new learning that unlearns and rewrites the symptom-generating schema.

 

That process was identified by Ecker and Hulley through several years of studying therapy sessions in which there occurred a thorough, lasting disappearance of a previously intense emotional theme and response. They then defined a therapy consisting of that process, which they described in their 1995 book. Neuroscientists identified the same process in 2004, and they use the phrases "mismatch experience" or "prediction error experience" for what is called a juxtaposition experience in Coherence Therapy.

 

In addition to following the same steps of process, the results observed in Coherence Therapy are the same distinctive markers of change that reconsolidating researchers use as proof that erasure of the target learning has occurred: a specific, long-occurring emotional reaction no longer is felt in response to cues that formerly triggered it; symptoms generated by that reaction also no longer occur; and these changes persist effortlessly and permanently.

 

Q: You call it a juxtaposition experience that unlocks and erases a target learning through memory reconsolidation, but isnąt that really the same thing as a corrective emotional experience, which isn't new at all?

 

A: That question boils down to this one: Is a corrective emotional experience always a juxtaposition experience? And the answer is no, a corrective emotional experience does not always or necessarily create a juxtaposition experience -- so they are not the same thing. Here is why:


A corrective emotional experience consists of experiencing something different than was ever experienced before, something that was needed but was missing. It is an experience that creates new knowing, new meaning and new learning. However, those new knowings, meanings and learnings are not automatically or necessarily experienced in a conscious juxtaposition with the longstanding knowings, meanings and learnings that have been maintaining the person's problems and symptoms.

In other words, a corrective emotional experience supplies the material for one side of a potential juxtaposition experience, but does not inherently access and reactivate the other side to create a juxtaposition. This means that a corrective emotional experience can fail to be a juxtaposition experience, in which case it is functioning not as a transformational process but as a counteractive process that does not disconfirm and dissolve a symptom-requiring schema.

A therapist who understands that transformational change requires juxtaposition follows a corrective emotional experience by then guiding a juxtaposition experience explicitly. What is needed to unlock synapses and erase a target emotional learning is an experience of sharp mismatch or prediction error, created by juxtaposition of the target learning with vivid contradictory knowledge---not just an experience of a preferred emotional state or a preferred belief.

In a juxtaposition experience, the client is lucidly accessing both the problematic original learning and the preferred new learning in the same field of awareness---not just the preferred new learning by itself. If we guide a corrective emotional experience by focusing only on the preferred new experience, it can too easily fail to be a true juxtaposition experience as needed for bringing about transformational change.

But if we regard juxtaposition experiences to be the true corrective emotional experiences, then we have it all and we will facilitate therapeutic breakthroughs with the highest consistency. (However, the term "corrective" expresses a pathologizing, rationalistic, invalidating view of a person's existing emotional learnings, and is therefore somewhat alien to the Emotional Coherence Framework and to Coherence Therapy, which are non-pathologizing and constructivist in their conceptualizations and labels.)

Q: When neuroscientists discuss the clinical use of reconsolidation, they talk only about the erasure of fear memories and traumas. Is Coherence Therapy restricted to treating fears and traumas? What about the many other kinds of problems people have, such as depression or anger, or perfectionism or workaholism?

 

A: Coherence Therapy is a completely generalized implementation of the same process, so it is not limited to emotional learnings involving fear or trauma. In fact, researchers have demonstrated the use of reconsolidation to unlock and erase or modify a range of different types of learning and memory, other than fear memories. Probably neuroscientists limit their discussion of clinical application to fear and traumas simply because that is the type of memory they have studied most and understand best.

 

Practitioners of Coherence Therapy have applied the process successfully for many types of symptoms and associated, underlying emotional implicit learnings, such as those centered upon loss, powerlessness, attachment patterns, despair, aloneness, low self-worth, anger, autonomy, injustice, and many others, as well as fear, anxiety and panic.

 

When Ecker and Hulley were studying profound change events in their therapy sessions, they were looking for a process pattern that was the same for all memory contents and types of symptoms. This resulted in identifying a broadly applicable process and techniques for carrying out that process for a wide range of presenting complaints.

 

Q: In the 2010 NYU study published in Nature, Schiller et al used wrist electrodes and a computer screen with colored squares. Is that how Coherence Therapy is done?

 

A: No, not at all. Coherence Therapy uses methods that are emotionally rich and deep, yet it is the same process or sequence of experiences as used in reconsolidation research by neuroscientists. That sequence of experiences can be created by a wide range of concrete techniques that differ enormously.

 

For example, neuroscientist Lissa Gallucio at Rutgers University used a technique with infants that was physically quite different from the technique used by NYU neuroscientists Schiller et al with adults, yet the same process was followed: reactivation of the target implicit memory followed by an experience that contradicts what the memory expects, while the memory is reactivated.

 

For carrying out that same process in Coherence Therapy, the techniques are suitable to the more complex and emotionally vulnerable implicit memory material involved, as compared with the simple implicit memories that neuroscientists create for their studies. Description of how the process takes place in Coherence Therapy, as well as in AEDP, EFT, EMDR and IPNB, is available in Unlocking the Emotional Brain.

 

The keys steps of the core process are well-defined in Coherence Therapy, but because of the complexity of emotional implicit memory in therapy, the process is not reducable to a formulaic protocol. Success requires skill on the part of the therapist to carry out the key steps of the process suitably for the individual client's unique material and personality.

 

The nature of the process in Coherence Therapy is not that of a "procedure" being administered; rather, the work has a very personal quality, and the therapist's empathetic accompaniment is an important catalyst.

 

Q: The terminology is confusing: neuroscientists refer to the entire process as "reconsolidation," but isn’t it the very last stage of the process where reconsolidation occurs?

 

A: That is correct. The reconsolidation or re-locking of the altered memory is the very last stage of the process. Nevertheless, the term "reconsolidation" has already come to be the name of the whole process. 

 

What comes first is the unlocking or de-consolidation of the target implicit memory, what neuroscientists term the "destabilization" of the memory trace, returning it to a "labile" condition in which it is revisable or disruptable. The previously locked synapses are physically, molecularly unlocked. Then the "reconsolidation window" is open for a limited time, during which a contradictory experience can rewrite the memory, altering or deleting it. In less than 6 hours, a built-in, complex molecular mechanism re-locks the synapses, closing the window and launching the reconsolidation of the memory. Like the original consolidation of a new memory, which takes weeks, reconsolidation takes an extended time to complete the molecular and structural process that finalizes the redesigned synapses.

 

Q: Neuroscientists always wait at least 24 hours before testing the outcome after a new, contradictory learning experience has been administered during the reconsolidation window. In Coherence Therapy, do you likewise have to wait until the next session to know whether a juxtaposition experience has been effective?

 

A: When a juxtaposition experience has been successful with therapy clients, the subjective experience of a dramatically changed emotional reality is immediately felt and described by them. Later in the session, when we test for the existence of the old memory by guiding the client to focus on former trigger cues (such as guiding a client to imagine her mother getting angry at her), the non-re-evocability of the old memory is equally evident. When we persist in guiding the client to have the old response and empathetically remind him or her of the old emotional reason for having that response, the client tries to allow that response to happen but then says that that response feels either lifeless or seems "silly" to have, or even funny or absurd, and some clients actually go into laughter at how funny the old response now seems to them (such as former terror of mom's rage).

 

These effects are plainly apparent in videos of such sessions. The newly revised schema may not yet be well-stabilized neurally, but it is clearly in effect immediately, as well as in subsequent sessions.

 

Q: Are juxtaposition experiences in Coherence Therapy ever unsuccessful?

 

A: Yes. If the target schema continues to reactivate, this tells us either that the juxtaposition experience needs to be repeated, or that resistance to schema dissolution is occurring (a topic covered in Unlocking the Emotional Brain); or that there exists some other component of the original schema that was not specifically disconfirmed and needs its own juxtaposition experience; or that the target schema is encoded in more than one memory network corresponding to more than one behavioral context, such as "at home with family" and "at work," in which case a separate juxtaposition experience in each context may be needed in order to erase the schema in each memory network.

 

Q: Does reconsolidation actually erase the physical existence of the neural circuits storing an implicit memory? Or do the neural circuits still exist, but with altered contents of the memory that is encoded by them?

 

A: There appear to exist both types of outcomes, depending on the type of reconsolidation experiment.

 

In many reconsolidation studies using animals, researchers reactivated an implicit memory that they had previously created, de-consolidating the memory and opening up the reconsolidation window. They then introduced no new learning, so normally the memory would reconsolidate unchanged and generate the same responses; but while the memory was still destabilized, they injected a chemical known to prevent synapse formation. They then found that the memory no longer responded and could not be re-evoked. Neuroscientists understand this to mean that the synapses that linked the neurons to form the circuit had become unlocked during the reconsolidation window and then were chemically prevented from re-locking, which "disrupted" the synapses physically so that the neural circuit no longer existed physically. That is what neuroscientists mean by "erasure" or "deletion" in this class of experiments that use a "chemical blockade."

 

(Another nuance enters the picture here. Among neuroscientists there is currently a controversy as to whether the disrupted circuit is that of the original memory or that of the neural process that retrieves the original memory. To neuroscientists that is an important difference that has been difficult to solve experimentally; they refer to a "storage deficit" versus a "retrieval deficit." The preponderance of evidence currently is in favor of storage deficit, i.e., erasure of the original memory. This point shows the subtlety that can be involved in all this. Neuroscientists choose their phrases very carefully in their writings as they steer their way among considerations that are not necessarily made explicit.)

 

In contrast to the animal experiments with a chemical blockade, reconsolidation studies with people do not use such chemical agents, which are toxic. Neuroscientists in this case alter the original memory by introducing new learnings during the reconsolidation window, and they describe the original memory as being updated, edited, or re-written by those new learnings. In other words, the results of these studies allow only the interpretation that the memory circuit has been altered according to new learning, not that it has been physically dissolved (which is still possibly the case, but is not inferrable from the evidence). Nothing is known yet about how bits of subjective knowledge correspond to the physical pattern of synaptic linkages.

 

It has been established that during the reconsolidation window, in response to new learning, an implicit memory and the behavioral response it produces can be increased in strength, decreased in strength, revised in its details, or, as in the Schiller et al study, completely canceled out.

 

When in that way a fear memory is completely canceled, in a colloquial sense it still makes sense to say that the fear response has been "erased" or "deleted" because there literally no longer exists a fear memory. Even neuroscientists sometimes indulge in this word usage; as for example in the title of this article: Kindt, M., Soeter, M. & Vervliet, B. (2009). Beyond extinction: erasing human fear responses and preventing the return of fear. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 256–258.

 

Readings on
Memory Reconsolidation

 

Chapter 2 in Unlocking the Emotional Brain explains reconsolidation research findings, how reconsolidation works, and how this knowledge translates into a process that psychotherapists can guide for dispelling a wide range of symptoms at their emotional and neural roots. The rest of the book provides many case examples.

 

"A primer on memory reconsolidation and its psychotherapeutic use as a core process of profound change" is an article adapted from the book, Unlocking the Emotional Brain, that was published in The Neuropsychotherapist.

 

For a short, introductory version of these concepts and research findings, see the January 2011 blog article, Reconsolidation:
A universal, integrative framework for highly effective psychotherapy
.

 

The neural mechanisms that may correspond to Coherence Therapy’s process of change are described in detail in a series of three articles in the Journal of Constructivist Psychology:

 

Download three abstracts»
Download article 1»

Download article 2»

Download article 3»

 

Easy-reading articles in the Psychotherapy Networker on memory reconsolidation and how it is brought about in Coherence Therapy:

 

Unlocking the Emotional Brain»

The Brain's Rules for Change»

 

How a brain imaging study could help reveal the role of reconsolidation in Coherence Therapy: Download»

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