Reconsolidation Theory and the Point of Therapy

Most of us have a sense of our own history, our successes, our failures, our ups and downs. Our memories form an intrinsic part of our self-identity; that elusive entity that helps to give us a feeling of coherence as we navigate through time. But how reliable is this sense of our past? Is who we think we are based on a system of memory that is more fluid and unstable than we are comfortable admitting?

It has long been established that memories are easily manipulated. Multiple witnesses to a crime come up with widely disparate descriptions; embellishments can readily be made in response to leading questions or the desire to please – yet each witness will believe in the truth of their recall, and unaware of how their memory has been influenced.

Despite this knowledge it has been a presumption that the memory itself – whether accurate or not – is permanent, burned into the synapses of the brain. New research is suggesting that this is not so. Essentially it is suggesting that long-term memory is a myth, which could open exciting new possibilities within Hypnotherapy. It appears that recalling a memory renders it fluid and unstable – able to be changed before being re-fixed into the circuitry of the brain – and that change could include changing its meaning or even deleting it completely. This is something that has been implicit in several forms of therapeutic intervention; Regression is based around the belief that changing the meaning the client has of a past experience, or changing the way the client perceives that memory, will alter the way the client responds to stimuli in their life which are connected to that event in the mind’s organising schema. Similarly several NLP techniques involve the disruption of the way the client perceives a memory in order to change the way they feel about it – memories are chopped about, run backwards and forwards, in black and white or colour etc which can have a dramatic effect on the client’s response. These techniques have long been found to work – but why?

Can you remember your first day at school, first kiss, or favourite holiday? Hopefully at least one of those, but why can you? I mean, what’s the point of being able to do so? Clearly memory works as a means of keeping track of our lives, but why would evolution invest so much energy in creating this ability – and why would the facility to change our history by having pliable memory be an advantage to us as an organism struggling to survive on the face of this particular planet?

Perhaps we need to change our view of the function of memory from it being a static database of facts that keeps getting added to as we age – like a photograph album – to a living network of understanding – a self – that is able to adjust its sense of itself in the light of new learning. By looking at the mind in this way in this way it would become a benefit to be able to upgrade old memories to fit new views of the world. An example might be Santa Claus (anyone who still believes in him should look away now). As a child I believed in him completely, as I grew older I reached a point where I no longer did. Now when I think back to believing in him I don’t remember that “I do believe”, I remember that “I did believe”, the encoding of the memory has been changed from a belief I have to a belief I once had. That must involve a change in the way the memory is stored, otherwise how do I know I no longer believe?

This plasticity of memory has clear advantages in keeping ourselves up to date with beliefs about the world that are to our advantage, but our clients tend to suffer from the downside of this ability, which I will explain a little later. First I want to go into a little detail about how the brain stores our experiences.

The mechanics of memory

When our brains record an experience it is captured by the firing of a particular arrangement of neurons (nerve cells) which leave them connected and primed to fire again to re-create that ‘ just happened’ moment. This short term memory trace lasts just a few seconds. To be turned into something more permanent the synapses that connect the arrangement of neurons that equal the memory swell with more receptors and neurotransmitters and after a few hours the brain cells themselves actually grow, sprouting new and thicker connections to make the memory trace permanent. Proteins are produced by a range of genes to facilitate this process. This is a very simplified account of something termed consolidation. What renders this process even more remarkable is that this memory pattern then migrates. Initially the building of this brain pattern occurs deep in the brain in places like the hippocampus, but over the course of weeks and even years it moves to more general areas of the cortex – a bit like moving something from your ram to your hard-drive. Until recently it was felt that this was the end of the story, the memory stays in the backwaters of the mind gathering dust but essentially remaining the same. A recent experiment blew this idea away.

To study the process of consolidation researchers interfere with the steps involved in fixing a memory in order to test their influence on long-term recall. Joseph LeDoux and Karim Nader discovered something puzzling.

They trained rats to associate a darkened box with an electric shock to their paws. The rats learn the box is to be avoided and freeze the next time they are put back. If, a few days after this conditioning, the animals were given a drug to prevent protein synthesis before being reminded of the box it made no difference to their ability to remember it as a bad place. The memory seemed fixed and safely stored. But if the rat had a brief reminder of the box just before the drug was administered the rat lost its conditioning – it forgot it was supposed to be scared. The memory had somehow been erased. The pair labelled this reconsolidation. Intrigued, they went further. Traditional consolidation theory suggests that memories are fixed locally by protein changes within a few hours of the event and then filed to long-term storage in the cortex after about a month. After conditioning rats in the same way they left them for 45 days, by which time the memory should have been fixed and immune to interference.

As before, the rats given no reminder of the box before being injected, or who had their hippocampus destroyed, kept their conditioned response to the box.

But the rats that were given a reminder of the box before being given the drug did develop amnesia in the rats. Destroying the hippocampus also took away their fear of the box. The consolidated memory – which conventional wisdom said was permanent and stable – had been removed by the action of recalling it. In Nader’s words “The dogma was that once a memory trace had been consolidated, it is permanent. But here it is labile – subject to interference in exactly the same way as a brand new experience. We were showing memory to be something incredibly dynamic.”
It appears that memory moves from the hippocampus to the cortex during consolidation, but is returned to the hippocampus for reconsolidation by the act of recall.

This dynamism would be unnecessary if the brain just wanted a photograph album, but it fits perfectly if memories exist to make sense of the present, and distorting some memories while generalising about, or even deleting others, serves to improve the mind’s recognition and understanding of the world in order to prosper within it. If a memory becomes plastic every time it is recalled then it can be re-filed in a usefully updated way. The mind can make choices about whether to merge old and new, or to reinforce their differences.

Some previous findings in therapy support this new model. Back in the sixties it was noted that electroconvulsive shock treatment given to conscious psychiatric patients could produce amnesia of any recently recalled memories, but not memories left dormant. In the 70‘s Canadian psychiatrist Richard Rubin used this to cure OCD by getting the patient to focus on their obsession before administering the shocks. Before you start wiring up your recliner, there are other methods that may be using reconsolidation; Stanislav Grof of Maryland University investigated the clinical use of LSD back in the 50’s and found that the hallucinogenic experience often changed the patients perception of the memory and dramatically reduced treatment time. More recently an African herb with similar properties has been used successfully with heroin addicts, reportedly by changing the memories connected to their addiction and releasing them from their need. Again, I am not advocating a trip to your local dealer. In the USA one of the best documented forms of effective therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is EMDR, where the sufferer recalls a traumatic memory while following the path of the therapist’s finger through their visual field. Without doubt it can be highly successful. Within the framework of reconsolidation theory it may be that recalling the memory and moving the eyes while doing so causes the memory to be re-stored using different submodalities, which change the meaning of it. As suggested previously, this is similar to NLP techniques such as the Swish pattern, Spinning, and Fast Phobia cure. So there already exist non-invasive and non-drug-based approaches that can be understood in terms of reconsolidation theory. Perhaps so can client’s problems (and ours!).

Research by psychologists has shown that children are learning about their environment from the moment of their arrival (and probably before). Babies can mimic facial expressions when only 45 hours old; they are, quite literally, learning machines. The mind learns by creating models of how things work, testing them, and then updating them as they gain new information. This fits well within the model of reconsolidation, and is obviously useful for our survival. For example, as a child I was told not to go near the fire because it would burn me. Having no model for what burning actually was in terms of its effect on me I touched the hearth and burnt my fingers. My information was updated and I learnt to avoid getting burnt – I didn’t have to keep testing to see if hot things still burnt. As I look back at memories involving heat they are filtered through the belief that has emerged as a result of them – the memories create the belief which then can adapt the memories that created it. It is the memory of the meaning that is evolutionarily necessary, not the accuracy of the recording of the event itself – how I remember the look of the hearth may be largely irrelevant. This structure is fine and dandy when the young scientist makes the right connections. The problem arises when the immature reasoning leads to inaccurate conclusions. Suppose at the age of 5 a child falls over during the school play and afterwards her mother tells her off showing her up. As children we are all sensitive to the withdrawal of approval from our parents and will seek to avoid situations where this might occur. This child might experience anxiety the next time any situation arises which, to her mind, seems similar. As a consequence the belief begins to form that she is scared of public speaking as these experiences of anxiety are repeated. Once this belief is formed recollection of any memory connected to this belief is likely to be strengthened because of the belief it is viewed through. It becomes a self-supporting belief system, which over time grows stronger and stronger. While the evolutionary purpose of reconsolidation is to keep us safe, its drawback is that mistakes such as this made at the young scientist stage flow down the years.

Imagine our mind as a lake. Each experience is a rock that is thrown into the lake and sends ripples in all directions. The shore of the lake is the boundary of our model of the world. When we are young the ripples influence the contours of the lake as it develops into a shape unique to us. As we mature the shore hardens into the world we take to be true – our beliefs form our boundaries. By the time we are adults the ripples from each new experience tend to be more influenced by the shape of the lake than the shore of the lake is influenced by the ripple from the rock – we come to see the world as we expect to see it, and distort it in order to achieve this. As the ripples of our present experiences bounce back into the mind-lake shaped as they are by our shore, they join and mix with the waves from previous rocks, sometimes gentling them – and sometimes reinforcing their turbulence.

How should we use this information?

In brief, then, reconsolidation theory suggests that when memories are recalled they become vulnerable to change.

Therapists who investigate the memories of their clients should be aware that every time a memory is recalled it becomes unstable and capable of change. That change can be in one of several forms:

  • The memory could be strengthened in its meaning – it becomes more of what it was.
  • It can be weakened – it has less effect on the belief network it’s connected to.
  • It can be transformed by having the meaning of it reframed – and by doing so transform the belief that derives from it
  • It could be deleted altogether.

The first possibility could be why all the recent studies of counselling styles that rely on just going over past events, and talking about the feelings relating to them, tend to deepen the client’s experience of the problem. The logical conclusion to be drawn from reconsolidation theory is that the purpose of talking about any aspect of a client’s past experience is to change either its meaning or its coding so that it creates a positive change in the belief system responsible for the client’s problem.

A major area of experimentation could arise from these findings. How many ways can we find to give a client’s mind a new experience of their past which would cause a reassessment of their future? What techniques can we discover or refine in the light of this understanding of our neurology that can achieve the latter three possibilities? Regression, submodality work, metaphor and suggestion could all benefit from reconsolidation theory.

If our past is a myth that we create to confirm our beliefs, then therapy becomes a medium by which client’s can create whatever myth of their past forms the basis for their most productive future. We should bear it in mind the next time our client says “What happened was….”