Memory Reconsolidation is a technical term used to describe the way our brain ‘updates’ itself after we’ve learnt something new. For example, most people remember their current phone number, address or email address. If years ago they had different ones, odds are they would find it more difficult to recall those. This is because the new data has taken their place in memory of the old data. This is what normally happens when a memory is updated.
This process is very important when we want to change how we think, behave or feel. For example, if we want to get rid of anxiety disorder, depression, panic attacks etc. You may have tried talking therapies to help change unwanted memories, thoughts or feelings and nothing has changed for you. If that’s the case, then clearly some memories have not been successfully updated. It’s as simple as that.
How do we update these memories?
We first need to identify the memory where the original learning took place that’s causing your current problem. The brain is willing and ready to change and update a memory if it finds it’s no longer needed. So, if we can show the brain the old learning isn’t needed then the update is, in effect, done. The real challenge is finding the right memory, especially if it is very old and disconnected from the life you have today.
The memories that seem to push us around most are ‘Emotional Memories’, where we remember an emotion e.g. fear, but can’t specifically remember the precise event that triggered that fear. The difficulty we have is accurately identifying the correct memory to update as it’s often well hidden.
These memories frequently show up when we make statements like “I can’t…”, “I shouldn’t…”, “I must not….”, and a whole host of limiting rules. They can also show up as unfounded beliefs about ourselves or others such as “I’m not good enough…”, “I’m afraid…”, “All men are bad…”, “Boys don’t cry…” and so on.
Sometimes these rules are real. For example, if somebody asks me if I’d like to become an airline pilot I’d say, “I can’t do that.” The reason for me is simple; I’m blind, and I suspect passengers wouldn’t want to get on a plane where they know the pilot can’t see. Thinking about it, I wouldn’t be happy flying in a plane with me as pilot either!
We don’t consciously decide to form these memories. It’s usually a strong emotional event that causes them to be stored. All of us have thousands of these memories; it’s how we quickly learn to fit in with those around us. It’s a process that evolution has given us to allow us to be social creatures. And in all of us, most of these memories won’t cause us any problems today so they can be left as they are.
The problem occurs when these learnings (rules for our safety) are no longer valid and cause us problems even though our situation has changed, and the original threat has gone. The brain doesn’t automatically update these now redundant old ‘rules’.
Fortunately, these memories can be changed, and we can learn different rules that free us from our unwanted symptoms. In 2004 it was clearly demonstrated that these memories could be changed. Until then, the assumption was that we’re stuck with them for the rest of our lives.
There have been convincing studies done on human beings showing how this mechanism works, how the emotional memories are formed, and then how they are erased.
Sometimes these Emotional Memories can be easily identified. If you find yourself in situations where a memory is triggered, and those emotions are coming through to the present. then this is likely to be a key Emotional Memory.
Emotional Memories can also be shown to be around when you find yourself overreacting to a situation. Your feelings and emotions are much stronger than the situation seemingly needs, for example, if a family member is late home from an event, a degree of worry could be appropriate, however outright panic is not.
In a time before we understood how to change the learnings in these emotional memories by using the brain’s inbuilt mechanism of memory reconsolidation, therapists and coaches did the best they could, hoping to bring about transformational change. It was hit and miss.
Today, we can expect real transformational changes from effectively updating our old emotional memories. However not all problems will be helped by this approach, sometimes clients’ issues are not due to emotional memories, they need to learn new skills and habits.
Even though memory reconsolidation is relatively new, many therapists have already changed how they work with clients. Typically, with psychotherapy it can take 50 years for new ideas to be recognised and regularly practised, however memory reconsolidation is realistically a core skill that every therapist will need to understand to be truly effective.
If you feel you’re being pushed around or restricted by something that resembles these emotional memories, and have been unable to resolve the situation yourself, then please consider contacting us or somebody else who can help you.