We all know that it is difficult to change deeply ingrained, emotional learnings, such as ‘I am unlovable,’ or ‘Others need me to be perfect.’ However, the science of memory reconsolidation clearly outlines a series of experiences that, if the brain moves through step by step, can open its neural networks for relearning. Most therapies find a way to facilitate these steps (either knowingly or unknowingly).
But before we go into how to use memory reconsolidation for healing (topic of the next video), let’s quickly look at the science of this powerful form of neuroplasticity, and why memory reconsolidation opens such a hopeful path toward change.
Memory Reconsolidation: How to Rewire Your Brain
I remember when I was first starting out as a psychologist my father gave me a piece of advice that he’d received from his mentor. He said, remember people don’t come to you with their problems they come to you with their solutions. So now if I see someone, for instance, who
has a rage problem or a problem with overeating, I think how was raging or overheating a necessary solution to some problem that they faced?
So if you’re wondering how could raging be a solution to a problem, well let’s say when that person was young his father would target his younger brother with a lot of aggression and the one way that that child figured out to protect his younger brother was to engage dad with his own anger so that he himself became the target. In this example, the problem then would be his little brother getting hurt and the solution would be the rage.
So these learned solutions exist within these little maps of reality that teach us through experience what to expect from life and how we should respond. We call those little maps “schemas.” There’s two parts to a schema, first it’s what to expect and second how I’ve learned to respond to best protect myself or protect my group or get what I need. So these schemas are by default unconscious. Why? Because they exist in something called implicit memory.
If you learned about this in school you’ll remember that explicit memory would be like learning and remembering what the capital of France is. Implicit memory would be more like learning to ride a bike. When you’re learning to ride a bike your brain is having experiences that teach you how to respond in the future. For instance, when I feel a slight shudder on my right side I need to slightly lean left or I’m going to fall over. Now that is not consciously learned but it is stored and very useful to our capacity to ride a bike, even if we can’t verbalize what we learned.
In the same way we learn to ride a bike we learn the motions of being human. Again, they’re not conscious because they exist in the same way
that learning how to ride a bike exists – as an implicit memory. Now until about 15 years ago scientists believed that implicit memory couldn’t be changed so therefore our field looked for ways to override or control that implicit learning. Forms of therapy like CBT were created to teach people how to use logic and try to control the more implicit knowing or override it so that the implicit memory wouldn’t have so much control and they could regulate their emotions and behaviors more effectively. This process creates something called incremental change which is a good thing.
However, now we know we can actually go into the implicit learning or memory itself and update it. When we do that we get transformational change. So by transformational change, I mean when the symptom or struggle disappears and remains gone without continued effort or a lot of maintenance. So let’s look then about how to change implicit memory. First though, lets go over again how memory gets stored in the first place. So an event or learning happens and for a short time stays in short-term memory. If it’s trivial or not important to us then we will forget about it but if it seems important to our future survival or if it’s emotionally charged then it will be more likely to go into long-term memory which it does through a process called memory consolidation.
You see memory exists a neural net that holds a pattern. The pattern holds the elements of that experience or memory together and secures them into place. In fact, it’s through the consolidation process that the learning gets secured so that that pattern can be stabilized. So just to give a metaphor, which is just a metaphor, so don’t take it too seriously, but it’s something like editing a document on a computer. We’re editing the file and then we close the file. We may even condense it into a zip file for storage but then it’s in a less editable format. Implicit memories are a little like that, they’re fixed and in order to change them you have to unzip them, open the file and then bring them back into a format that is workable for making edits.
So as I mentioned, scientists used to believe that once these implicit memories are secured into place they could not be changed, but in the early 2000s they started to wonder – does memory really just consolidate and that’s it or does it ever open again for new learning? If it did open up, possibly through simply being activated, it would need to be reconsolidated to get secured back into place. So they began, starting with the assumption that reconsolidation maybe is a thing. Since the process of consolidation happens through protein synthesis then they should be able to interrupt the process through using a protein synthesis blocker, If indeed the memory did need to be reconsolidated after being triggered then a protein synthesis blocker would interrupt the reconsolidation and therefore disrupt the memory and actually that’s what they found.
They found that they could condition a mouse to fear a bell, so that’s implicit learning. They then would trigger that memory by sounding the bell, introduce the protein synthesis blocker and then thereby disrupt the mouse’s ability to reconsolidate the association between danger and bell and through doing that, through that chemical method, they found that the fear conditioning could actually be erased. The fact that it might be possible to change these memories is really good news. If you’re thinking it sounds kind of scary, like an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, kind of thing, it’s not like that at all. We’re not trying to change people’s autobiographical memory or their conscious recall of the events of their life. More what’s being targeted are the unconscious beliefs about the nature of reality and how we must respond that were gleaned through those experiences.
Now that we’ve had about 15 years of memory consolidation research under our belt, it’s pretty clear the sequence of experiences that the brain needs in order to activate memory reconsolidation without the help of chemical aids. First, you have to bring that memory into an open state. That is accomplished first by activating the memory by recalling the details and feeling the emotional experience of the memory. This is called a reactivation. The second step is to introduce an experience or information that proves the belief about reality held in that memory is incorrect.
Once that happens there’s about a five hour window where that memory becomes what is called “labile.” That means it’s open to being changed. If in that time-frame an additional experience comes that disconfirms – they call it “disconfirmation” or “error prediction,” and proves that that original perspective or belief about reality cannot be true. When that happens then that information is taken in and either completely changes or at least just updates and tweaks the original schema before it gets once again reconsolidated in a new implicit memory that more accurately maps to the reality of the present moment.
So to summarize, the two key ingredients are reactivation and disconfirmation and there’s all sort of deep experiential therapies that really help people transform their implicit beliefs whether or not they even think about this process in terms of memory reconsolidation. When we look at what is happening in a powerfully transformative session what you always find is both reactivation and disconfirmation.
For instance, forms of therapies where the client is guided to feel once again what it felt like to be young and to enter into that old reality and to feel it consciously, like, “I’m not safe if I share my feelings.” That would be reactivation and then the therapist is actively there, not judging their feelings making it safe to have their emotions and even calling their awareness to that new reality, like, “notice how is it though for me to be here with you and not judging you right now.” That would be a disconfirmation. In that moment, that schema that says, “if I have my feelings I’ll be judged so it isn’t safe” actually could get updated.
Another example are therapies that do inner child work where you visualize yourself at a certain age and really go in and ask “what is the view of reality that I learned at that age” and really making that view of reality conscious, that would be reactivation. Then perhaps the client
imagines going to that inner child and telling them their version of reality or just proving a different version of reality through being able to show up. So that that schema “I’m alone” or “I’m not lovable” can be erased.
So that would be activation and disconfirmation. When the brain vividly witnesses two realities, the reality from the schema and the reality of what’s actually happening in the moment and those realities cannot actually both be true at the same time it kind of freaks the brain out. It’s like an error message gets sent, but in a good way so the brain says “wait a second, I guess my predictive model is not doing such a great job predicting reality it may be time for me to update it.”
Now that’s not going to happen if that original model isn’t activated first that’s why these things have to have a felt or visceral component to them. If it’s just cognitive that isn’t enough or if we’re having all these kind of disconfirming experiences like “I don’t believe I’m valuable but I’m being valued by all these people,” it may not necessarily land on the original memory or the neural net that holds that memory unless we first activate that original net, really let it be felt and conscious.
Then as new information comes in if it feels like valid compelling information like through a lived experience or irrefutable proof then that can come in and actually work to change the original schema. So when a reorganization happens on that implicit level like that it produces
transformational change which is much more powerful than simply having to force ourselves into new behavioral habits, against the will of some deeper part of our mind that’s saying “don’t do that if you do that it’s going to lead to a bad outcome.” If we don’t address that original belief then it’s like we’re constantly fighting an uphill battle.
Now it’s Bruce Ecker (Coherence Therapy) who originally linked or noticed a link between what he calls transformational change and memory reconsolidation research so he started out just trying to understand transformational change which he did through videotaping his own sessions and reviewing hours of videotape of his work as well as clinical material from other people’s work. He wasn’t the only one doing this, Diana Fosha (AEDP), among others were really trying to study what actually produces change in sessions but he was the one to notice and outline a set of steps that were always present when the client had a therapeutic breakthrough and once he delineated those steps he noticed these are the same steps that happen in memory reconsolidation.
So this is a cutting edge paradigm shift within our field and I hope more research is done and more training is done in these methods because I have a prediction that we’re about to have a leap forward in terms of the effectiveness of psychotherapy which is really exciting and kind of about time. So if you’re wondering how to use these steps in your own therapy that I go over in the How to Get the Most Out of Therapy video, but before we end this video let me give the take-home point which is: while our deep early learnings, the ones that we developed during childhood and at that time perhaps protected us, but now cause us pain or at least stuckness, while it’s not so easy to change those, we now know they actually can be reliably changed as long as the steps of memory reconsolidation take place.
I don’t mean to make this sound like a magical fix or super easy. It does take work but if we have the principles in mind we can be more strategic about how we approach that work. Again, with the first step of really activating our implicit knowings, knowing what, in our heart of hearts, our brain really believes and letting that be fully conscious and felt and then second, having experiences that disconfirm or at least update that original view of reality so that our approach to reality can transform.
So how to buckle in and direct yourself toward the goal of transformation using memory reconsolidation will be the topic of the next video: Transformation: A Deeper Kind of Growth.
If you’d like to listen to a podcast with Bruce Ecker, you can check out this Therapist Uncensored’s episode:
For general information about Memory Reconsolidation, Coherence Therapy and Bruce Ecker:
If you’d like to read a detailed summary of memory reconsolidation research you can find it here: