Nearly 90 years since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his classic The Great Gatsby, the new film version has given renewed currency to the novel’s famous final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” What’s afforded this passage such staying power is not only its haunting poetry, but the worldview it expresses—however hard we may try to reinvent ourselves, we’re doomed to remain captives of our pasts. Another celebrated author, William Faulkner, put it this way: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Eugene O’Neill penned these words: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”
Throughout its history, many in the field of psychotherapy have been similarly pessimistic about people’s ability to liberate themselves from the past. It can even be argued that most modern cognitive-behavioral approaches are based on the assumption that, at best, therapists can only incrementally create new emotional and behavioral habits that work around—but don’t actually transform—the deep-seated emotional programming that causes clients’ most visceral distress. This way of thinking, however, doesn’t reflect our current understanding of how memory functions, nor do the therapeutic approaches that aim simply to manage or circumvent entrenched emotions, beliefs, and behaviors rooted in painful past experiences.
While most neuroscientists once believed that implicit memories, avoidance reactions, and rigid schemas were locked permanently in the brain’s synaptic pathways, recent brain research shows that, under certain conditions and within a brief timeframe, we can not only unlock these neural pathways, but actually erase them and substitute new learning. What psychotherapy has added to the discoveries of the research lab is a range of experiential methods that make it possible for therapists to help clients move on from the past, allowing it to release its terrible grip on the present.
This type of swift, deep, enduring change—popularly known as the clinical breakthrough—has occurred in a wide range of relatively new “deep change” approaches, all of which have a strong experiential component: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Somatic Experiencing, Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy, Coherence Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Hakomi, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming, to name just a few. Of course, therapists have used all sorts of metaphors and theoretical concepts to describe breakthroughs since the emergence of our field. The difference today is that through understanding what’s happening in the brain, we can unshroud the mystery of what’s happening in the consulting room and make such breakthroughs happen far more regularly in our offices.
Locked and Unlocked Emotional Learnings
Therapeutic breakthroughs don’t come easily for good reason. As relatively puny, hairless, vulnerable creatures in a world of stronger, more aggressive predators, we’ve evolved to favor false positives—reacting to learned signs of danger even in the absence of actual danger—over false negatives—ignoring potential threats. Since before our oldest hominid ancestors walked the earth, our nervous systems were biologically wired to keep fully alive the memory circuits of learned threat and danger for the duration of our lives, guaranteeing that we won’t ignore cues to potentially perilous situations that could threaten our survival. From this perspective, the staying power of intense, distressing emotional arousal isn’t a sign of dysfunction—quite the opposite. The fact that raw feelings of fear and rage can be retriggered by implicit cues learned in the past for alerting us to threats, even if the threat is no longer present, indicates that the emotional brain is functioning properly.
The hidden workings of emotional memory are greatly clarified by recognizing that memories of events are different from the learnings based on those events. Each of these memory types is stored in its own separate network in the brain. Consider perfectionism as an example of an emotional learning that therapists frequently encounter. Some clients describe clear memories of original experiences in which being imperfect on their part incurred intense shaming or rejection, but they have no awareness of the resulting implicit learning that has since ruled their responses in life—that it’s urgent to be perfect to avoid such suffering. In contrast, other clients are aware of their learned expectation that imperfection is too dangerous to risk, but even when that expectation is triggered, they have no memory of the original life experiences in which that learning formed.
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