Of Mice and Memory Reconsolidation: They just don’t get it

pest_mice(By Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP)

I want to discuss how “off-target” the discussion is about the treatment of PTSD, as evidenced by a recent article in the digital version of The Atlantic titled: Changing Memories to Treat PTSD: A controversial area of brain research suggests it may be possible—but is it ethical?

The good news is that the article focuses on the relatively new concept of memory reconsolidation as a method to treat PTSD. As we know, energy psychology approaches may very well activate memory reconsolidation in a manner that enables healing. Unfortunately, the article goes in a very different direction. It focuses on a veteran from Afghanistan – Kevin Martin.

“ ‘My friends and I used to joke during our time in Afghanistan that we were going to take all the money we had and pay someone to Incept us,’ he says—referencing the film’s [Inception], premise of implanting or extracting information from a person’s mind as they sleep—‘so that we could put a cooler, not-as-bad memory of Afghanistan in our brains and go on with the rest of our lives.’ Thus far, no such treatment exists for Martin, 23, who returned to the U.S. in 2012 and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder earlier this year.”

Proceeding with this erroneous presupposition, we read briefly about the so-called current treatments for PTSD that are years behind what we know energy psychology can do. The article goes on to describe the idea that biological psychiatry is looking for a way to use drugs to reprogram memories so that they are not traumatic. While the article suggests that this might be hopeful and helpful, it brings up ethical concerns about manipulating memory with drugs. The article closes with this:

“I was at a conference not that long ago where the idea was brought up,” Reber says, “and it led to a lot of animated discussion: If you could edit your own memories, are there any memories you’d want to get rid of? If you have a memory of a painful event, do you lose some part of yourself if you get rid of it? Would that be worth the trade?”

Paul Reber is director of Northwestern University’s Brain, Behavior, and Cognition program. I hope he was quoted out of context. While this “quandary” is a fun discussion at a party, it has nothing to do with the reality of treating traumatic memories, at least not with energy psychology.

Missing from this article and many other discussions is a description of what a healed traumatic event looks like. Everyone has experienced some version of this. When a traumatic event occurs there is a great deal of negative emotion, and often very limited or negative thinking (Point A). (Think back to the horrible aspects of high school, or if you lost a loved one years ago). When people are healed or recovered (Point B), they still remember what happened. However, when the memory comes to mind, the person is not flooded with pain and fear. Furthermore, the meaning of that event is very different (usually far less negative and limiting) for the person in current time than when the event occurred.

A more “on target” question is: how do we help people move from point A to point B?  The answer is to transmute the negative affect. The use of a drug such as propranolol to block the body symptoms of fear is conceptually aligned with this goal. However, biological psychiatry fails to realize that the drug model should just be a starting point that is used to design more holistic approaches, rather than a model used to create more pills that usually mask symptoms rather than work with the body’s natural healing abilities, often with adverse effects.

Instead of focusing on medication, the treatment of PTSD would be far better served by therapy that maximizes naturally occurring memory reconsolidation, as in the work of Bruce Ecker, who presented a keynote address at the 2014 International Energy Psychology Conference, or the integration of energy psychology and Ecker’s work as described by David Feinstein, who also presented at the 2014 conference.

It would be helpful to the tens of thousands of veterans and others suffering from PTSD if the reporting community would stop repeating out-of-date information and start reporting that there is considerable research showing that there are effective treatments for PTSD, such as energy psychology.

Learn more about energy psychology

Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP
Author, Tools for Transforming Trauma
ACEP Executive Director




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