This post was originally published in Neuropsychotherapist magazine January 2015 and written by Bruce Ecker,
Coherence Psychology Institute
Misconception 6: What Is Erased in Therapy Is the Negative Emotion That Became Associated With Certain Event Memories, and This Negative Emotion Is Erased by Inducing Positive or Neutral Emotional Responses to Replace It.
As the clinical example in the previous section shows, what is erased through the memory reconsolidation process is a specific, learned schema or model or template of reality, verbalized in the example as “I’ll never marry or have children, so my life as a woman is ruined.” That schema was the target for erasure, and the mismatch that deconsolidated and then nullified it consisted of experiencing a sharp disconfirmation of that specific schema. With dissolution of the schema, the negative emotions that it was generating (despair, grief, and depression) disappeared, though those emotions were not themselves the target for mismatch or erasure, and the mismatch did not consist of creating a positive or neutral emotion instead of despair and depression. Notice also that the client’s negative emotion was arising directly from her existing model of the rest of her life, not from episodic memory (event memory) of the traumatic pregnancy and miscarriage.
In other words, the traumatic experience resulted in her model (which is semantic memory), and that model in turn generated and maintained her emotional symptoms. Erasure of that model caused no loss of autobiographical memory. Therapy clients’ unwanted symptoms and problems are of course not limited to negative emotions, but can also be behaviors, thoughts, dissociated states, somatic sensations or conditions, or any combination of these.
In any case, the target for erasure is not the manifested symptom or problem. The target is the learned implicit schema or semantic structure that underlies and drives production of the symptom. Erasure occurs when the target schema is activated as a conscious, explicit experience and is directly disconfirmed by a concurrent, vivid experience of contradictory knowledge.
In other words, erasure does not occur simply through evoking a non-symptomatic state when normally the symptom would be occurring (with one important exception, discussed at the end of this section). The occurrence of a symptom does not in itself bring the underlying, symptom-generating schema into conscious, foreground awareness, as is necessary for guiding the erasure process in therapy, so methods for evoking a non-symptomatic state are not likely to disconfirm the underlying schema. The woman in our example might arrive at a session in a depressed mood, and there are techniques of somatic therapy, positive psychology, or mindfulness practice that could be used to shift her into a depression-free sense of well-being.
However, that would not disconfirm and dissolve the underlying implicit schema maintaining her depression, “I’ll never marry or have children, so my life as a woman is ruined.” Her depression would therefore recur. An example of the misconception that negative emotion is erased by inducing positive or neutral emotion is the view of Lane et al. (in press) that “changing emotion with emotion” characterizes how the system of psychotherapy known as emotion-focused therapy carries out reconsolidation and erasure. Rather, “changing old model with new model” is the core phenomenology of erasure through reconsolidation in any system of therapy.
Emotions then change as a derivative effect of change in semantic structures (models, rules, and attributed meanings), just as in our example the client’s depression disappeared as a direct result of dissolution of her target schema. In therapy, mismatch consists of, and erasure results from, a direct, unmistakable perception that reality is fundamentally different from what one currently knows and expects reality to be. There is one important exception to the rule that lasting change does not result from evoking a non-symptomatic state when normally the symptom would be occurring. The exception is target learnings that consist of a learned expectation of having a strongly problematic response in a particular kind of situation. Perhaps the most common instance of this is the “fear of fear” that typically accompanies or even largely maintains phobias.
In such cases there is a primary learned fear, such as a terror of bees stemming from a traumatic experience of being attacked by a swarm of bees in childhood, as well as a secondary learned, fearful expectation of suffering intense fear if a bee appears.
The primary learning is the fearful expectation of being painfully stung by bees; the secondary learning is the fearful expectation of feeling terrorized by any bee.
That secondary fear of fear is often the major force maintaining a phobia. The expectation of feeling intense fear if a bee appears can be mismatched, disconfirmed, nullified and erased by using techniques that allow the person to encounter a bee in photos or imagination without feeling any fear. The absence of the expected terror is the mismatch experience. Clinically such techniques are found to dispel longstanding phobias abruptly and permanently (see, e.g., Gray & Liotta, 2012). However, guiding a therapy client into a neutral or positive emotion instead of the usual problematic emotion brings about lasting change only when the problematic emotion arises from a learned expectation of experiencing the problematic emotion, as in fear of fear. This is a special case that does not apply in the great majority of clinical cases.