Memory Reconsolidation Understood and Misunderstood
from the NeuroPsychotherapist January 2015
by Bruce Ecker
Coherence Psychology Institute
Misconception 7: The Much Older Concept of Corrective Emotional Experience Already Covers Everything Now Being Described as Reconsolidation and Erasure
The familiar concept of the corrective emotional experience, introduced by Alexander & French (1946), denotes a therapy client’s experiencing of something that was needed in earlier stages of development for well-being or healthy development but was missing: some new experience that could significantly undo and repair the effects produced by harmful experiences in the past. Most often this concept is applied in attachment-focused therapies, where it is typically understood as implying that the therapist’s empathy and nonjudgmental acceptance can create corrective emotional experiences of interpersonal relationship that repair early interpersonal traumas and the patterns of insecure attachment learned in those ordeals. What, then, is the relationship between the concept of the corrective emotional experience as it is widely understood, and the process of profound unlearning through memory reconsolidation? Are they the same, or are there significant differences? Is the reconsolidation framework just old wine in a new bottle? To answer that question, we have to translate it into more specific terms: Does the guiding of a corrective emotional experience automatically and inherently include the creation of the juxtaposition (mismatch) experience that is required for erasure through memory reconsolidation?
The answer to that question is no: corrective emotional experiences do not necessarily include juxtaposition experiences.
In a juxtaposition experience, the client lucidly experiences both the problematic original learning or schema and a contradictory, disconfirming new learning in the same field of awareness—not just the desired new experience by itself. In widespread clinical practice, corrective emotional experiences often consist of the desired new experience by itself. Both therapists and clients are prone to what I have described as a counteractive tendency or reflex (Ecker, 2006, 2008; Ecker et al., 2012), an urge to avoid and suppress unwanted states of mind by building up preferred states of mind. Corrective emotional experiences are all too easily shaped by the counteractive tendency: the client’s attention is fully engaged in the desirable new experience and disengaged or dissociated from the unwanted reaction or ego-state and its core schema. This disconnection from the problematic target schema during a corrective emotional experience is the very opposite of the explicit, foreground, experiential awareness of that schema that is needed for reliably guiding juxtaposition and transformational change.
Corrective emotional experiences structured in that counteractive, one-sided manner can feel deeply meaningful and satisfying in the moment, but they cannot result in lasting change if the core schema underlying the problem remains intact, as it does if it is not being subjected to a juxtaposition that dissolves it. In short, as widely carried out by clinicians, a corrective emotional experience might supply the material for one side of a potential juxtaposition experience but does not inherently access and reactivate the other side—the emotional learning underlying the problem—to actually create the juxtaposition.
On the other hand, if we regard juxtaposition experiences to be the true corrective emotional experiences, then we have a definition that does inherently call for all of the ingredients needed for inducing memory reconsolidation and a lasting transformation of the emotional learning maintaining unwanted emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and somatics. A therapist who understands that reconsolidation and transformational change require juxtaposition guides a one-sided corrective emotional experience into becoming a two-sided juxtaposition experience by eliciting concurrent, direct awareness of the problematic learning that is thereby disconfirmed by the desired new experience. For example, a client accidentally knocks over a small clock in the therapist’s office and apologizes anxiously and profusely. The therapist says with a relaxed, warm smile, “It’s really OK. To me that’s a very small thing and not a problem at all. Little accidents like that happen for all of us, including me. Can you see that I’m not at all upset?”
The client takes this in and feels much relieved to recognize that with the therapist he is safe from negative judgments, anger, humiliation, or rejection over such things. Probably most therapists would regard that as a corrective emotional experience for this person. However, if the insecure attachment learnings underlying the client’s fearful apology have not yet been made conscious and explicit, this new experience is not being juxtaposed with those learnings, so transformational change is not occurring. In order for that positive new experience to help bring about transformational change, the therapist has to guide the client into experiential, embodied awareness and verbalization of the underlying target learning, such as, “Mom’s rage and disgust at me for any accident or mistake mean I’m worthless if do anything wrong, and I expect anyone else to react to me that way too.” Then the therapist guides a juxtaposition experience, for example by saying empathically, “All along you’re expecting that anyone would go into rage and disgust at you for any little thing you do wrong, just as Mom did so many times, and yet here you’re having an experience of me feeling it’s really no big deal at all that you accidentally knocked over this little clock. Can you hold both of those at once, and see what that feels like?” That explicit, experiential juxtaposition gives the new experience its maximum influence toward actual unlearning and dissolution of the target learning. New experiences that can disconfirm and dissolve existing problematic schemas arise not only in the form of the therapist’s responses, but also in the course of the client’s daily life, and these are fully as useful for juxtaposition as the client’s experience of the therapist. (For a detailed case example, see Ecker et al., 2012, pp. 43–61.) As a final comment on this topic of how the reconsolidation framework illuminates the concept of corrective emotional experiences, the drawbacks of the term “corrective” are worth noting. The term implies that the client’s existing learnings and responses, formed in earlier life experiences, are “incorrect.”
However, when we bring these existing learnings into awareness and verbalization in therapy, making their content explicit, it always becomes apparent that the client’s implicit emotional learning system did its job faithfully and properly in (a) forming those learnings adaptively in response to what was subjectively experienced, and (b) maintaining and utilizing those learnings ever since they were formed until the present day, however many decades that may be. Emotional implicit learnings are specially formed so as not to fade out for the life of the individual, as noted earlier. To describe a therapy client’s core beliefs or schemas as incorrect, maladaptive or pathogenic is actually to accuse the process of natural selection of having those attributes, because a person’s persistent beliefs and schemas exist due to the proper functioning—not the malfunctioning—of the emotional brain.