Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s own mechanism for creating transformational change. It is not dependent on any therapy model. Rather, any therapy approach that produces transformational change is dependent on triggering this brain mechanism.
You can read more about memory reconsolidation here. Yet for this article, it is important to know how the brain overwrites trauma response. Trauma response refers to any belief, meaning or autonomic response that helped the person get through at the time.
In the lens of memory reconsolidation, we refer to this as the target learning. It is so-called because once this learning is gone, the client easily gets the change they want. You can read of one way to identify the target learning here.
If these responses are now a problem in the client’s life, we need to bring this learning into explicit awareness and help the client to experience a mismatch. A mismatch occurs when the client experiences something that exposes a prediction error in their old response.
For instance, a response that involves an autonomic spike into fight or flight is a prediction that we soon need to flee or fight off a predator. A belief about how others will treat us is a prediction about how the world works. When the client experiences a mismatch, it exposes a prediction error.
We then help the client hold both experiences at once – the old prediction and the mismatch. This causes a sense of anomaly as both cannot be true.
When this holding of both at the same time is repeated, the brain updates the trauma response pathway. The result is transformation. The response is gone permanently. No effort is needed to maintain the change.
But how can we help clients have these mismatch experiences?
In this post, I will show you three sources of mismatch material that you can use to help your clients experience anomalies that result in transformational change.
I will cover:
- current knowledge
- new life experiences
- imaginal experiences
The client will often hold knowledge and information that, if consciously paired with the old prediction, would create a mismatch experience.
Exception questions of the kind used in Solution Focused Therapy and Narrative Therapy are good devices to identify this kind of information.
Imagine a client, Max, who never takes credit for the things he achieves in life. During therapy, it becomes clear that his target learning is:
If I dare to feel proud of myself, I’ll be taken down a peg or two and so be worse than when I started. So I hide my achievements and abilities so people don’t notice them.
This comes from childhood experiences. Expressing delight in his own skills or achievements was generally met with a hostile and disparaging response from a parent.
An exception question might be:
Therapist: Tell me about a time when your abilities did become visible yet you got a positive response.
This invites Max to notice those moments when the target learning was not true. Usually, the client can find such instances.
Client: “I remember last year, I was working on a project with my boss. She was really pleased with the work I did and called me in to tell me so. She said it was high-quality work and that she wanted me to know how much it was appreciated and valued.”
We now have a real-life experience that disconfirms the target learning.
Other forms of current knowledge emerge in ‘parts work’. Many therapy approaches use parts or ego states in order to bring out contradictory knowledge. Internal Family Systems uses parts. Here, the different, often contradictory aspects of the client’s knowings are each given voice.
Similarly, Transactional Analysis uses the ego states of Parent, Adult and Child to explore different knowings held by each ego state.
This allows the client to be in a position of: I know this but I also know that.
At other times, the client’s own inner radar will spot a discrepancy and self contradict. Be alert to those times when a client starts a sentence only to interrupt themself and state the opposite.
Client: The thing is I’m the kind of person who is rubbish in social situations… well no that’s not the case, I meet a lot of new people and I do pretty well.
In this moment we see the old belief expressed, followed immediately by an assertion of the actual evidence. Within this sentence, there is enough mismatch material to create lasting change.
New Life Experiences
Clients leave our sessions and live their lives. In this living, they will potentially have new life experiences that contradict their old learning.
During sessions, the client may spontaneously reveal something from life that the therapist notices is a potential mismatch.
Here is Max, the client from earlier, who believes that people noticing his abilities will result in a negative outcome.
At the start of the session, he describes a soccer tournament from his week.
Client: It was a good day. We were winning and then in the last minute, their forward was right through. He slotted it past our keeper and I managed to get back and clear it off the line. When the final whistle went everyone dived on me cheering.
In this anecdote, he has described a moment where his abilities were seen and he got a good outcome. An alert therapist can then use this to set up the mismatch experience.
Other ways to create prediction error experiences come from imaginal work.
This can involve revisiting old or recent events and guiding the client to reimagine it entirely in their favour.
The scene will typically begin as it initially did, but then change to give the client exactly what they need. The nervous system notices the original scene and makes a prediction of what happens next. Yet as the scene is reimagined experientially, the prediction is broken.
The Rewind Technique also uses this approach of breaking the prediction of the autonomic nervous system.
Likewise, imaginal work can create future experiences too. The Four Way Processing Work of Goran Hogberg, for instance, invites the client to imagine future imaginings where everything goes well.
For one example of imaginal work, check out my 4 step roadmap here. Notice that this is only one way of doing imaginal work.
When looking at any specific technique, remember that memory reconsolidation is a destination, not a model. It is not necessary to follow any particular technique to give the brain what it needs in order to create transformation.
Memory reconsolidation creates transformational, permanent change. It overwrites the old trauma responses and emotional learnings.
It requires the repetition of a mismatch experience. This experience is one that exposes the error of the old prediction.
In this article we have seen 3 sources of mismatch:
- Current knowledge
- New life experiences
- Imaginal experiences
Knowing these different ways to generate mismatch information helps you become versatile. When one route seems blocked, you can pivot to one of the others.
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