False Memories and EMDR Therapy

In her TEDTalk, “The Fiction of Memory” (TEDGlobal 2013), Elizabeth Loftus discusses memory and in particular, false memories. She offers case examples of people who have been wrongly convicted by incidences of eyewitnesses having memories that were completely inaccurate. She explains the common misconception of memory as the following:

…Memory works like a recording device; you just record the information, then you call it up and then play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images…

She then clarifies the decades of research that offer a counterintuitive but accurate and updated definition of memory as:

…Our memories are constructive; they’re reconstructive, and our memories work more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, but so can other people…

She indicates further that because memories can be influenced later in life and can change, they also can be manipulated rather easily. She gives examples of how suggestive language can largely influence a person’s memory of the event they recently learned about.  Loftus goes even further to give examples of research where a given experience was planted in a person’s memory that never even occurred, and the participant is convinced it did.

I encourage you to check out this 17:36 minute video to gain a better understanding of her discussion:

So, how does memory and in particular false memories relate to EMDR Therapy? In many ways really, but for today lets just talk about two:

  1. Memory is malleable, and with EMDR Therapy we are helping a person to recognize that cognitions associated with the given memory may change as well.
  2. We can influence the outcome of therapy in many ways. There seems to be a responsibility to stay out of the way as well as allow the person to have permission to create a perspective on the memory, which is adaptive.

Awareness of the malleability of memories as clinicians can be freeing for us to allow the process to unfold and not worry about the accuracy of the given events of the past. Reminding a client of the tendency of memory towards inaccuracy can allow a client to stay unattached to one’s recollection. This allows for more seamless processing towards a more adaptive and positive belief.

Many clients can get stuck on, “but this is what happened”; yet in many cases the memory today has changed. For example, a given memory could be from childhood or one generated under great duress, or a client simply has a different perspective on the situation due to being older. Explaining this new conception of memory – as a Wikipedia page – can be a helpful way for a client to let go of the actual events that happened and free a client to the true work of shifting from a negative cognition to a positive cognition concerning the general idea of an event that happened in the past.

The second point speaks to the fragility of a memory – that a memory can be changed simply by offering suggestive language can be planted through a simple course of action.

This talk makes a strong case for the value of staying out of the process. With EMDR Therapy, there is intention on the part of the therapist to have the client process in an unhindered manner. In addition, we encourage the positive and give the client permission to let an adaptive cognition grow. In many ways, the idea of figuring out the truth of what happened is devalued and once someone lets go of that pursuit they are afforded the power to then allow for the construction of an adaptive cognition of a memory.

The value of the EMDR Therapy process is its ability to allow a person to desensitize to a given memory in a direct and unhindered manner. The memory of the trauma is more likely distorted in some manner and the greater distance from the memory, the often times more distorted the memory. Allowing a client to simply process this information once and for all is of course of great value. Then we can help the client to construct a new cognition regarding the memory. And indeed the actual memory of the events may change too. We are working towards change in cognition regarding a memory, and in many ways memory and belief are interrelated, and as such they will inevitably influence one another.

This post was written by guest blogger, Robert Bain, LCSW (Salt Lake City, Utah). 

Video and Image Source: “How Reliable is Your Memory” via TED.com