Understanding The Memory Type Called Episodic Memory
Episodic memory is the memory of past events and is most often related, at least consciously, to a client’s problem. If a client says, “Every time I have to speak in public, I become afraid,” then she is telling you about a set of past experiences or episodes in which the problem happened. The client is also implying that she expects the problem events to repeat themselves in the future. Most anxiety issues work like this. The anxious person is generating what is called a “future memory,” a memory of something that has not yet taken place.
Explaining how memory works to clients by sharing information about research that shows how malleable memory is and how it can be influenced by unconscious processing has had a strong impact on our work with them. The mechanics of memory formation will be covered more in depth later on, but we have learned through our work that you can immediately begin to shift the client’s expectations by saying something like:
“Your unconscious is constantly pulling from all of your past experiences to know how to act and react in the moment. For instance, if I was bitten by a dog when I was younger, the fear and trauma of that event leaves a red flag in my brain. Our brain is a survival machine, and when an experience carries a strong negative emotional charge, the brain says, ‘Remember this!’ So, the next time I encounter a dog, the fear kicks in because my brain wants me to be on high alert and either freeze, fight, or better yet, run like hell.
“So my brain triggers fear based on the red flag that the bite left. When I see another dog that senses my fear, and the dog growls, I get another dose of stress chemicals that reinforce the message that dogs are a threat. And the next time I see a dog, my brain knows that fear is the proper response. I don’t have to think about it; it’s automatic. My brain figures that it’s the proper response because it’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m still alive, so it’s a good strategy for survival.”
That’s how the brain works. It uses all the past examples of “dog equals danger” to create an unconscious, immediate reaction in the present. This stress response is responsible for keeping our species alive. Unfortunately, it is also responsible for many of the millions spent on therapy each year!
If a person who fears dogs changes some of these memories and experiences so that she remembers feeling comfortable and even confident with a dog in one memory and then affection in another, resourceful memories are added to the storehouse of memories that the unconscious has to draw from. Sometimes going into a relaxed state and imagining being saved by a Labrador, cuddling a puppy, or petting a pit bull goes a long way in influencing the amygdala.
Research says that whether people are remembering or imagining an event even a fantasy about the future—the exact same parts of the brain light up. On a neurological level it doesn’t matter to the brain whether it is accessing a real memory or one that’s made up. In fact, the brain doesn’t make the distinction between something that is strongly imagined and something that is actually taking place. It all adds to the choices of how to respond in the present moment.
This means that each time a client imagined a dog and was afraid, she reinforced the fear, but by having the client rehearse being comfortable or confident in the presence of a dog, her unconscious mind is given new options so that she will more likely have a neutral or even a positive response when next encountering a dog.
This is where a little explanation to a client goes a long way. We often generate new experiences in our clients during change work by changing the emotional impact of incidents, such as the example given about fear of dogs. Even though the client will be able to feel differently when imagining the triggers that had caused fear, a part of her is going to say, “Well, yeah; but that’s not how it really happened!” So a basic understanding of how “the brain doesn’t differentiate between the real and the created memories as far as our emotional reaction is concerned,” changes everything for the client. Then, when we do re-imprinting or the Change Personal History patterns described below, our client has a way of understanding the change work that adds to the expectation of change, which of course, adds to the effectiveness of the session. Neuroscience provides the best metaphors for change.
Because the people who come to us are fascinated by the unconscious mind, explanations like the one just given become the vehicles for our interventions. We give clients something to hang the change on, and when expectation and belief about the ability to change is increased, the work is already halfway done.