Mike Reeves-McMillan, MA – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 Climbing Through the Window – How to Heal Past Trauma http://brainblogger.com/2010/07/18/climbing-through-the-window/ http://brainblogger.com/2010/07/18/climbing-through-the-window/#comments Sun, 18 Jul 2010 12:00:13 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=5088 Especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, more and more people are becoming aware of the debilitating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not only war, but natural disaster or a personal trauma such as a sexual assault or a severe accident can also cause PTSD.

Memories tied to strong emotion are naturally more vivid. This is a survival mechanism — strong emotions are associated with important situations, so it is naturally more important to remember those situations in order to avoid them in future (or seek them out, in the case of strong positive emotions).

But what appears to happen in PTSD is that a memory is associated with an emotion so strong that, unlike normal memories, it doesn’t slowly fade. Instead, it’s repeatedly triggered by anything that reminds you of the original situation — and both the memory and the emotion come back full force, over and over again.

A recent study in Nature discusses a potential way to overcome PTSD using the “window of opportunity” that’s created by recalling the memory. It appears that memories are like shirts: when you take them out, you unfold them, and when you put them back in the drawer, you refold them slightly differently. This process is referred to as “reconsolidation.”

Taking a memory-erasing drug just after recalling a memory can prevent it from being recalled again — as if you took the shirt out and tossed it away, and it never made it back into the drawer. But these drugs have unpredictable and sometimes unfortunate results in the complex human mind. Could there be an alternative that works without the drug?

It turns out that there could be. The Nature paper describes a preliminary attempt using a conditioned response to an electric shock. The experimenters found, as expected, that if they associated a visual stimulus (a colored square) with a mild electric shock, the experimental participants would react with measurable tension to the reappearance of the square, even if the shock did not accompany it.

However, if they repeated the reappearance of the square without the shock a number of times during the “window of opportunity” that the reconsolidation process opens up — between three minutes and a few hours after the initial restimulus — the reaction was extinguished, and did not reappear at testing one day and one year afterwards. Doing the extinction training six hours afterwards instead of a few minutes, or not doing it at all, left the conditioning in place both in the short-term and after a year.

While this is a long way from being a cure for PTSD, it does suggest some directions. It also provides a mechanism and rationale for a hypnotherapy technique developed by Andrew Newton, which I was fortunate enough to learn from him.

This technique begins by establishing the spatial directions that the client associates with the past and the future, which differ from person to person. The client then imagines a vividly coloured photograph of the traumatic event, approaching from the “past” direction.

Over several minutes, the client imagines the color fading out of the photograph and leaving it as a black-and-white or sepia image, faded by the sun. The client then imagines screwing up the photograph and throwing it away in the “past” direction.

If possible, a vivid positive image, contrasting with the traumatic event, should then be introduced, for the client to imagine as coming from the “future” direction. This image is allowed to remain colorful and clear.

By taking advantage of the “window of opportunity” for detaching a memory from its associated emotion, this technique and others like it are able to allow the memory to continue to exist — important for avoiding similar situations in the future — without the previous distressing emotional effects.


Schiller, D., Monfils, M., Raio, C., Johnson, D., LeDoux, J., & Phelps, E. (2009). Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms Nature, 463 (7277), 49-53 DOI: 10.1038/nature08637

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Conditioned Response – An Alternative to Antidepressant Drugs? http://brainblogger.com/2008/12/05/conditioned-response-an-alternative-to-antidepressant-drugs/ http://brainblogger.com/2008/12/05/conditioned-response-an-alternative-to-antidepressant-drugs/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2008 14:15:37 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=1817 Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel and colleagues published an article in Neuron titled An Animal Model of a Behavioral Intervention for Depression. Using mice, they investigated the mechanisms of “learned safety” and its antidepressant effect.

“Learned safety” is created in mice using classical conditioning. By playing a tone only when the mice were safe from an electric shock, the team taught them to associate the tone with safety. They were then able to achieve an effect comparable to giving the mice antidepressant drugs by playing the tone while the mice were undergoing stress.

HappinessKandel comments, “Learning involves alterations in the brain and gene expression. Psychotherapy is only a form of learning.” So this experiment has implications for psychological interventions in which humans learn to activate their own antidepressant capabilities in the context of therapy.

There is a simple technique, again using classical conditioning, which is widely used to achieve this kind of effect. It’s known as “anchoring,” and it works like this.

Sit quietly and relax, and summon up a vivid memory of a positive situation which you associate with feelings of safety, security and happiness (or any other feelings that you want to be able to access readily — it could be confidence and competence, for example, or calm and peace). If you don’t have such a memory or prefer to use an imaginary scene, create a mental model of a situation in which you would naturally feel those feelings. Make the experience as vivid as possible, using all the senses.

Now gently press your thumb on one hand to a finger of the same hand. This associates the finger press to the positive feelings.

You may need to practice a few times to create a really strong association, but soon you will be able to summon up the positive feelings when you need to simply by using the finger press signal, just as the mice automatically changed their mental state when they heard the tone that they had learned meant safety.

For severe depression, drug interventions may still be needed. But using this simple technique, you can increase your control over your own normal moods and respond to life more positively, calmly and effectively.


D POLLAK, F MONJE, L ZUCKERMAN, C DENNY, M DREW, E KANDEL (2008). An Animal Model of a Behavioral Intervention for Depression Neuron, 60 (1), 149-161 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.07.041

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