Memory Reconsolidation: Definition, Theory & Example

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Memory reconsolidation allows therapists to access traumatic, emotionally-coded memories, and provides a way to recode those memories. In this lesson, we'll discuss the definition and theory, then we'll walk through an example.

What Is Memory Reconsolidation?

Bill can still remember it like it was yesterday. When he opens that 'door' in his mind (or is pushed through by some random association), he finds himself living it all again. He watches his baby girl turn her bicycle toward the street. He sees the bus. He sees himself trying to run, trying to intervene in what he knows will soon be a horrible tragedy. It happens again and again. His emotions take a nosedive, and depression sets in. Why should life matter when such a terrible event has occurred, an event that he is helpless to change?

Bill's memory of the day when his daughter was killed is locked in a neural matrix of associated emotions and stresses that have created what psychologists call a 'consolidated' memory. He can't ignore them, and they cause emotional impact every time they're accessed. Memory reconsolidation is a fairly new process of unlocking, recoding and reorganizing the information in a memory, which allows the mind to form a more healthy version of the memory. So instead of trying to control his depression or carefully avoid the memories, Bill can undergo memory reconsolidation to be relieved from the emotional domination altogether.

Theory of Memory Reconsolidation

Memory is primarily stored in the cerebral cortex, that wrinkled blanket of neural webs that covers the surface of your brain. The nerve cells have numerous connections to each other, complete with chemical on/off switches to tell them when to pass on information. When an experience is emotionally charged, it can instantly be coded into your memory at multiple levels, sort of like when high heat and pressure form a diamond out of carbon. The intensity of the experience causes your brain to oversupply nutrients and enhancement codes, creating a vivid, lifetime memory.

Once the memory is there, it's hard to change. All of the emotions that were encoded by stress into that memory are now part of you. So any time you access that memory, you also experience the emotions. As you can imagine, this effect can be quite crippling. The theory behind reconsolidation is that there are triggers capable of accessing the 'diamond' (or intense memory), reopening the center that has all of those emotions tied up in it, and recoding the memory to release your mind from the emotional stranglehold.

The Process

Since emotional trauma is usually experienced at the subconscious level, memory reconsolidation aims to move the remembered experiences to your conscious thought where you can recognize and work with those memories.

Step 1: Activate the memories. Verbalize the feelings, bringing them to the surface of your mind. A memory can't be recoded until it's no longer buried in your subconscious. Once you see the 'monster' for what it is, then you're in a position to work on it.

Step 2: Introduce a difference emotional model that contradicts the brain's original assumptions. Since the codes attached to the trauma don't really make sense in normal life, you can begin to realize that the emotions don't fit and aren't helpful. Your mind starts the sorting process, consciously deciding not to retain the hidden emotional codes.

Step 3: Create experiences that erase or revise the original emotional picture, producing a more effective memory model. As you embrace the new model, the emotional effects of the old memory pattern begin to disappear, leaving you free of the previous burden.

Of course, it sounds much simpler than it is. Therapists starts with almost no information about you, and must first identify symptoms and find a vivid, powerful counter-experience to use as the training tool. If it's done well, you should eventually be free of all emotional entanglements previously associated with the troubling memory.

An Example

Bill went to a Janice, a clinical psychologist, hoping to get some help with his consistent depressive cycles. Janice suggested that they try to reconsolidate the memory of his daughter's death.

The first step was to identify the symptoms. While listening to Bill's conversation, Janice heard him use phrases like ''What right do I have to be happy?'' She began to see a pattern of regret, anguish, and self-loathing that had formed because of Bill's traumatic experience.

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