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Can You Rewire Your Brain to Change Bad Habits, Thoughts, and Feelings?

Advances in psychology offer hope.

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This example shows us that the original, concrete experiences and the learning formed from those experiences are the stuff of two different and separate kinds of memory. The first is episodic memory, or the memory of events that makes up our autobiographical narratives. The second is emotional implicit memory, or nonverbal memory of learned models of how the world functions. Obviously, the cause of the perfectionism is the existence of the emotional learning—the core belief that any imperfection brings rejection so I’ve got to be perfect—and not the episodic memory of original events. For this reason, emotional learnings are the target for the erasure process using new neuroscience. Memory of events is unaffected by that erasure. In other words, after erasure, clients remember what happened in their lives, but become free of their learning-driven emotional reactions.

Even highly competent, mature people who are rational in most areas of life can be suddenly undone when a current circumstance—often perfectly innocuous in itself—triggers an ultradurable emotional learning from the past that’s still tightly enmeshed in their neural wiring. Once the implicit memory is triggered, they’re seized by an emotional state that has a life all its own, with no cognitive awareness of why such a reaction is happening. It could be self-criticism or volcanic rage, numbness or raw panic, underachieving or inconsolable sorrow. Regardless, one’s calm, cognitively evolved state of mind is no match for such a flare-up from the emotional implicit memory system.

It should be obvious, then, why it’s so hard to triumph over old conditioning. In a very real way, we’re going up against nature. Since 19th-century Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s day, even lab studies of the extinction of implicit learnings never achieved erasure, only temporary suppression. It’s no wonder that, until recently, brain researchers believed that the main problem in overcoming old conditioning was that the brain lacked any mechanism for actually erasing negative emotional learnings. The neural circuits of such learnings were known to be held together by ultradurable synapses that were believed to be immutable for the lifetime of the individual, whether animal or human.

Nature, however, turns out to be more ingenious than that. The brain does come equipped with a key to those locked synapses—and we have the resilience to become radically free of our early emotional learnings. This key became evident in 1997, when several labs began publishing reports of a brain process that hadn’t been recognized before. This process turns off a learned emotional response at its roots, not by merely suppressing it—as in a behavioral-extinction procedure—but by actually unlocking the neural connections holding it in place and then erasing it within the nervous system. Brain researchers named this process memory reconsolidation, and went on to demonstrate how it works in nematodes, snails, sea slugs, fish, crabs, honeybees, chicks, mice, rats, and humans. Remarkably, what the brain requires to unlock and erase a particular learning follows the same three-step process in all those species: reactivating the emotional response, unlocking the synapses maintaining it, and then creating new learning that unlearns, rewrites, and replaces the unlocked target learning.

What induces the brain to use its built-in key to unlock synapses in this process? The answer was discovered in 2004 by researchers who experimented with, of all things, a group of crabs, whose clearly visible fear responses to predators made them superbly suitable subjects. Héctor Maldonado’s lab in Argentina placed crabs in a test area into which the moving image of a predator was introduced repeatedly. Needless to say, this seemingly near-death experience conditioned an extreme fear response in the crabs. Then one subgroup was placed in the test area one at a time, but the predator image wasn’t introduced, and each crab in this group was simply returned to its safe cage. Crabs in another subgroup were placed back in the test area, but saw the predator coming as usual. Put another way, while one subgroup of crabs simply experienced the familiar “bad” event in the test area, the other group experienced a counterevent that created a sharp, powerful mismatch between learned expectations (“This is where the predator shows up!”) and reality (“Hey, the predator didn’t show up!”).

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