Reframing Reframe Your Brain: Memory Reconsolidation
Scott Adams’ Reframe Your Brain is, by all accounts, a useful book. In the spirit of “the purpose of science is to confirm the commonplace,” let’s shallowly dip our toes into neuroscience to find out why.
Adams opens his first chapter with the following:
What does it take to rewire a brain? Not much. You only need three things, and one of them is optional:
You can rewire brains fastest with an emotional turbocharge, but focusing on and repeating a reframe without emotion will also get you where you want to go eventually. Your brain builds new structures in response to whatever stimuli you’re pumping into it. Focus and repetition move an idea (or reframe) from conceptual to physical, meaning physical changes in your brain structure. Adding emotion can make the rewiring happen faster, but again, that part is optional.
This statement is in line with neuroscience. We’re just starting to understand how powerful reframes can be.
The first thing to note is that there is more than one kind of memory. The first can be described as explicit, declarative, episodic, conceptual, or autobiographical. This is the kind of memory you use to answer “Who are you? Where’d you grow up? What do you do?” etc. We employ these memories consciously, and articulate them easily.
The second kind of memory is implicit, accessed unconsciously, and difficult to articulate. One type of implicit memory is procedural: how to ride a bike or tie your shoes. Also implicit are emotional memories, which will be important below.
We have known for a while that declarative memories are unstable or labile. More specifically, when a memory is accessed, a brief window (one to five hours after recall) opens in which it can be updated with new information. This process of revision is called “memory reconsolidation.” We do it constantly. Since explicit memories are easily recalled by speech, it’s a straightforward matter to reconsolidate them by means of the focused repetition of reframes.
Adams notes that a simple reframe, “alcohol is poison,” has helped perhaps thousands of his readers and viewers to quit drinking, but cautions: “This reframe is not for alcoholics. Addiction is a different problem.” Addiction is a different problem because of implicit memory.
In contrast to explicit memory, implicit memories are notoriously sticky—“you never forget how to ride a bike”—so much so that until recently, researchers thought them indelible. Only in the late 90s were experiments conducted indicating that both procedural and emotional memories could be erased: rats injected with certain drugs one to five hours after completing a learned skill or experiencing a learned fear forgot the skill and fear, respectively.
Evidence that emotional memory may be erased or reconsolidated is a big deal. Emotional memory, as we said, is sticky, but it also tends to ramify. Some are simple enough—“spiders are scary”—but many form complex “schemas” that mold behavior, affect, and character, and may undergird addiction and what we regard as mental illness. Children form implicit emotional scripts that reflect, and help them fulfill, their role in the family. Some learn, for example, that they only get approval by means of accomplishment and perfectly executed activity. Others might come to believe that merciless suppression of their own preferences and feelings is the price of safety. It’s easy to imagine the damage such intuitions can do.
Fortunately, some clinical evidence suggests that emotional memories can be reconsolidated in humans, and without drugs. The process is almost the same as a reframe: the repeated, focused contradiction of a previous learning. The difference here is that emotion is not optional; because these memories are by nature emotional, they are not fully recalled without their emotional component. What’s more, this emotional component has at least three aspects: the intellectual, physiological, and motoric. This means that to recall an emotional intuition, you must be able to name what you feel, describe how it feels in your body, and specify what you want to do about it: “I feel angry, my arms feel strong and my face flushed, and I want to stamp on your toes.” It can take time to fully experience and articulate an emotional learning, but once you’re there, you can reframe it. With help, it seems you can reframe your way out of mental illness.
Here are the books and articles I relied on for this summary (links to the free articles):
Torres-Garcia et al., Reconsolidation after remembering an odor-reward association requires NMDA receptors
Bruce Ecker, Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation
Bruce Ecker, Depth Oriented Brief Therapy
Bruce Ecker, Memory Reconsolidation Understood and Misunderstood
Patricia Coughlin, Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy
R. Joseph, Neurophsychiatry, Neurophysiology, and Clinical Neuroscience: Emotion, Evolution, Cognition, Language, Memory, Brain Damage, and Abnormal Behavior