Memory Reconsolidation: A New Metaphor For NLP Work
Dr Richard Bolstad
Part A: What Memory Is And Is Not
Memory is a change in any system as a result of an experience. If you bend a piece of metal and then straighten it again, the metal is not the same - it carries the "memory" of the event. In a more complex way, our nervous system records changes as a result of the events we experience. For us as humans, memory is our delight and our terror, the source of our happiest reminiscences and our worst nightmares. To live without it (as in Alzheimers disease) is frequently viewed as a fate worse than death. And once we understand its original design, we can far more effectively use it to remember what we want to remember, and to forget what we want to forget. But memory was never designed to do what most of us try to use it for: to identify which things "really happened" at some time in the past.
In this essay I will:
A) explain in more detail what memory is and is not.
Then I will discuss four key ways to use this knowledge to create a more satisfactory life:
B) Changing the emotional response we have to particular memories
C) Remembering large amounts of new factual information reliably
D) Planning for future events more effectively
E) Recovering from physical health issues which are partially recreated by memory
What Memory Is, In The Human Brain
In an animal such as a human being, the brain and nervous system, made up of billions of nerve cells, glial cells and other specialised cells, coordinate actions across the organism. To do this, these cells need to show history-dependent behaviour by responding differently as a function of their previous input, and this "plasticity" (changeability) of nerve cells and their synapses especially is what we usually call memory. Memories, then, are changes in the nervous system's functioning which enable an animal to effectively respond to current events, based on what has been learned from past events. These changes in functioning (learnings) are only incidentally related to the structure of the real previous events which they were initiated in response to, and the idea that these changes somehow represent a faithful recording of those events is a human pretention.
So what actually changes when a memory is created? Well, firstly, there are simple changes at the synapses where nerve cells registering an event are activated, including increases in neurotransmitter release, and these changes may last for seconds or minutes. Secondly, long-lasting memory depends on wider scale changes such as the physical growth of new nerve cell connections (dendrites), and increases in the number of synaptic connections on those cells. These changes happen wherever the event was registered in the brain and body. In the outside areas of the brain (the cerebral cortex) the changes occur in the specialized areas where the sensory system data is processed (eg the visual area at the back of the brain, the somatosensory or kinesthetic area at the top of the brain, the auditory areas on the sides of the brain, and the specialized verbal or auditory digital areas mainly developed on the dominant side of the brain. These changes are all connected together based on the principle that "neurons which fire together, wire together". Otherwise there would be no memory, because each separate change would be encoded separately, so that, for example, a red square would trigger a bigger response when seen again, but there would be no way for the brain to know what the red square was related to and therefore what to do about it (Squire and Peller, 2000).
These sensory areas of the brain, altered by a memory event, are also connected to two other important areas where there are memory changes. Firstly, in certain types of memory, there are changes in the frontal areas of the brain, and when these frontal areas are changed as part of the memory, then conscious awareness of the memory tends to be reported (the links between the frontal cortex and the sensory cortex areas are especially damaged in Alzheimer's disease causing a loss in conscious memory). Secondly, and even more importantly, there are changes in the limbic system in the centre of the brain. This is an area associated with emotional responses and with identification of spatial and temporal coordinates (so it records the emotion associated with the memory, and the place and time of the memory event). To be exact, inside the limbic area, the amygdala records the emotional valence (how important it is either positively or negatively - so the amygdala responds especially to things that generate fear, anger, sexual desire, hunger etc), and the hippocampus records the spatio-temporal coordinates.
The hippocampus is so central to the initial structuring of each memory that if the hippocampus is damaged, new memories are unable to be laid down, even though memories in the distant past may well be intact (Squire and Paller, 2000). Initially, as a person stores a new memory, the hippocampus is the site at which many of the changes occur. It is a kind of a buffer zone where new memories can be temporarily stored until the brain transfers them safely to long term memory sites. Researchers Bjorn Rasch and Jan Born explain that the transfer of memories out of the Hippocampus serves an important function. The hippocampus operates as a short term buffer area and if memories were immediately transferred to other destinations new memories might run the risk of overwriting earlier memories (Rasch and Born, 2013). Over the first 7 or so days after the event, the memory is primarily stored in changes in the hippocampus, but over the next few weeks it is "consolidated", and "storage" of these changes is transferred more widely to other brain areas such as the sensory cortex and even to the cerebellum. the cerebellum is the lower brain, which eventually stores behavioural sequences such as walking and dancing, so that these remain intact even if the original sites of these memories in the sensory cortex are damaged by Alzheimers or another condition.
Sleep seems to be an important factor allowing for full consolidation of at least some memories. Bjorn Rasch and Jan Born say "Specifically, newer findings characterize sleep as a brain state optimizing memory consolidation, in opposition to the waking brain being optimized for encoding of memories. Consolidation originates from reactivation of recently encoded neuronal memory representations, which occur during SWS [Slow Wave Sleep] and transform respective representations for integration into long-term memory. Ensuing REM [Rapid Eye Movement - i.e. dreaming] sleep may stabilize transformed memories." (Rasch and Born, 2013).
The amygdala not only gives emotional significance to a memory, it also signals the brain about the required strength of the memory structure (telling the brain to store more important memories more vividly) and it determines whether an emotional response is strong enough to overide frontal (conscious) decisionmaking. With a damaged amygdala, a person tends to engage in more unsafe behaviour and to be unable to assess the seriousness of danger, hunger etc. Damage to the amygdala due to drugs such as alcohol leads to faulty decision-making by heavy users of those drugs, and, by contrast, the stress of PTSD and other over-activations of the panic system lead to physical hypertrophy (overdevelopment) of the amygdala, making the person overly cautious or "phobic" and "paranoid".
Reconsolidation of Memories
Each time you "think about" a memory, what you do is activate the same neural network as when you first experienced it, or the network of neurons to which that memory has been transferred in the process of consolidating it. That means that you "reconsolidate" it - i.e. by activating the memory, you bring it back into a state of activation, and so over the following 15 minutes or so, the memory has new changes added to it (after all, the principle that "neurons which fire together wire together" still operates, so if you remember an event, your current experiences and thoughts are now connected to the memory of the original event). As we will see, reconsolidation can significantly and permanently alter a "memory" changing the entire emotional valence of the memory (making a memory that was fear inducing become desire-inducing, for example). There is no "undo" function in the brain by which you can go back and reverse previous edits to get to the "original" memory. Memory, then is an active and synthetic process, and memories are changed irreversibly at every "re-membering" of them.
Reconsolidation of memories eventually organises them into very different places in the brain. At one time in my life, I needed to use my conscious mind to tie my shoelaces. Now days, my "unconscious mind" performs that function. What do I mean when I say that last sentence? I mean that another area of the brain now runs my shoelace tying strategy automatically when it is triggered by the sight of my shoes untied. Even a person severely affected by the memory loss of Alzheimer's disease may continue for some time to be able to tie their shoelaces, because such strategies are stored in areas of the brain less affected by that condition (Schacter, 1996, p 134-137). Such memories are called "procedural memories".
There is another type of memory which patients with Alzheimer's continue to have too. Memory researcher Daniel Schacter discusses the results of an experiment with words which reveals this other type of memory. First, he shows people a series of words, each of which is to be studied carefully for 5 seconds. The first set of words are: assassin, octopus, avocado, mystery, sheriff, climate. Next, he shows people a second set of words and asks if any of this second set were in the first set. The second set are: twilight, assassin, dinosaur, mystery. If your memory functions well, you recognised two of these from the first list. Next, Schacter asks people to complete the following English words by filling in the blanks. Third set: ch----nk, o-t--us, -og-y---, -l-m-te.
Most people who have seen the first set of words have difficulty coming up with two in this third set of words (chipmunk and bogeyman) but find octopus and climate rather obvious. That's because your memory has been "primed" by studying the first set. Now, here's the interesting thing. Priming memory also works for people with Alzheimer's disease, who cannot recall consciously whether any of the second set were in the first set. Priming even works for people who are exposed to spoken information when they are unconscious due to anaesthetic! (Schacter, 1996, p 170-172). Whereas conscious memory requires activation of the frontal cortex, the unconscious memories of priming and the unconscious memories of a procedure such as shoelace tying are stored deeper in the brain. These other types of memory/skill are unconscious, and they are very useful. We do not need to make such memory systems conscious. Unfortunately, these unconscious memories operate on automatic. They can be "primed" by irrelevant and even harmful stimuli which a person happens to come across.
Reconsolidation As An Observer
Another important memory distinction in memory is the difference between Observer memory (distanced memory where the rememberer sees themselves in the memory event - what NLP calls dissociated) and Field memory (where the rememberer re-experiences the memory from inside their body - what NLP calls associated). Field memory is closer to the original experience, of course. Observer memory is obviously well "reconsolidated", and the reorganisation of an entire memory from another perspective seems to require a mature nervous system (it is a skill that young children have difficulty with).
In his neurological research on observer memory and its effect, David Schachter noted that accessing a memory using observer memory removes emotional response and consequently the person will claim that the original event must have had less emotional significance. He was able to point out that Sigmund Freud already commented on this benefit of observer memory 100 years ago. Freud noticed that his clients remembered their disturbing childhood memories this way and speculated that this may have had a protective effect (Searching for Memory, Schachter, D.L., 1996, p 21-22). Freud called these observer memories "Screen memories" because they screen us from disturbing memories of our childhood. (Freud, 1899, p311). In NLP there are several processes which utilise this reconsolidation of memories as observed "movies".
Remember The Way Psychotherapy Was
Before discussing several methods of utilizing memory more effectively, I want to comment in more depth about the misunderstandings of memory that abounded in the twentieth century. What happens when we don't realise the truth of memory reconsolidation and brain plasticity? Early psychotherapy demonstrates several results of this error. In 1895, Sigmund Freud published the "founding document" of western psychotherapy; "Studies on Hysteria". In it he announces his discovery that childhood trauma causes psychiatric problems. He says "Quite frequently it is some event in childhood that sets up a more or less severe symptom which persists during the years that follow.... Not until they have been questioned under hypnosis do these memories emerge with the undiminished vividness of a recent event." (Freud and Breuer, 1974, p 60). This dramatic error has burdened over a century of attempts to help people. In fact, Hyppolyte Bernheim (1980) had demonstrated the fallacy of Freud's claim four years before the publication of "Studies on Hysteria". There is in fact, as readers will by now realise, no "undiminished vividness of a recent event."
To emphasise the falseness of Freud's early claims, a twentieth century hypnotist and psychiatrist named Martin Orne duplicated Bernheim's experiment in front of BBC television (1980). He interviewed a woman, asking her a number of questions, including how she slept the night before. She said she had, as usual, slept an excellent night's sleep. Orne then invited her to relax, and "reminded her" that she had been awakened during the night by what sounded like gunshots. He then woke her up fully and asked her again how she slept. She described the disturbing noises that she now believed had awoken her. Orne then replayed a tape of her pre-hypnosis statement saying that she had slept excellently. Far from realising that the gunshots were a "false memory", the woman was now very puzzled as to how she could have forgotten those disturbing sounds at the start of the interview. She was so convinced of her hypnotically induced memory that she was willing to argue with the evidence of the audiotape.
Of course, most people have had the experience of discussing a past event with a friend, and finding that the friend has incorrectly remembered the details. Many close relationships have come to grief over such disagreements. We know that what Orne was able to do with a light form of hypnosis can also occur in everyday life. Psychologists Daniel Simons and Daniel Levin conducted an extraordinary study in the 1990s to demonstrate how our "normal life" memory fools us. Imagine you are walking down the street and a stranger stops to ask directions. While you're talking to him, two men pass between you carrying a large wooden door. After they move on, you finish giving the directions, and the stranger advises you that you've just been the subject of a psychology experiment. He asks you if you noticed anything odd after the men with the door passed between you. He then explains that the original person who asked for directions actually walked off behind the door, and was replaced by your current interviewer. The original man now re-appears; he is a different height and build, has different clothes on, and has a different voice. But amazingly, 50% of people approached in this way do not notice the substitution occurring (Simons and Levin, 1998). The experiment demonstrates that much of what we "remember" is fabricated by our mind in order to fit with what we think must have happened.
Values And Belief Shifts in Memory
It's not just our memory of sensory experiences that are fragile in this way. NBC television captured an excellent demonstration of brief hypnosis being used to alter beliefs and even values. Dr Herbert Spiegel (1980) worked with a successful businessman with left wing political views. Spiegel relaxed the man, and told him that communists were planning to take over radio and television stations in America. Spiegel suggested that the man would be able to remember details of this conspiracy. When the man was then awakened, he did indeed have an elaborate story about the plot and how he had first heard of it. He expressed grave concerns about the left wing, saying that he had changed his opinion recently about their approach. Spiegel then removed the hypnotic suggestion and showed the man the videotape of this entire sequence. The businessman was extremely disturbed to witness himself talking "like an ultraconservative".
In everyday life, such shifts in values and beliefs are more common than we would like to think. The easiest way to notice them is to realise how inconsistent other people's values can be; for example how a person who "falls in love" can suddenly find that they share the values of their beloved, even where these contradict strongly held previous opinions of "their own". Dr Elisabeth Loftus has conducted over 200 research experiments demonstrating that memories can be implanted, without hypnosis, by simple suggestion. Does this happen in the therapeutic context, where real memories are also being explored? Certainly. Here is one small example given by Loftus: "In Missouri in 1992 a church counsellor helped Beth Rutherford to remember during therapy that her father, a clergyman, had regularly raped her between the ages of seven and 14 and that her mother sometimes helped him by holding her down. Under her therapist's guidance, Rutherford developed memories of her father twice impregnating her and forcing her to abort the foetus herself with a coat hanger. The father had to resign from his post as a clergyman when the allegations were made public. Later medical examination of the daughter revealed, however, that she was still a virgin at age 22 and had never been pregnant. The daughter sued the therapist and received a $1-million settlement in 1996." (Loftus, 1997, p 70).
This story presents an example of a person radically altering their beliefs and values as a result of a "therapeutic" conversation. Clearly, people do recall true information during therapy and hypnosis. Loftus' research demonstrates, unfortunately, that we simply cannot tell whether a new memory is real or not. In one of her studies, she selected subjects who (according to their own and their family's reports) had never been hospitalised for an ear infection as a child. She then had a relative tell each subject that when they were a child they were hospitalised overnight with an ear infection. After this 20% of subjects claimed to remember the hospitalisation, even when they were advised of the research occurring. Subjects remembered details such as who had visited them in the hospital. When people are likely to change their entire response to their family and community as a result of such a memory, this is a serious matter. To their credit, several people within the NLP/Ericksonian community have already expressed concern about this (eg Time Line Therapy Association, 1994; Yapko, 1994). They have pointed out that, as therapists, we need to caution clients very explicitly that any "memories" they recover during NLP work are unlikely to be acceptable as evidence in a court of law, and that there is a considerable chance that such memories could be contradicted by other evidence (ie that they will prove false to facts).
The Shifting Sands Of Memory
In fact, there are no memories that remain "intact" as if they were video-recorded. This was understood by researchers as early as 1932, when F. C. Bartlett wrote "Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless, and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so." (Bartlett, 1932, p 213).
"Memories" are reconstructed in the present, out of a jumble of data stored at previous times. They are shaped by our present brain; by our mood, our present belief systems and so on. As an example of the way the present-day brain shaped our memories, consider the studies of what is called "inattentional blindness". When the posterior parietal cortex of the brain is damaged on one side, a very interesting result occurs. The person will fail to pay attention to objects seen on the affected side of their visual field. This becomes obvious if you ask them to describe all the objects in the room they are sitting in. If the affected side is the left, for example, when they look across the room, they will describe to you all objects on the right of the room, but ignore everything on the left. They will be able to confirm that those objects are there on the left, if asked about them, but will otherwise not report them (Kalat, 1988, p 197; Miller, 1995, p 33-34).
Edoardo Bisiach (1978) is an Italian researcher who studied people with such damage. He quickly discovered that this damage affected more than their current perception. For example, he asked one patient to imagine the view of the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, a sight this man had seen every day for some years before his illness. Bisiach had him imagine standing on the Cathedral steps and got him to describe everything that could be seen looking down from there. The man described only one half of what could be seen, while insisting that his recollection was complete. Bisiach then had him imagine the view from the opposite side of the piazza. He then fluently reported the other half of the details. The man's memories were being assembled by his present brain system, and his present brain system was "faulty" so his memories were all altered accordingly.
Such is precisely the problem we face in working with the person who is depressed. They may tell us that they have never been happy, because every memory they go to think of is processed by the same brain that is generating their depression. They can no longer easily attend to the happy experiences they once had. In the same way, the person who is angry may report that no-one has ever been kind to them, and the person who is sad may remember that they have never been loved. As psychotherapy evolved, therapists increasingly recognised this. Family therapy founder Virginia Satir considered that one of her main functions as a therapist was to help people reconstruct more useful memories, for example. In the transcript of her work called "Forgiving Parents" (Andreas, 1991, p 104-107) Satir deals with a client, Linda, who claims that her mother never nurtured her, never tucked her in at night, and never bathed her. Virginia simply says "I don't believe it." and Linda eventually concedes that maybe her mother might have bathed her every so often.
In the work of psychotherapist and hypnotist Milton Erickson, we see the notion of re-developing memories taken to its ultimate conclusion, with the story of the February Man (Erickson and Rossi, 1989). In a series of sessions Erickson works with Jane, who says she had a childhood without loving parenting, and is afraid that now she herself will be unable to be a good mother. In trance, Erickson "journeys back" to her childhood, visiting her every February to provide loving support and reframes for her childhood experiences. For example he points out to her that although stubbing her toe is a painful experience "Maybe someday you will talk to a little girl about her stubbing her toe. You will really want to know what a stubbed toe felt like. Isn't that right?" (p 47). He explains to Ernest Rossi about this process, "You don't really alter the original experience, you alter the perception of it, and that becomes the memory of the perception." (p 77). Jane will now remember this moment of childhood "pain" as a moment of learning about how to be a good mother.
9/11 And "Flashbulb Memory"
One type of memory that there has been a great deal of objective research about is "Flashbulb memory" - the belief that memories of powerful and emotionally significant events such as the 9/11 attack in New York (September 11, 2001) persist without much "reconsolidation". In fact, the research shows that this is simply not true. Take 9/11. "Within about a week, memory scientists from New York to Michigan to California (now known as the 9/11 Memory Consortium) were querying people on what they remembered. The resulting set of data contained responses from more than 3,000 people in seven cities. Following up with those same people one year and three years later, the researchers found a decline in flashbulb memory accuracy that gradually levelled off after year one. In the first year, people's memories were consistent with the initial responses only 63 percent of the time. After that, however, they only lost 4.5 percent of their accuracy per year." (Pappas, 2011).
Firstly, the emotional experience associated with the memory changes. People assume that at the time they felt the same way they feel now about the events: in fact their current feelings are often based on knowledge which they could not even have at the time of the event. Unfortunately, in their research, the Memory Consortium found that people's confidence that they were remembering accurately was increased by the level of amygdala activation occurring as they remembered, and not by the level of hippocampal activation (that is to say, the stronger the emotion, the more convinced the person was that their memory was accurate, but the actual strength of place memories did not increase their confidence). Secondly, in the process of reconsolidation, considerable editing of the sequence of events occurs. "In the case of 9/11, people will sometimes claim to have seen live video of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Talarico said, despite the fact that such video was not broadcast until days after the attack." Their memory has (completely unconsciously) spliced in images actually seen days later and resequenced them to make sense. These two changes also clearly occur in relation to people's reports of traumatic childhood memories, many of which contain emotional responses entirely dependent on their adult information about the events.
Event Memory Parcels
This sort of sequential change raises an interesting question about how the brain decides to "parcel" memory, which is, after all, potentially a fairly continuous sequence while we are awake, into discrete "events". (Brenner and Zacks, 2011). Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks report on a 2011 research study by Gabriel Radvansky, Sabine Krawietz and Andrea Tamplin. In this the researchers "seated participants in front of a computer screen running a video game in which they could move around using the arrow keys. In the game, they would walk up to a table with a colored geometric solid sitting on it. Their task was to pick up the object and take it to another table, where they would put the object down and pick up a new one. Whichever object they were currently carrying was invisible to them, as if it were in a virtual backpack. Sometimes, to get to the next object the participant simply walked across the room. Other times, they had to walk the same distance, but through a door into a new room. From time to time, the researchers gave them a pop quiz, asking which object was currently in their backpack. The quiz was timed so that when they walked through a doorway, they were tested right afterwards. As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting: Their responses were both slower and less accurate when they'd walked through a doorway into a new room than when they'd walked the same distance within the same room." You may have had this experience yourself. You get up from an activity in one room and go into another room to get something you need ... only to find that your brain has closed the memory network you were operating with and you cannot recall what you came for!
Brenner and Zacks ask why the brain needs uses markers such as passing through a door as opportunities to forget. They conclude that "some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf life expires, and then purge that information in favor of new stuff. Radvansky and colleagues call this sort of memory representation an "event model," and propose that walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues." The event model gives your brain a series of algorithms for dividing up the endless flow of life into discrete "events" that can be stored in a separate neural network and transferred to other areas of the brain in reconsolidation.
Neural Networks and Strategies
Realising that the brain parcels our memories into discrete "events" raises once more the question: why does the brain want such detailed memories anyway? The answer is not to keep a photo album of our life: it is to help us decide quickly and efficiently what to do whenever a new situation occurs that may have antecedents in our prior experiences. Being able to respond in a more effective way to a repeated experience is called learning, and for the brain, memory is all about learning, and not about recording truth. The "TOTE" was developed by neurology researchers George Miller, Eugene Galanter and Karl Pribram (1960), as a model to explain how learning of complex behaviour occurred. Ivan Pavlov's original studies had shown that simple behaviours can be produced by the stimulus-response cycle. When Pavlov's dogs heard the tuning fork ring (a stimulus; or in NLP terms an "anchor"), they salivated (response). But there is more to dog behaviour than stimulus-response.
For example, if a dog sees an intruder at the gate of its section (stimulus/anchor), it may bark (response). However, it doesn't go on barking forever. It actually checks to see if the intruder has run away. If the intruder has run away, the dog stops performing the barking operation and goes back to its kennel. If the intruder is still there, the dog may continue with that strategy, or move on to another response, such as biting the intruder. Miller, Gallanter and Pribram felt that this type of sequencing was inadequately explained in Pavlov's simple stimulus-response model. In Miller and Pribram's model, the first stimulus, (seeing the intruder) is the Trigger (the first T in the "TOTE"; Pavlov called this the "stimulus", and in NLP we also call this an "anchor") for the dog's "scaring-intruders-away" strategy. Obviously, the intensity of the trigger is what actually activates the strategy (in this case the closeness of the intruder). This intensity is measured in each sensory system by smaller sections of the sensory cortex, called in NLP "submodalities". The barking itself is the Operation (O). Checking to see if the intruder is gone yet (checking that the submodalities are reduced) is the Test (second T). Going back to the kennel is the Exit from the strategy (E). This sequence of information flow through the cortex might be written as Ve>Ke>Ve/Vc> Ke (Visual external trigger > Kinesthetic external action > Compare Visual external situation now to constructed image of the desired visual situation > Kinesthetic external action). Notice that the checking stage (Test) is done by comparing the result of the operation (what the dog can see after barking) with the result that was desired (what the dog imagines seeing --a person running away). In the notation, comparison is written using the slash key "/".
Let's take another example. When I hear some music on the radio that I really like (trigger or anchor), I reach over and turn up the radio (operation). Once it sounds as loud as I enjoy it sounding (test), I sit back and listen. The strategy, including the end piece where I listen (another whole strategy really) is Ae>Ke>Ae/Ar> Ke>Ae. Once we understand that every result a person achieves is a result of a strategy which begins with some trigger and leads them to act and test that action, then we have a number of new choices for changing the way they run their strategy and the results they get.
Strategies are learned behaviours, triggered by some specific sensory representation (a stimulus). What does "learned" mean? The human brain itself is made up of about one hundred billion nerve cells or neurons. These cells organise themselves into networks to manage specific tasks. When any experience occurs in our life, new neural networks are laid down to record that event and its meaning. To create these networks, the neurons grow an array of new dendrites (connections to other neurons). Each neuron has up to 20,000 dendrites, connecting it simultaneously into perhaps hundreds of different neural networks.
Steven Rose, in some of the earliest work on the neurology of memory (1992) gives an example from his research with new-hatched chicks. After eating silver beads with a bitter coating, the chicks learn to avoid such beads. One peck is enough to cause the learning. Rose demonstrated that the chicks' brain cells change instantly, growing 60% more dendrites in the next 15 minutes. These new connections occur in very specific areas --what we might call the "bitter bead neural networks". These neural networks now store an important new strategy. The strategy is triggered each time the chick sees an object the right shape and size to peck at. This is a visual strategy of course. The trigger (seeing a small round object) is Visual external (Ve) and the operation (checking the colour) is also Visual external (Ve). The chick then compares the colour of the object it has found with the colour of the horrible bitter beads from its visual recall (Ve/Vr) and based on that test either pecks the object or moves away from it (Ke). We would diagram this strategy: Ve>Ve>Ve/Vr>Ke.
Obviously, the more strategies we learn, the more neural networks will be set up in the brain. California researcher Dr Marion Diamond (1988) and her Illinois colleague Dr William Greenough (1992) have demonstrated that rats in "enriched" environments grow 25% more dendrite connections between neurons than usual, as they lay down hundreds of new strategies, reconsolidating them throughout the brain. Autopsy studies on humans confirm the process. Graduate students have 40% more dendrite connections than high school dropouts, and those students who challenged themselves more had even higher scores (Jacobs et alia, 1993).
How do messages get from one neuron to another in the brain? The transmission of impulses between neurons and dendrites occurs via hundreds of precise chemicals called "information substances"; substances such as dopamine, noradrenalin (norepinephrine), and acetylcholine. These chemical float from one cell to another, transmitting messages across the "synapse" or gap between them. Without these chemicals, the strategy stored in the neural network cannot run.
The particular mixture of chemicals present when a neural network is laid down must be recreated for the neural network to be fully re-activated and for the strategy it holds to run as it originally did. If someone is angry, for example, when a particular new event happens, they have higher noradrenalin levels. Future events which result in higher noradrenalin levels will re-activate this neural network and the strategy they used then. As a result, the new event will be connected by dendrites to the previous one, and there will even be a tendency to confuse the new event with the previous one. If my childhood caregiver yelled at me and told me that I was stupid, I may have entered a state of fear, and stored that memory in a very important neural network. When someone else yells at me as an adult, if I access the same state of fear, I may feel as if I am re-experiencing the original event, and may even hear a voice telling me I'm stupid.
This is called "state dependent memory and learning" or SDML. Our memories and learnings, our strategies, are dependent on the state they are created in. Since this is a system, what we see, hear, smell, taste or touch may also "trigger" or "anchor" a state of mind by activating a neural network that occurred when that sensory stimulus was present previously, as Pavlov discovered.
The triggering of a neural network, then, is dependent on the emotional valence of that network (i.e. it is "state dependent"). The brain has a very specific way of linking the information about your emotions (stored in places such as the amygdala) into the actual sensory experience you are having or remembering (eg into the picture you are seeing). The emotional information is "coded" visually (and in the other senses) as a result of some specific detailed distinctions made within the cortex. Inside the visual cortex, there are several areas which process "qualities" such as colour, brightness and distance. When you are hungry, food often looks bigger and brighter (television advertisers know this -- they makes the food on their adverts bigger and brighter too). In NLP these qualities are known as visual "submodalities" (because they are produced in small sub-sections of the visual modality). The first fourteen visual submodalities listed by Richard Bandler (1985, p 24) were colour, distance, depth, duration, clarity, contrast, scope, movement, speed, hue, transparency, aspect ratio, orientation, and foreground/background.
To give a sense of how these submodalities "code" emotional information, consider the following study. In research by Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Psychology, and David Dunning, a Cornell professor of psychology, volunteers tossed a beanbag towards a gift card (worth either $25 or $0) on the floor. They were told that if the beanbag landed on the card, they would be given the card. Interestingly, the volunteers threw the beanbag much farther if the gift card was worth $0 than if it was worth $25 -- that is, they underthrew the beanbag when attempting to win a $25 gift card, because they viewed that gift card as being closer to them. These findings indicate that when we want something, we actually view it as being physically close to us. Moving an object, in our imagination, closer to us makes us see it as more significant and triggers the neural network with memorised instructions about how to respond to it. This is then the basis for several NLP processes such as the "visual swish", in which an image of a desired future self is moved quickly closer and becomes brighter.
How The Memory System Can Be Utilized
Clearly, there are times when it is useful to be able to remember events and information vividly, and times when it is useful not to be uncontrollably triggered into the activation of memories of events. Understanding how the memory process works in the brain helps us do both these things more effectively.
Understanding the neurophysiology of memory also prevents us being caught in mistaken ideas about memory - ideas that then limit our choices needlessly. These include the idea that when a memory activates the panic response, then something is "broken" in the brain (in fact, panic shows that the brain is working perfectly), the idea that memories cannot be altered (in fact they cannot NOT be altered), and the idea that after a problematic memory has been reconsolidated by natural means or by guided visualization, it can somehow "go back" to its original state by accident (in fact none of the mice in the research study below had this problem, which is peculiar to human subjects able to imagine themselves into attempted recreations of the original state).
In the rest of this article I will focus on four ways we can more effectively use our memory systems.
- Changing the emotional response we have to particular memories
- Remembering large amounts of new factual information reliably
- Planning for future events more effectively so that we create the results we want in life more fully
- Recovering from physical health issues which are partially recreated by memory
Part B: Changing The Emotional Response To Memories
The Mice Who Conquered Fear With Love and Curiosity
In all the hundreds of research studies refrred to in this article, this is probably my favourite. In 2014, Dr. Susumu Tonegawa and his team at RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics conducted an extraordinary experiment which revealed how the "emotional valence" (whether it feels good or bad) on a memory can be changed in a few minutes of "reconsolidation". (Redondo et alia 2014)
"Both the hippocampus and the amygdala are considered critical for memory formation. We wanted to know whether the memory engram [network] was free to associate with positive or negative valences or whether it was fixed with respect to emotion," said Roger Redondo, who along with Joshua Kim is co-first author of this study, in a press release. "We also wanted to know at what point in the circuit the valence is assigned to the engram, in the hippocampus or the amygdala."
Their experiment takes a few sentences to explain, but it is worth it! The first part is a kind of preparation. The experiments were conducted on male mice, who were placed in a room they had never seen before, and divided into two groups. One group received a mild electric shock on their foot while the other group was allowed to socialize with a female mouse. So the two groups of mice both formed memories of the room, but some formed memories of fear and some formed memories of pleasure. Using a biomarker (a chemical called channelrhodopsin-2 or "ChR2", released into the mice brains to mark out the areas of the brain where new connections were growing), the scientists genetically labeled neurons that were active during the formation of either memory. The team then used optogenetics to activate the same set of neurons. This involves shining a light from an LED or laser source outside, through the mouse head - if you hold your hand up in front of a strong light you can see that it shines through the tissue, so this is not surprising. When this light strikes the chemically marked out area in the mouse brain, it triggers the neurons in that area to fire, basically activating the memory network from outside. When the neurons were activated, the mice showed the same response as they did when they originally experienced the event. The mice that had been shocked avoided the room where it had happened, and the mice that had met female mice moved towards the room. the researchers could see the activated circuits inside the mice brains and actually identify the memory of the event, in the hippocampus, and (in mice where this was marked) its connection to the emotional response in the amygdala (to different parts of the amygdala depending on whether the experience was positive or negative).
Next, the researchers gave the mice a new experience, in a new place. The (male) mice who got the mild shock the first time were introduced to some female mice. As they were showing interest in these female mice, the researchers activated the old memory "engram" in the "dorsal dentate gyrus" of the hippocampus. This old memory of being shocked in the room was now connected to the new experience of being interested in the opportunity of meeting the female mice. To the observers' fascination, they could see the memory network changing. The old connections into the fear area of the amygdala were eliminated, and new connections were made into the curiosity/desire area of the amygdala. Finally the mice were placed back in the room where they had originally been shocked, but this time they immediately showed interest and looked around with positive curiosity. Their memory of the room had changed. Observing the process, the scientists could see that the old memory (or the negative "valence" of the old memory) was simply deleted. The record of being in the room was now associated with positive feelings, essentially creating a new memory.
The effective sequence is to have the mice create a powerful enough positive emotional state, and then, while they are feeling that positive state, to reactivate the place memory of the original event which had been fear-associated. the researchers commented that to transfer this technique to humans, we would only need a way of reactivating the place memory in the hippocampus. In NLP we do this with the process known as anchoring (a precise application of Pavlovian classical conditioning). In a controlled research study published in Germany (Reckert, 1994), Horst Reckert describes how in one session he was able to remove students' test anxiety using the simple technique of anchoring, based on this principle. He had the students recall a powerfully relaxed time, while pressing on a specific point on their hand to "anchor" the event, and then had them use that same pressure on their hand as they thought about the challenging situation. This connected the feeling of relaxation to the experience of sitting in the test room. This is the same principle you experience when you hear a song on the radio that reminds you of the feeling you had years ago when that song first came out.
The most important thing to take away from the research on the mice is that the emotional response connected to memories can be intentionally changed in a very short time, and changed permanently: remember, in the brain there is no "undo" for reconsolidation, there is only more reconsolidation.
Memory Obstruction Versus Memory Reconsolidation
Our growing neurological understanding of the consolidation and reconsolidation of memories is a particularly important issue for PTSD treatments such as the NLP trauma reconsolidation process and NLP eye movement integration. I will comment on each of these, starting with the NLP eye movement integration process. This involves asking the client to re-access a disturbing memory and then try to hold onto that memory while their eyes move from side to side and corner to corner diagonally. For some time, it has been known that moving the eyes causes enormous floods of electrical information across the brain and for this reason, during brain scans, a person is usually instructed to hold their eyes still. We now have research showing that rapid side-to-side eye movements during an event or during active recall of an event prevent the recording of even short term memory traces, and that the result is not a re-ordering of those memories but an interference with the neural circuitry of the memory being formed or reconsolidated (see for example, Engelhard et alia, 2010). This is at least partially the effect of "The NLP Eye Movement process" taught by NP trainers Steve Andreas and John Grinder, and of NLP trainer Andy Austin's "Integral Eye Movement Therapy". Separately from NLP, this kind of method is promoted as EMDR. By calling it "Editing" Grinder refers to it as a type of reconsolidation similar to that experienced by the mice in the experiment above, although instead of connecting the hippocampal memory to a positive place in the amygdala, it would then be connecting it to what Grinder calls a "Know Nothing State' (Grinder 2002)
This is an entirely different process to altering the perceptual position of consolidated long term memories towards what memory researchers refer to as observer memory (i.e. what NLP, with obstinacy, refers to as dissociation - Searching for Memory, Schachter, D.L., 1996, p 21-22). Observer memory is a type of reconsolidation that is done naturally in the brain over long periods of time, especially to distressing memories, and it also seems to require frontal cortex maturation (i.e. it cannot easily be done by a child of say 5 years old). Clinically, we would be better doing eye movement processes with younger children, and with people very close in time to the events they are coping with. The possible loss of memory clarity would be a small price to pay for an effective protection from long term traumatisation. With longer term issues, the NLP Trauma recovery process (the movie theatre technique) may give us better meaning elaboration and subsequent learning about the events being processed.
Training the brain to dissociate from disturbing events is a key to emotional health, as demonstrated in research by Brad Bushman and Dominik Mischkowski (2013). They subjected research students to a situation designed to evoke anger and anxiety. They then asked the students to review the events. Some students were told to adopt a self-immersed perspective ("see the situation unfold through your eyes as if it were happening to you all over again") and then analyze their feelings surrounding the event. Others were told to use the self-distancing perspective ("move away from the situation to a point where you can now watch the event unfold from a distance...watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again") and then analyze their feelings. The third control group was not told how to view the scene or analyze their feelings. Each group was told the replay the scene in their minds for 45 seconds. The researchers then tested the participants for aggressive thoughts and angry feelings. The difference was dramatic; those students who had dissociated themselves were substantially less distressed and less angry.
This distancing is the basis of the famous NLP phobia-trauma process, which rehearses the brain to reconsolidate a memory as an observer experience by having the client visualise the event happening on a movie screen.. In his book "The Trauma Trap", Dr David Muss MD documents his extensive use of this NLP Trauma Process with victims of PTSD: A policeman involved in the Hillsborough soccer disaster describes how his flashbacks (sudden horrific memories of the trauma), insomnia and alcohol abuse disappeared after two sessions. A patient (Barbara Drake) tells how one session with Dr Muss completely resolved flashbacks and other symptoms resulting from a sexual abuse experience. These and the other stories documented by Muss parallel our own experiences as trainers and Master Practitioners of NLP. Muss says "I know that it has worked for every patient I have dealt with so far, without exception." (Muss, "The Trauma Trap", 1991, p 10). Muss did a pilot study with 70 members of the West Midlands Police Force, who had witnessed major disasters such as the Lockerbie air crash. Of these, 19 qualified as having PTSD. The time between trauma and treatment varied from six weeks to ten years. All participants reported that after an average of three sessions they were completely free of intrusive memories and other PTSD symptoms. Follow-up ranged from 3 months to 2 years, and all gains were sustained over that time.
In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, New York NLP organisations offered free dissociation trauma cure treatments for New York citizens. their results, over hundreds of people, were so promising that they gained the attention of authorities. In 2014, NLP Trainers, Dr Frank Bourke, Dr Richard Gray and colleagues received a $300,000 grant from New York state and over 5o War Veterans Organisations referred clients to begin a pilot study on the method. 58 veterans were interviewed and evaluated for treatment (52 diagnosed with PTSD). Nearly all of them were combat vets, and they ranged from Vietnam veterans suffering for almost 50 years to vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Of 33 clients who entered treatment, 26 (using the national PTSD norm of 45 points as cutoff) no longer test as having PTSD; their symptoms were fully alleviated in under five sessions. There were six others who either dropped out or had missing diagnostic scores; one more did not respond to the treatment. As the protocol was tested under strict scientific standards for the first time, it produced results that matched previous success levels. In this study 75% of the treatment pool and 96% of program completers terminated treatment with complete and permanent elimination of the symptoms of PTSD in less than 5 hours of treatment as verified at the two- and six-week follow-ups. The researchers say "According to combined behavioral and instrumental measures, this pilot completely removed the PTSD diagnosis in 96% of those who completed treatment. Current VA and Army treatments "statistically improve" PTSD scores 35% of the time (Steenkamp & Litz (2013, 2014). No currently approved treatments for PTSD remove the diagnosis; at best, they only improve the symptom scores." For more information on this technique and memory reconsolidation, read Richard Gray and Richard Liotta's article (Gray and Liotta 2012)
Part C: Remembering Factual Information Reliably
Memory Pegs and The Journey Method (Method of Loci)
Since memory is so constantly being reorganized, how do people ever recall information accurately? The answer lies not in developing a new ability so much as in utilizing the most stable memory networks you already have, and utilizing the central role of the hippocampus (which is after all essentially a GPS system). Eight time world memory champion Dominic O'Brien had an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for his May 2002 feat of committing to memory a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. He was able to correctly recite their order, making only eight errors, four of which he immediately corrected when told he was wrong. In his books he explains that there is nothing genetically different that makes his memory so good. He simply knows how to use the memories and the memory system his brain already uses.
O'Brien simplifies his memory tasks by adding new information to memory "pegs" (things already permanently in place in his memories, that he can hang new information on, just as you could hang clothes on a clothesline using the pegs that are already there). For example, you have probably recalled the Arabic numerals in order, and your memory of them is likely to be perfect, and resilient over time, so they can be used as pegs to hang new images on. If we add images to that list of numbers, you will be able to easily recall those images in sequence too. So if I point out that the number 1 looks like a pen, the number 2 looks like a swan, and the number 3 looks like Mickey Mouse's ears, you will find it easy to remember those three images in that order. Now you can add more detailed images to those so as to remember even random concepts.
Numerical memory pegs:
3. Mickey Mouse's Ears
6. Golf Club
8. Hour glass
10. Bat and ball
Dominic O'Brien uses the Journey method primarily to recall things such as the list of cards. The journey method is a memory utilization technique in which you use another set of "pegs", taking advantage of your ability to remember a series of specific landmarks chosen from a journey that is already familiar to you such as walking round your house/apartment. In this method, the memory peg idea is used in combination with the place marking system of the hippocampus. The development of the Journey method is attributed to Simonodes of Ceos, an Ancient Greek poet, and it was used extensively by the Ancient Romans, who called it the method of Loci. During the excavation of the rubble of a collapsed dining hall, Simonides was called upon to identify each guest killed. Their bodies had been crushed beyond recognition but he completed the gruesome task by correlating their identities to their positions (loci in Latin) at the table before his departure. He later drew on this experience to develop the 'memory theatre' or 'memory palace', a system for mnemonics (memory) widely used in European societies until the Renaissance.
You use the Journey Method by associating information with landmarks on a journey that you know well. This could, for example, be your journey to work in the morning; the route you use to get to the front door when you get up; the route to visit your parents; or a familiar tour around a holiday destination. John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel explain that this method directly uses the centrality of the hippocampus in memory, using its location system to record imaginary journeys just as it normally records real journeys. They say: " 'the method of loci', is an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria [the Russian memory expert A. R. Luria] (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject 'walks' through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use." (O'Keefe and Nadel 1978)
Once you are practiced with the technique you will be able to create imaginary journeys that have as many landmark places as you need. To use this technique most effectively, it is often best to prepare the journey beforehand. In this way the landmarks are clear in your mind before you try to commit information to them. One of the ways of doing this is to write down all the landmarks that you plan to use in order on a piece of paper. To remember a list of items, whether these are people, events, concepts or objects, all you need do is associate images of these things with the landmarks on your journey.
This is an extremely effective method of remembering long lists of information. With a sufficiently long journey you could, for example, remember elements on the periodic table, lists of Kings and Presidents, geographical information, or the order of cards in a shuffled pack. One advantage of this technique is that you can use it to work both backwards and forwards, and start anywhere within the route to retrieve information. You could also start other journeys at each landmark.
Part D: Planning For Future Events
Creating Future Memories
Expectations of future events are also created and stored in the brain of course, and here we see a similar pattern to the creation and storage of memory, with the Hippocampus again being central. Construction of a future imagined event looks much the same as reconsolidation of a memory in the brain. That is to say, for the brain, the construction of a future event is much the same as the remembering of an earlier event. Interestingly, the less likely the future "memory" is, the more activity we see in the hippocampus. This suggests that the work the hippocampus does involves connecting or "re-membering" patterns from across the brain -- images, sounds, sensations and plans etc. into one memory or event; and the less likely the connection of these parts is, the more complex the job being done by the hippocampus becomes. (Gaesser et alia 2013).
When people complain of memory problems, they are usually complaining of one of two things. The first is difficulty remembering events and facts, which is dealt with using the Journey technique described above. The second is not about memory of the past at all. The person complains that they meant to pick up some bread at the shop on the way home, but they forgot. This is a problem with the effective construction of future events, not with the recollection of past events. Most people do not solve this by having a "super-memory". They solve it beforehand, by setting up a future cue that will remind them, when they are passing the shop, to go in and get the bread. This skill, called "futurepacing" in NLP, can be learned.
My friend Annette and I shared an office. Each time Annette came to work and saw my cookies, she remembered that it was nice to have a snack available for morning tea. She was committed to buying some to share, but in the meantime she shared mine. After some weeks, we realised that this was a problem of futurepacing. Annette's good intentions (of buying cookies) were anchored to the office (where they were utterly useless our office did not have a cookie vending machine). I got Annette to imagine herself coming into her local store. I told her to see the things that she would see as she came in the door, and to look over to the shelf where the cookies were. I told her to imagine herself walking over to the shelf and picking up a packet. In this way, her good intention would be likely to be triggered by the naturally occurring sights and feelings of Annette's real life, the exact moment before they were needed. Sure enough, the next time Annette came into the office, she reported success. She had walked into the dairy to buy milk, seen the biscuit shelf, walked over to it ... and realized she had no money in her pocket to buy biscuits! You get the idea though -- it takes planning to be able to remember! This is the "preparatory memory" work done by the hippocampus in Gaesser's research (Gaesser et alia 2013). It is the precise sensory-specific goal-setting process which researchers have also discovered is a fundamental of all successful achievement.
Goal-setting is just a more detailed example of the same process, involving setting up future cues for action leading to a desired result. Richard Wiseman (2009, p 88-93) did a very large study of goal-setting. He tracked 5000 people who had some significant goal they wanted to achieve (everything from starting a new relationship to beginning a new career, from stopping smoking to gaining a qualification). He followed people up over the next year, and found firstly that only 10% ever achieved their goal. It wasn't just bad luck. Dramatic and consistent differences in the psychological techniques they used made those 10% stand out from the rest, as they used their hippocampus in a much more precise way.
Sensory Specific: Firstly, the most successful people did imagine achieving their goal, and were able to list concrete, specific benefits they would get from it, rather than just say that they would "feel happy". They had what Wiseman calls "an objective checklist of benefits" and made these "as concrete as possible", often by writing them down. He notes "... although many people said they aimed to enjoy life more, it was the successful people who explained how they intended to spend two evenings each week with friends and visit one new country each year." At this time, this "future memory" is being created in the brain. (Wiseman, 2009, p 91- 93)
Positive: Secondly, they described their goal positively. Wiseman says "For example, when asked to list the benefits of getting a new job, successful participants might reflect on finding more fulfilling and well-paid employment, whereas their unsuccessful counterparts might focus on a failure leaving them trapped and unhappy." Again, whatever the person imagines happening becomes a "future memory". (Wiseman, 2009, p 92)
Ecological: One surprising result of the research by both Gabrielle Oettingen and Richard Wiseman is that it pays to think about challenges you may face in achieving your goal (even though that may feel unpleasant at the time). After thinking about the positive benefits of achieving their goal, the most successful participants would "spend another few moments reflecting on the type of barriers and problems they are likely to encounter if they attempt to fulfil their ambition.... focusing on what they would do if they encountered the difficulty." (Wiseman, 2009, p 101) Oettingen trained people to do this process, which she calls "doublethink" and NLP would call checking "ecology". She was able to increase their success dramatically just with this step. This is "futurepacing" the challenges and their solution.
Choice Increasing and Celebrated: Related to this NLP concept of ecology is the fact that successful goal-setters made sure that they felt as if their progress was bringing them rewards rather than limiting their choices and creating work. They did this most of all because "As part of their planning, successful participants ensured that each of their sub-goals had a reward attached to it" so that it "gave them something to look forward to and provided a sense of achievement." (Wiseman, 2009, p 93)
Initiated by Self: Successful goal-setters have a plan. They do not leave their goal up to "the law of attraction" or to someone else who will save them. Wiseman notes "Whereas successful and unsuccessful participants might have stated that their aim was to find a new job, it was the successful people who quickly went on to describe how they intended to rewrite their CV in week one, and then apply for one new job every two weeks for the next six months." (Wiseman, 2009, p 91)
First Step Identified: Wiseman found that it was particularly important to break the goal down into small steps and manage one step at a time. "Successful participants broke their overall goal into a series of sub-goals, and thereby created a step-by-step process that helped remove the fear and hesitation often associated with trying to achieve a major life change." (Wiseman, 2009, p 90-91)
Your Resources Identified: In NLP we encourage people to identify both internal and external resources. Wiseman's research studied only external resources, most especially friends, colleagues and family. "Successful participants were far more likely than others to tell their friends, family and colleagues about their goals.... Telling others about your aims helps you achieve them, in part, because friends and family often provide much needed support when the going gets tough." (Wiseman, 2009, p 91) In all these ways, the successful individuals create clear future memories of their goals, and ensure these memories will be constantly reconsolidated.
Taking Care of The Future You
The same thing is true in a larger, life-long, way - it takes planning to enjoy a satisfying future. There have also been studies on people's future perception of themselves, as seen in the brain. Hal Hershfield (Hershfield, 2011) hypothesised that " The more continuity a person shares with his future self--that is, the more that future self feels like a direct extension of who he is now--the more motivated he will be to act in ways that will benefit himself in the future. Conversely, the more the future self feels like a stranger--that is, the more disconnected a person is from his future self--the less motivated he will be to plan for the future." He found that this factor (similarity between the imagined future self and current self) was one of three factors correlated with adequate economic and physical health planning for retirement. The other two were the vividness of the images made of the future self and the positivity of those images (did the person like their future self).
Hershfield summarises studies where brain scans show that when a future or past self is perceived as being similar to the current self, thinking about that self activates the same or close brain areas. In particular, he reports on studies that "scanned subjects with event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they judged whether trait words applied to themselves or another person. The investigators found that judgments of self-relevance selectively maintained activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) at a baseline rate, while judgments of other-relevance decreased MPFC activation below baseline." Researchers were then able to identify whether the future self seemed similar to the present self by observing the memory structure activated when the person thought of that self.
Remembering to complete daily tasks such as pick up the bread on the way home, reaching specific goals such as creating a new career, and long term life planning such as retirement savings all depend on the activation of convincing future memories. Once again, this is a skill that can be practiced.
Part E: Healing The Body Using Memory
In this final section, we will consider the impact of memories on healing in the body. Firstly, once again, we need to clarify how the brain "remembers" its previous experiences of using the body. In the early twentieth century it was common for people to imagine that the brains memory recall was analogous to a simple phone system where you dialled a number and got a set recorded message. Describing the nervous system as a landline phone system does not do it justice however. In the last fifty years, scientists have discovered that the brain in the head is remarkably flexible and is constantly adjusting to meet the current needs of your system. Some fairly ethically suspect animal research studies in the 1970s began a revolution in the way we think about the brain and healing. The studies by Ashley and Merzenich (Doidge, 2007, p 55-59) showed clearly that a specific area of the brain which ran, for example, the outside of a monkeys hand on one day might not run it the next day. If nerve connections to that part of the hand were severed, then within 24 hours the monkey's brain would have reassigned those brain cells to give it a more exact ability to move a nearby area of the hand which still had connections, or to give better movement in the other hand. Edward Taub also showed (Doidge, 2007, p 136-143) that a monkey's brain rebuilt any severed connections to the hand soon after surgery. These studies revealed that the brain is constantly changing, a skill for which the term "plasticity" was coined. Our brain is constantly, on a day to day basis, reassessing which areas of brain tissue are needed for which tasks, much as a computer reassigns areas of its RAM memory for the programs that we happen to open on it. The "healing" that we see after a stroke is just business as usual, as far as the brain is concerned, as the brain re-evaluates which memories of the body are useful.
The question Taub then sought to answer in his human studies was: why do human brains not simple reconnect after a stroke has produced paralysis? He eventually demonstrated that the only reason this didn't happen was that the brain began to assume that the damage was permanent. If an arm was unable to be moved for a few days, the damaged brain would reassign those brain cells which used to run that arm, and have them run another part of the body more fully. Unless the person with a stroke actually tried very concertedly to move their paralysed arm again, it would simply remain "turned off" as part of the brain attempting to get the best use out of its cranial real estate. In learning terms, the "permanent paralysis" was actually a learned response.
In 2005 and 2006, Taub and his colleagues published studies on his method of actually constraining a person's functional arm in order to "force" their brain to re-grow the neurological map of their "paralyzed" arm. Even people whose paralysis had lasted many years were able to benefit from this process. Since the 1980s, more and more precise ways have been developed to study neurological plasticity (the ability of nerve tissue to adjust like a plastic material) in the functioning human brain. In the 1990s Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Harvard Medical School used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to scan the brain of blind people as they learned to "read" Braille with their fingertips (Doidge, 2007, p 197-204). His studies showed that the more the person attempted to read Braille, the larger the area of brain devoted to their Braille-reading fingertips became. The changes happened overnight as the brain made continuous re-decisions about how much area to assign to each task. Like the mobile immune system, the brain is continuously re-balancing to create the optimal system over-all. Like any memories, memories of using the body can be enhanced by practice.
Multiple Personality, Memory and Physical Health Changes
One of the most dramatic places to learn about the relationship of the memory system and the body is in studying people who suffer from what is known as multiple personality dissociative disorders. In multiple personality, the person has times when they cannot remember their previous life history because they are using another personality system which has its own "memory system" in the brain. Psychiatrist Don Condie and neurobiologist Guochuan Tsai used a fMRI scanner to study the brain patterns of a woman with "multiple personality disorder". In this disorder, the woman switched regularly between her normal personality and an alter ego called "Guardian". The two personalities had separate memory systems and quite different strategies. The fMRI brain scan showed that each of these two personalities used different regions in the hippocampus to store memories. If the woman only pretended to be a separate person, her brain continued to use her usual areas of the hippocampus to remember events, but as soon as the "Guardian" actually took over her consciousness, it activated precise, different areas of the hippocampus and surrounding temporal cortex (brain areas associated with memory and emotion).(Adler, 1999, p 29-30)
People with multiple personality can exhibit a disease state in one personality which does not turn up in other personalities. Researcher Candace Pert, who pioneeered the whole field of neurotransmitting chemicals, gives a couple of examples of the phenomenon in an interview with Bill Moyers:
"[Candace Pert, Ph.D]: Emotions are in two realms. They can be in the physical realm, where we're talking about molecules whose molecular weight I can tell you, and whose sequences I can write as formulas. And there's another realm that we experience that's not under the purview of science. There are aspects of mind that have qualities that seem to be outside of matter. Let me give you an example. People with multiple personalities sometimes have extremely clear physical symptoms that vary with each personality. One personality can be allergic to cats while another is not. One personality can be diabetic and another not.
[Bill] Moyers: But the multiple personality exists in the same body. The physical matter has not changed from personality to personality.
Pert: But it does. You can measure it. You can show that one personality is making as much insulin as it needs, and the next one, who shows up half an hour later, can't make insulin.
Moyers: So in the person with multiple personalities, the brain is releasing different messengers." (Pert and Moyers, 1993)
Michael Talbot and Greg Hitter collect several other examples of this in their respective books. Talbot says "Frequently a medical condition possessed by one personality will mysteriously vanish when another personality takes over. Dr. Bennet Braun of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality, in Chicago, has documented a case in which all of a patient's subpersonalities were allergic to orange juice, except one. If the man drank orange juice when one of his allergic personalities was in control, he would break out in a terrible rash. But if he switched to his nonallergic personality, the rash would instantly start to fade and he could drink orange juice freely.... There are cases of women who have two or three menstrual periods each month because each of their subpersonalities has its own cycle. Speech pathologist Christy Ludlow has found that the voice pattern for each of a multiple's personalities is different, a feat that requires such a deep physiological change that even the most accomplished actor cannot alter his voice enough to disguise his voice pattern. One multiple, admitted to a hospital for diabetes, baffled her doctors by showing no symptoms when one of her nondiabetic personalities was in control. There are accounts of epilepsy coming and going with changes in personality." (Talbot, 1991, p.99)
Greg Hitter confirms "Within a given individual, multiple disease states can exhibit themselves exclusively of each other, depending on the state of consciousness ('personality') currently activated in the conscious mind. Thus, with one personality expressing itself in the conscious mind/body system, the individual can show all the clinical symptoms of diabetes, for example, and require insulin -- while a shift into another personality may result in no presence of any disease state or perhaps the clinically-confirmed appearance of a cardiovascular condition requiring entirely another type of medication and treatment. Thus, clinical measurements show changes not only in immunoreactivity when the individual switches from one personality to another but in bodily functions and metabolism as well, as the subject becomes hypertensive in one personality, diabetic in another, and neither of these in yet other states of consciousness (Hall, N.R.S. et al., 1994; Cosh J., 1996; Hirshberg C. & Barasch M., 1995)." (Hitter, 1997, Introduction)
There is evidence that people with multiple personality activate quite separate areas of the hippocampus as well as quite separate areas in the cortex, as they access each personality. "Having a sense of self is an explicit and high-level functional specialization of the human brain. The anatomical localization of self-awareness and the brain mechanisms involved in consciousness were investigated by functional neuroimaging different emotional mental states of core consciousness in patients with Multiple Personality Disorder (i.e., Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)). We demonstrate specific changes in localized brain activity consistent with their ability to generate at least two distinct mental states of self-awareness, each with its own access to autobiographical trauma-related memory. Our findings reveal the existence of different regional cerebral blood flow patterns for different senses of self. We present evidence for the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the posterior associative cortices to have an integral role in conscious experience." (Reinders et alia 2003 p 2119)
This tells us that, to a much larger extent than most people realise, it is our memories that determine, which physical health conditions we experience each day, rather than the actual physical capacities and limits of our body. the memories in the hippocampus do not merely reactivate the specific memory structures in the sensory cortex; they reactivate specific memory structures throughout the body. Our body is to a large extent a memory encoding device itself. Taking charge of our memory could take charge of our body.
The brain remembers the sequence of life events in the hippocampus (just as it remembers the spacial coordinates of events there), using what NLP has termed a "time line". A time line is a spacial metaphor in which events are thought of as occurring along a line which stretches out in one direction to the past, and in another direction to the future. Examples of this way of mentally organising events are referred to in everyday speech; for example when we say "I'm going to put that whole experience behind me now." Or "I'm looking forward to seeing you again." Boroditsky (2000) tested the relationship between time and space by posing questionnaires to Standford University undergraduates and it was found that there was an obvious relationship between spatial schemas and perception of time. A reaction time method was then adopted by Santiago and his colleagues (2007), who tested the spatial relation of left/right in the person's cognitive conception of time. They found that reaction times were faster when past words were mapped onto the left key and similarly, future words with the right key. Abdul Rahman (2011) confirmed the relationship in another cultural setting in 2011.
This use of spacial distinctions for time was first described in NLP by Connirae and Steve Andreas (1987, p 1-24). Since then, a number of other NLP Practitioners have developed ways to work with the brain's coding of memory. These include "Re-imprinting" and "Change Personal History" (Dilts, Hallbom and Smith, 1990) and "Time Line Therapy (TM)" (James and Woodsmall, 1988). These techniques seem to have a significant effect on physical health conditions. They tend to involve eliciting the time line spacial coordinates and then viewing the original traumatic events from a new time perspective on that line, while connecting to emotional resources from other areas of the person's life.
For example, a one year research study (May 1993-May 1994) into the treatment of asthmatics, using Time Line Therapy (TM), was done in Denmark. Results were presented at a number of European conferences, including the Danish Society of Allergology Conference (August 1994), and the European Respiratory Society Conference (Nice, France, October 1994). The study was run by General Medical Practitioner Jorgen Lund and NLP Master Practitioner Hanne Lund, from Herning, Denmark. Patients were selected from 8 general practices. 30 were included in the NLP Intervention group, and 16 in the control group. All received basic medical care including being supplied with medication. Most had never heard of NLP before, and many were completely unbelieving in it, or terrified of it. Their motivation to do NLP was generally low. The intervention group had an initial day introduction to NLP and Time Line Therapy (TM), and then 3-36 hours (average 13) of NLP intervention. The NLP focus was not mainly on the asthma; it was on how the people lived their daily lives. The results affected both the peoples general lives, and their asthma. Patients tended to describe their change subjectively as enabling them to be "more open", get "colossal strength and self confidence" "a new life" etc.
The lung capacity of adult asthmatics tends to decrease by 50ml a year average. This occurred in the control group. Meanwhile the NLP group increased their lung capacity by an average of 200ml (like reversing four years of damage in a year!). Daily variations in peak flow (an indicator of unstable lung function) began at 30%-40%. In the control group they reduced to 25% but in the NLP group they fell to below 10% . Sleep disorders in the control group began at 70% and dropped to 30%. In the NLP group they began at 50% and dropped to ZERO. Use of asthma inhalers and acute medication in the NLP group fell to near ZERO.
Hanne Lund points out that the implications of this project reach far beyond asthma management. The patients who used NLP did not consciously do something different in order to cure their asthma. They had the unconscious areas of the brain respond differently to solve their problems. Lund says "We consider the principles of this integrated work valuable in treatment of patients with any disease, and the next step will be to train medical staff in this model." (Lund, 1995).
In this essay I extensively reviewed the evidence and consequences of the claim that memories are constantly being reconsolidated. I looked at four specific ways to use this understanding in daily life.
What is Memory: Firstly, I described how the flow of experience is parceled by the brain into discrete events, and memory results from a series of changes in the brain after such an event. These changes occur centrally in the hippocampus, which keeps track of time and space coordinates, in the amygdala, which assesses the emotional impact of each event, and in the sensory cortex where the sensory details of the experience will be registered. In the first days, memories are mainly stored in a buffer area of the hippocampus, and during sleep and re-accessing experiences, they are "reconsolidated" to other brain areas. In this reconsolidation process, procedures are stored separately, and disturbing memories are re-organized as "observer" memories. Several research studies demonstrate that the repeated reconsolidation of memories results in them becoming increasingly less accurate to the original event, even in the case of emotionally significant "flashbulb" memories of major events. For the brain, the aim of storing memories is not to get recording accuracy but to create learned sequences of behaviour (strategies) which are triggered whenever a sensory experience similar to the original one reoccurs.
There are four ways to more effectively utilize this memory system:
Changing Emotional responses to Memories: There are at least three different ways to effectively change the emotional response to a memory, during a window of memory reconsolidation. 1) Anchoring is an NLP technique which involves connecting the spatial memory to a new emotional response. 2) Using rapid side to side and diagonal eye movement while reconsolidating the memory prevents it being laid down in the same brain areas. 3) Rehearsing the person through the NLP movie theatre and rewind process reconsolidates it as an observer memory.
Enhancing Memory of Facts: To enhance memory of facts that you want to protect from reconsolidative changes, you can use memory pegs (which connect the new memories to resilient sequences already stored such as the sequence of numerals) and the journey method (which utilizes the natural spatial sorting of the hippocampus to store specific new memories at each of a number of locations in a pre-established journey.
Planning for Future Events: In the brain constructed future experiences are built in the same memory system as reconsolidated memories. Futurepacing means connecting desired future actions to identified pegs or locations which will trigger their use at appropriate times in the future. Goalsetting is an advanced method of doing this, and involves creating sensory specific future outcome points and plans which take into account the various side-effects of these plans. The image of your own future self can also be made more vivid, more attractive, and more similar to the current self, to enhance motivation for action supportive of it.
Healing the Body: Memories of body functions such as precise muscle movement skills and immune responses are stored in similar fashion, and can be altered, with effects on the results that the body delivers. In NLP processes such as Time Line Therapy (TM), the temporal coding of memories in a "time line" is utilized to guide the person to reconsolidate memories and restore body functions.
If you had some understanding of NLP before, then I can now explain that my aim in this essay is to reconsolidate your entire memory of NLP. It will never be quite the same again. That's what is happening every time you think about it of course.
Author: Richard Bolstad
Fellow Member Trainer (IANLP), Master Trainer (ICI, IN), Doctor of Clinical Hypnotherapy, Time Line Therapy (TM) Master Trainer, Chi Kung Instructor, Teacher (DipTchTert), Registered Nurse (RCpN)
Richard runs the training organisation 'Transformations International Consulting & Training Ltd', within which he trains with his wife Julia Kurusheva in New Zealand and internationally. He is widely recognised in the NLP community for his promotion of research-based NLP and is a contributing author in the new books The Clinical Effectiveness of Neurolinguistic Programming: A Critical Appraisal (Advances in Mental Health Research), and Innovations in NLP: Innovations for Challenging Times (where his RESOLVE model for NLP coaching is explained).
Richard is the author of many NLP books, published in 8 languages, including Transforming Communication and RESOLVE: A New Model of Therapy. His Transforming Communication course is taught in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australasia, and is available in more than 12 languages. He is also an expert on the application of NLP to major disaster events and has run training for Trauma Response in Samoa, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina,
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