Emotional learnings keep us safe
Imagine your great-great-etc grandparent, a hunter-gatherer, stumbling across a new type of berry. Is it a good source of energy? Or poison? They take a risk and taste a tiny bit—AGH! It tastes terrible. They’re probably tasting the bitterness of toxic alkaloids and would get sick if they ate more. Fortunately, the human brain adapted to protect them from making that mistake more than once. They’ve just acquired the emotional learning “this kind of berry is bad for me.” It’s an emotional learning because they learned it in the presence of the strong emotion of revulsion.
Unlike the facts you crammed for your history test, emotional learnings die hard. Imagine that years later, your ancestor came across the same type of berry, and, like you in your history test, they’ve forgotten their mental diary entry of the day they first found this berry. (They would remember it if prompted, but it’s not “active” right now.) Consciously, they don’t see anything wrong with this berry. But subconsciously, their emotional learning is guiding them. Their stomach gets a little queasy. Something feels off. They lose their appetite and decide not to try the berry. Their emotional learning is keeping them safe from illness even without their conscious awareness of it.
Emotional learnings keep us scared
Thank goodness for our durable emotional learnings, keeping the species alive this long! But unfortunately, they’re not always this helpful. Imagine you’re five years old, and you go to a birthday party. A clown comes to entertain the kids, but to your five year old mind, this clown is a terrifying monster that you can’t make sense of. The clown thinks he’s funny, not scary, so he tries to engage you, and all you know is that a scary monster that’s a lot bigger and stronger than you is coming after you. You acquire the emotional learning “clowns aren’t safe.”
Years pass, and you learn about makeup and rubber noses and the fact that some people think surrealism is hilarious. You know clowns are just regular humans and that they reach out to kids to entertain them, not attack them. You feel really silly for being afraid of clowns. But just like the hunter gatherer’s queasy stomach, your body gets scared of clowns even when your conscious mind doesn’t. Your palms sweat and you feel squirmy, and you don’t know how to explain it to your friends who love going to the circus.
Counteracting emotional learnings
Neuroscientists used to think that this was the trade-off of being human: you remember not to eat poisonous berries forever, but unfortunately, you’re stuck being afraid of clowns forever, too. Emotional learnings just don’t go away. The best we can do, it was thought, is add a new learning into the mix, like “clowns are fun,” and practice the new learning so much that it becomes stronger than the old one. This is sometimes called the counteracting the emotional learning. The stronger of the two learnings is more likely to influence our feelings and behaviors, so with practice, we’re able to tolerate clowns most of the time. But since the old learning is still there, we have to keep up that practice forever, and even then, the old learning can still win out under certain circumstances.
Have you ever had an old emotional learning show up again after you thought you had kicked it? This scenario might feel familiar: imagine you developed a new morning routine. You had learned to hate mornings when you were growing up and sent to high school at the crack of dawn, so as an adult you would stay in bed too long and then be rushed to get ready in time. Then you found out that you LOVE smoothies, being, as you are, the great-great-etc grandchild of a berry connoisseur. That helped you learn that mornings are actually fun. You started getting up on time, looking forward to your morning smoothie, and thought, “This is the new me! I’m a morning person now!”
And then one day, you got sick. For a week, you skipped your morning routine, for good reason. When you recovered, you assumed you’d get right back into your smoothie-making routine…but somehow, it was a lot harder. You were getting enough sleep, and you still loved smoothies, but your new “mornings are fun” learning had gotten weaker, exposing the fact that your “mornings are the wooooorst” learning was still there in your brain. You can get back into your routine with effort, but it’ll always be possible to fall off the smoothie wagon again.
Counteraction used to the be the state of the art. A lot of people still think it is. But around the year 2000, neuroscientists realized that emotional learnings can be, not just counteracted, but erased. Here’s a little bit about how they discovered it—feel free to skip this part if you’re not interested.
The discovery of memory reconsolidation
An emotional learning is a type of memory, even though it’s not a diary-entry type of memory. So like any memory, it starts out in short-term memory, capable of being lost, and then gets “cemented” into long-term memory. This cementing process, called memory consolidation, requires the brain to synthesize proteins. That means that chemicals like anisomycin, which get in the way of protein synthesis, can prevent memory consolidation from happening, so the memory never makes it into long-term storage.
If a rat is given anisomycin while learning something new, the memory won’t stick. So that’s how to prevent the formation of new emotional learnings. In 2000, Karim Nader, Glenn E. Schafe, and Joseph E. Le Doux found that you can also use this chemical to erase an existing emotional learning. (It’s hard to give anyone credit for being the first to discover that emotional learnings can be erased, because it took many experiments for all the dots to get connected, but this paper is an important landmark.)
In 2004, María Pedreira, Luis María Pérez-Cuesta, and Héctor Maldonado got a clearer understanding of what makes it sometimes possible to erase an existing emotional learning. They found that the key is that the subject experiences a prediction error: their emotional learning teaches them that x will happen, so they expect x to happen now, but it doesn’t, and so their prediction is proven wrong. For instance, an existing emotional learning tells a rat “if a blue light flashes, you’ll get shocked” and then a blue light flashes and the rat does NOT get shocked.
We think that in this moment of (pleasant) surprise, the consolidated memory deconsolidates, as if the cement around the memory melts. The memory is still there, but now it’s “labile,” or changeable. This is actually the magical part; if I had named the phenomenon, I would’ve named it “memory deconsolidation.” But strangely, they didn’t write to me in high school and ask for my opinion. So instead, the phenomenon is named for what happens next: a few hours after deconsolidation, the memory reconsolidates. But during that window between deconsolidation and reconsolidation, anything can happen. The memory can be tweaked or even completely erased, so that when it cements again, it tells you something different, or nothing.
Remember, we’re talking about the emotional learning, not the mental diary entry, so this won’t erase your memory of your life events. In the clown example, you would remember getting scared by a clown when you were five, but you wouldn’t feel scared around clowns in the present anymore.
The application of memory reconsolidation
This is an amazing finding, but how can we apply it to humans without giving them toxic chemicals? Fortunately, memory reconsolidation is a discovery, not an invention. It’s a natural ability of the minds of humans and many other animals. Imagine another one of your distant ancestors who once found poisonous berries. This great-etc grandmother of yours, though, went back to the berry bush a month later, with a friend. She gasped as her friend popped a handful of the awful tasting and surely toxic berries in their mouth. The friend explained: these berries ripen late in the season! Now that they’re ripe, they’re good to eat! Your ancestor tentatively tried one. Her subconscious mind expected it to taste awful, but her tongue told her it was sweet. She felt a weird, mind-boggly feeling for a moment, and tried it again: yep, it really is sweet. It sank in: this berry isn’t ALWAYS unsafe. Her ability to learn what foods are safe was important to her survival just like her ability to learn what isn’t safe, and she passed both abilities down to you.
And so, people occasionally undergo memory reconsolidation in everyday life and in every form of therapy and coaching—just not as frequently or predictably as we would like. But some therapists and coaches are learning to harness the power of memory reconsolidation on purpose.
In the 1990s, Bruce Ecker and Laurel Hulley developed a modality of therapy that seemed more effective than usual. Later, they realized that the reason it was working so well was that they had stumbled upon a process that guides people through the steps needed for memory reconsolidation. Now that they know all about the science of memory reconsolidation, they’re able to teach it even more precisely, and they do so, with other colleagues, through the Coherence Psychology Institute. They also train coaches like me in Coherence Coaching.
The Coherence Psychology Institute leaders are the first to point out that no one can own memory reconsolidation. Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laurel Hulley’s book Unlocking the Emotional Brain explains how many other modalities can guide clients through memory reconsolidation, and Robin Ticic, Elise Kushner, and Bruce Ecker’s The Listening Book encourages non-professionals to be the kind of friendly ear that can help people have their own memory reconsolidation experiences. The other modalities I use, Internal Family Systems and Aletheia Coaching, also guide clients through memory reconsolidation.
The hallmarks of memory reconsolidation
It sounds nice in theory—get rid of the learning “clowns are out to get me,” or “mornings are to be dreaded,” forever! But what effects do we actually observe? The Coherence Psychology Institute teaches that when memory reconsolidation has truly occurred:
- the symptom is no longer present
- the conditions that used to trigger the symptom no longer do, and
- the client does not have to exert effort to keep the symptom away
In my work as a coach, I don’t use a medicalized view of “symptoms,” but I still find that memory reconsolidation brings a transformation that doesn’t require effort to maintain. My client Anne reconsolidated an emotional learning that had been driving her to people-please, which was impeding her ability to work on the things most important to her. Afterwards, she would tell me a new story every week about her newly unlocked ability to stand up for herself. It applied to relationships of all kinds, with people we had never discussed in coaching. I didn’t teach her any tricks for saying no or setting boundaries, and I didn’t use rewards or accountability to pump up her motivation to do so. She simply feels more at ease speaking her mind now. She notices that she doesn’t spend as much time second-guessing herself, asking friends for their opinion on what she should say, or over-explaining her decisions. (You can read her account in her words in the testimonial section of my booking page.)
And that’s what I love about this work: the ease that it makes possible. I don’t want to live a life of constantly bribing and chiding myself to act like the person I want to be. I want to realize that I already am the person I want to be, and shed the learnings that keep that person from shining through.
If you want to look into how memory reconsolidation could apply to your struggles, such as people pleasing, procrastination, or perfectionism, fill out this form and I’ll send you a personalized outline of how memory reconsolidation-informed coaching might address your issue.
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