Applications of Neuroscience and Mindfulness
in Processing, Modifying and Integrating Memories
When memories are recalled and become present in one’s mind, they are subject to modification through “mixing” with the information that is also present in current experience. Convincing evidence of this process of memory modification and reconsolidation has been identified in laboratory studies1, specifically in the context of aversive, fearful memories. Though one can only cautiously generalize from experimental data to every-day life, evidence suggests that this process of “mixing” and reconsolidation is an ordinary and commonplace consequence of memory recall. The degree to which memories may be modified in any instance of recall is likely to be both constrained and variable, however the mental health clinician should be on notice that this process is likely to occur in treatment sessions when memories are explored.
Obviously, this process has the potential of positive therapeutic impact, particularly in the case of traumatic memories that may be recalled in a safe therapeutic context. It may, in fact, underlie some of the efficacy of existing experiential treatments. However the specific characteristics of reconsolidation make it reasonable to suppose that mindfulness techniques can play an important role in this process. Mindfulness involves training in attentional flexibility, which supports a grounding in present experience and disrupts habitual cognitive and emotional reactivity. Specifically, integration of mindfulness techniques in the client/clinician alliance can promote a reliable orientation to current experience during the session. In this way the client can be aware of being present, in relationship with the clinician, and in the absence of the original danger, as well as being aware of the problematic memories being recalled and explored. Mindfulness can thereby provide a practical means by which a beneficial “mix” may be brought about and reconsolidated, though this is of course dependent on the quality of the client/clinician relationship and the ability of the clinician to collaborate in holding a safe place with the client. In my experience, many clients can acquire a mindfulness practice that can facilitate treatment in this way.
1 Reconsolidation of Human Memory: Brain Mechanisms and Clinical Relevance. Schwabe L, Nader K, Pruessner JC. Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Mar 15. pii: S0006-3223(14)00161-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.03.008.