A friend and I were discussing our phobias a few nights ago, and he described to me an instance in which he was chased by a large dog as a child, resulting in a long-standing fear of dogs. Almost all of us have these types of fears, instilled by past experiences and associations. Fortunately, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests there may be relief for individuals suffering from these phobias and similar psychological disorders.
The novel treatment method is based on recent research on how memories are stored in the brain. For many years, it was assumed that once memories were stored, they were in-alterable relics of identity, antiquated ruins gathering dust on the bookshelf of the individual consciousness. The latest research suggests this is simply not true. Instead, memories can be removed from the bookshelf, altered, and then restored in their altered form. That seems logical enough. In fact, when I first read the article, I couldn’t help thinking, Well, of course! That’s almost intuitive! The same thing often occurs when I peruse psychology articles and neuroscience articles; I've come to realize that the best research in these disciplines tends to reflect our natural knowledge. So what’s especially interesting about this research are the implications for treatment.
If memories could be modified before they are restored, couldn’t we modify the memory to make the experience seem less traumatic? This is exactly what therapists are now proposing. Suppose, one day, as a bright young child of six, a large Rottweiler decided you would be the perfect chew toy and chased you into your house while nipping at your feet. You escaped unharmed, but you were scarred for life. Even the most adorable and harmless puppies now terrify you. To modify the memory, therapists suggest that you first revisit the memory in detail, including the emotions you experienced. This step is critical, because it’s the only way to withdraw the memory from the mental “bookshelf.”
Next begins the actual memory modification process. A doctor exposes you to the object of your fear, and through medication that lowers your blood pressure or behavioral therapy, you grow adjusted to the object. You learn to no longer associate the object with the emotions accompanying fear. And finally, you restore these modified memories. The treatment is currently being tested on individuals with phobias, smoking addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Clearly, this research could affect the treatment of millions of individuals.
“I don’t really want to talk about it…” It’s the surefire way to avoid confronting a fear or uncomfortable experience. But now talking about it, writing about it, modifying it, and then restoring it may be the best option for treatment. We’re one step closer to relieving psychological distress, and thankfully, one giant leap away from the enormous dogs and slithering snakes.