EMDR & Brain Hacking
Quiet on the surface, a sleeping human body houses a bustling host of brain activity.
Deep in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, your brain methodically processes and categorizes the day’s events away in your memory. Is there a specific piece of information you need to retain for that big presentation tomorrow? Are you saving a snapshot of studying at the kitchen table, or are you incorporating the events into a greater narrative of your fear of public speaking?
More likely than not, the entire day is wiped from your memory just like countless days before it. Your brain saves essential information and culls details that are no longer useful. There are times, however, when this process goes awry. Frequently, traumatic events or stressful memories become trapped in this loop, playing over and over again in vivid detail.
A growing form of therapy purposes to utilize these sleep-activated brainwaves to rid the brain of unnecessary trauma details, such as negative emotions, images and physical sensations. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has proven to be as, if not more than, effective as therapist-directed talk therapy in treating the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., developed the idea for EMDR while on a walk in the woods. She noticed her stress decreasing as her eyes darted back and forth, taking in her surroundings. Further, she found that negative thoughts frequently paired with spontaneous eye movements to the upper right in particular.
Thus was born the basis for EMDR, treatment in which a therapist intentionally directs the back-and-forth eye movements characteristic of REM sleep.
While this may sound familiar to anyone who has witnessed an on-screen hypnosis, EMDR has little to do with the hypnotism we watch in movies. EMDR hacks the brain by inducing bilateral stimulation. What comes after the bilateral stimulation is where the biomechanics get murky. One theory suggests that stimulating both sides of the brain at once opens up and reforms memory pathways that have been damaged after trauma. This simulation mimics that of REM sleep, which in turn, allows the brain to process traumatic events.
EMDR treatments now exist in several methods. Alternating taps on the hands or knees, pings delivered by earphones and vibrations delivered by specialized devices have all garnered positive results.
How exactly EMDR works in the brain is still unclear, as is the case with many of the psychotherapies used today. What is clear is that it works. More than 20 controlled studies have shown EMDR to be an effective treatment in 75-100 percent of PTSD-affected participants.
A study by HMO Kaiser Permanente reported 100 percent of single-trauma victims and 77 percent of multiple-trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD following six 50-minute sessions (Marcus, Marquis & Sakai, 1997, 2004). Another study showed 12 sessions to be an effective PTSD treatment in 77 percent of combat veterans experiencing multiple traumas (Charlson, Chemtob, Rusnak, Hedlund & Muraoka, 1998).
In those with a background of extensive childhood abuse, the efficacy of EMDR rivaled that of Prozac in a Journal of Clinical Psychiatry study (Van der Kolk, Spinazzola, Blaustein, Hopper, J., Hopper, E., Korn & Simpson, 2007). Immediately following both treatments, 100 percent of adult-onset participants and 75 percent of childhood-onset participants were found to be were PTSD asymptomatic. However at a six-month follow up, 75 percent of the adult-onset and 33.3 percent of the childhood-onset EMDR participants continued to be symptom-free; no one from the pharmacologically-treated group was found to be asymptomatic at that point.
While a pharma-solution remains a great first line of defense in treating PTSD, EMDR and other psychotherapies have breached new frontiers in restoring health to brains we once thought were permanently damaged.
Aimee Pass is a freelance writer and designer from Austin, TX. Her work, which includes a background in science and health writing, can be found across the state of Texas. Find more of her work online at www.aimeediane.com or connect with her on Twitter @aimeepass.