The National Council of Psychotherapists
The MAN Model
This article is intended to help the therapist to understand how the physical nature of memory can be used in a practical and direct way to help clients. This article will be dealing with memory – a subject about which there is much disagreement and controversy.
However, that such disagreement might exist in the professional arena does not mean that we cannot look to developing practical models supported by possible reasons for why this particular model may work better than others.
A little history – while serving in a Special Forces Unit I had plenty of opportunity to observe first hand, and to experience for myself, this thing called trauma.
I’ve lost colleagues and friends to suicide and self-destructive behaviour as a result of, not lack of support, but lack of appropriate support.
Over time, what we discovered is that when people were encouraged to talk about their experiences CALMLY, and could remember them while remaining calm, then something unexpected happened.
They quickly began to change their perspective and their hitherto strong responses, anger, fear, etc. when faced with reminders of the event, began to diminish quite rapidly. What was happening?
Local therapists chided us for our naïve approach to the whole thing and suggested that perhaps we should be leaving the treatment of our friends and colleagues in their ‘expert’ hands. The fact that in general we would rather walk on fire across broken glass than end up having treatment by one of these experts seemed to be a point not very well taken on board.
We didn’t need theories; we needed something that would work. We were a highly active unit and what we learned for ourselves and from colleagues who had been there before saved lives.
Ironically it is only fairly recently that a lot of what we, as ‘amateurs’ were saying were some of the keys to trauma treatment over 18 years ago, are now being touted as the modern therapy approach to same. These approaches have given birth to such things as the fast phobia cure for example, which I first saw demonstrated in the Jungles of South America in the early 80’s. A lot of what we learned was through exposure to soldiers from Eastern Cultures whose knowledge of certain things made our local experts look very amateurish indeed.
Many clients consult therapists with traumatic memories. Generally speaking most relaxation-based therapies (and hypnosis is a case in point) are capable of being used to achieve good results. How much better would these results be if we were to actually understand a demonstrable process by which a memory can be detraumatised? What is the process?
The first thing to understand about memory is that it is a bio-chemical process. It is something that happens inside us. Memory is stored inside us and so if it requires manipulating or influencing this process must also take place inside us.
How does the mind store information? It's thought that people have two major types of memory: short-term and long-term. Something in your short-term memory might be what this article looks interesting (or not). Something in your long-term memory might be how to ride a bicycle.
In order for us to remember something the stored memory has to be ‘activated’. For example, what did you have for breakfast this morning? Don’t be surprised if you don’t exactly remember, but have a good general idea. That memory was dormant until something (my asking in this case) caused you to activate it. When no longer required the memory is again ‘laid to rest’ and is sent to storage again until such time as it may be required again.
Now the key, is in which part of the brain the memory might be stored? Most scientists agree that it is very useful to describe human memory as a set of STORES. In other words "places" to put information. To this must be added a set of processes that that act on the stores. About the simplest model might contain 3 different stores:
· The Sensory Information Store
· The Short-Term Store
· The Long-Term Store
And 3 processes…
· Encoding (putting information into a store)
· Maintenance (keeping it "alive")
· Retrieval (finding encoded information)
How does this relate to traumatic memories? Let’s introduce a brief model, the explanation forms the rest of this article.
The AMYGDALA forms part of the limbic system. It is a complex structure, consisting of about ten distinct nuclei. The amygdala mediates both inborn and acquired emotional responses. It seems to be involved in mediating both conscious and unconscious emotional feeling. Whether you are ecstatic, dejected or frightened, we all know that emotions can take control of your life. Modern research is providing clear evidence that the emotion of fear is decipherable. Recent research into the role of the Amygdala has certainly been enlightening.
The identification of a specific brain system that processes fear is spurring a great interest in the field. New discoveries are beginning to unravel the former mystery surrounding many mental disorders and are prompting the development of new treatments. Of course, that is the western take on things. In reality what is happening is that Western Science and research is finally catching up with what the wisdom traditions of the Orient have known for millennia: that meditation practice literally and physically improves your brain behaviour.
So what’s all the fuss?
The amygdala receives signals of the potential danger and begins to set off a series of reactions that will help you protect yourself, according to an increasing number of studies.
Now, suppose that in line with our storage system detailed above we assumed that memories of a traumatic nature are encoded (stored) in a part of the brain where the fear emotion is very active. Being stored close to the amygdala the memory has automatic emotional response built in – fear!
What we discovered in the early 80’s, and what is being demonstrated today, is that the key to detraumatising a memory is in re-encoding it into a different storage area of the brain, closer to the neocortex, the depository of more normal memories.
The process is simple, retrieve the memory and change the circumstances around its being re-encoded. (The model is simple – the application not so, it varies with the level of trauma and numerous other factors) This is how the rewind technique, fast phobia cure and many other effective approaches to trauma treatment work. It also explains why the process of psychological debriefing or Critical incident Debriefing works so well in knowledgeable hands, and can be so disastrous when applied indiscriminately.
When working with a client in such circumstances MAN makes sense. Memory, where is it stored? Amygdala? Neocortex? A detraumatised memory can still be unpleasant, but such if life, we can’t change what has happened, but we can change the way the memory of it is stored in our brain.
For those interested in further research, a good buy would be a recently published book ‘Human Givens’. The authors have bravely made their case and rarely for this field have hit the nail on the head…
Michael O’Sullivan FNCP