Foundations to Understanding EMDR

There are three things I need you to understand prior to explaining EMDR in depth. I want to explain neuroplasticity, how memories are stored, and lastly explaining core beliefs.

Donald Hebb, a neuropsychologist said “Neurons that fire together wire together”.  This means the more that our brains think in one pathway the more our brains will naturally gravitate toward that way of thinking.  The neurons will continue to fire the same way until we actively work to change them. The human brain has neuroplasticity.  This allows the neurons in our brains to shift, change, and be remapped.   The more repetition that a belief, comments, or similar memories occur the more likely they are to continue to happen.  For example, growing up in a verbally abusive house might make a person very sensitive to yelling no matter what setting they are in. Neurons can also change based on positive experiences as well, we see that the more you practice a sport or instrument the better we become and the easier it is to succeed.  Knowing this is important because even though at times you might feel stuck, or hopeless neurons can change, and so can you.

When it comes to storing a memory there are two ways a memory is stored, either as an implicit memory, or an explicit memory.  Implicit memories are those that are automatic, emotional, experienced through senses, and unconscious-we don’t have words for them.  These memories are stored in the right brain, and remember we have no words for these memories.  Our explicit memories are ones that we can recall, or have a narrative for, we have words for them.  These memories are stored in the left brain.  Traditional talk therapy only has access to the left brain, whereas EMDR has access to the right and left brain.  When negative beliefs or memories are in the right brain they are almost trapped.  Though traditional talk therapy might help to lessen the triggering memories that we have words for, we can only get so far while the implicit memories are still strong.

Lastly, everybody has core beliefs, some are positive beliefs (I have worth, I am important, I am loved), and some are negative (I’m worthless, I am unimportant, I am abandoned).  A lot of core beliefs are formed at young ages, and are generally strengthened throughout a lifetime.  The longer we go holding onto negative core beliefs the more prominent they become, the more we notice the negative and discount the positive.

These three elements are key in understanding EMDR. EMDR is able to work on changing our core beliefs that might be there because of implicit memories. We are able to lessen the pathways of negative beliefs and strengthen pathways to positive beliefs because of neuroplasticity.

-Written by: Bethany Juran, LPC
-With contribution from Andrea Serrano