EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - is a form of therapy that effectively addresses the traumatic memories and experiences that distort and disturb our experience of ourselves and the world around us. By traumatic, I do not necessarily mean solely those events that are typically understood as traumatic, such as a violent assault or catastrophic accident, I simply mean anything that our minds were not able to deal with at that stage in our lives and by which we were therefore overwhelmed. This might be due to separation or neglect if a parent was unavailable or depressed.

Research over the last 50 years, from John Bowlby onwards, has definitively shown how such early experience has a profound affect on our later lives and our experience of ourselves. Early relational experience, which may amount to early relational trauma, structures our personality and experience of the world.

Adaptive Information Processing Model

The theory behind EMDR understands that disturbing, traumatic experiences underlie current psychological disturbances, pathological traits, problem behaviours, beliefs and emotions, and that these are manifestations of these ‘unprocessed’, disturbing, memories and experiences.

These unprocessed memories are ‘hard-wired’ into our systems in memory networks. The personal meaning of these memories, or ‘touchstone events’, becomes the lens (the template or blueprint) through which we view ourselves and the world. EMDR focuses on identifying and then processing these memories.

To understand something of the mechanisms by which these memories are processed follow this link ... 

Trauma and the brain

Repeated traumatic experience effects the brain in many ways; here are just a few:

Trauma puts the amygdala, the emotional 'alert mechanism' (the brain's smoke detector), on red alert. At the same time the orbitofrontal systems, which deal with self-control and rational thought, are increasingly less activated.

Alexander McFarlane's study of war veterans showed that with each tour of duty the amygdala was more highly activated and the orbitofrontal systems were less activated.

Chronic high levels of stress hormones also compromise hippocampal functioning, which decreases reality testing and memory functioning as well as decreasing the ability to control the amygdala.

For further information see: Cozolino L. (2002) The impact of trauma on the brain. In: The neuroscience of psychotherapy. Building and rebuilding the human brain (pp.257-288). New York: W.W. Norton.

What brain scans show

Bessel van der Kolk has brought together work from many of his colleagues to show how traumatic experience effects the brain. For further in depth study see van der Kolk's excellent book, 'The Body Keeps the Score' (2014).

The following scans, taken from his book, show how, following a trauma, there is a marked increase in the functioning of the amygdala (picture 1), as well as the visual cortex - associated with flashbacks (picture 2), as well as a decrease in the activity of Broca's Area - associated with speech, so that we may experience 'wordless terror' and be rendered mute or incoherent (picture 3). 


Furthermore, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that links past, present and future, and gives us a sense of continuity goes offline when we have experienced trauma, so that we feel that the traumatic experience is going on forever. The dorsolateral cortex is on the front lefthand side of the brain and is blank (deactivated) in the brain scan image below.

Additionally the thalamus, which integrates the different bits of experience - sound, touch, sight, smell, emotion - into a coherent story goes offline, so that we do not have a coherent sense of what has happened, but rather experience (intrusive) emotional and somatic 'flashbacks' of the traumatic experience. This is shown by the blank area in the front mid-section of the brain in the image below.


Scan images from 'The Body Keeps the Score'