How Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Works

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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a very successful psychotherapy for treating PTSD, anxiety, and addiction.

Patients are forced to recall the anxiety-producing or traumatic event while doing various eye movement exercises. Given its high success rate, EMDR has quickly grown in psychiatrists worldwide.

The issue is that it isn’t apparent why EMDR works, let alone why it works that well. Why does moving your eyeballs help you with trauma?

With the questions about the precise mechanism of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, some people call it a pseudo-scientific fad.

The following are three different sets of observed findings of the mind:

  1. We know that episodic memory is beneficial: Recalling an event we’ve experienced isn’t just accessing the memory but the active construction of the memory. Thus, remembering a memory isn’t like taking it out of the box and then placing it back where it was found when you are finished with it—the act of recalling changes the memory. In addition, putting an event alters the way it is programmed, so next time you’ll remember it differently than the last time.
  2. Many studies have shown that mental imagery is essential to episodic memory. The loss of the ability to create mental imagery results in episodic memory loss. A more critical set of findings is that important sensory cortical areas are activated when we remember an experience.
  3. Finally, there is much evidence for eye movements in mental imagery. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing during visual imagery recreates the sensations of the same scene visually. When we visualize a backdrop, our eye movements reflect the images of the visual scene. For example, when we see a pattern through a grid, our eye movements are isomorphous to eye movements when we think of the same pattern. Additionally, blocking eye movements weakens mental imagery vividness.

When we put these three pieces together, it describes why EMDR works as well as it does.

When people recall a traumatic event while rapidly moving their eyes, it will significantly reduce the vividness of the imagery in that episodic memory, knowing that abnormal eye movement desensitization and reprocessing minimizes the vividness of the mental imagery.

As remembering an event will change its illustration in memory when this memory gets re-programmed, it will be programmed less vividly.

This means EMDR is not a pseudo-science!

It is evident why eye movement desensitization and reprocessing works so well. However, this comes from different regions of psychological research—knowing why they can help people improve the effective way of treating a variety of trauma-related issues.

Alpha Brain

Dean Mathers

Editor-in-chief

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