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An ongoing series of informational entries

Memories are made of this

3 April 2023

When a caterpillar begins the amazing transformation that will turn it into a butterfly or moth, it first goes through the chrysalis stage, where it digests itself from the inside out. The butterfly or moth that emerges from the chrysalis appears to be a completely different kind of creature from its earlier incarnation. However science has revealed that butterflies and moths can remember what they learned as caterpillars.

In a remarkable experiment, caterpillars were conditioned to avoid the odour of nail polish remover by subjecting them to a mild electric shock when exposed to it. The butterflies that later emerged from the chrysalis also avoided that same smell, indicating that they retained a memory of what they had learned while in the caterpillar stage.

There are two main types of long-term memory: Explicit memory, in which information is consciously recalled, and Implicit memory, where information is saved without conscious awareness that its being recalled.

Whenever you recall a specific event that you have lived through, such as a holiday or birthday party for instance – or facts that you learned at school - this is explicit memory. When you perform a skill, such as riding a bike or typing on a keyboard, or even getting dressed in a morning, this is implicit memory. Once a skill has been mastered, it does not need to be thought about consciously.

The explicit and implicit knowings about the world, that we hold within our memory banks are mostly useful, and serve us well in navigating everyday life. There are times though when what we know (or think we know) becomes problematical. If, like the caterpillar in the lab, we receive unexpected shocks, we may learn to fear or avoid those things that we experienced at the same time as the shock, leading to phobias for example. We might say that the butterfly had a phobia of nail polish, and it may have no idea why.

When you re-visit, or recall a memory, that memory can be re-enforced, in a process that neuro-scientists call reconsolidation. In this way our memories, for good or ill, continue to influence what we experience today. Things that were learned in times of emotional distress can continue to influence our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, sometimes negatively.

It used to be thought that old learnings were indelible. However, in the last quarter century, a new discovery about the brain has overturned this view. It turns out that when old knowings are re-visited and held in awareness at the same time as other knowings that mismatch or disprove them, something remarkable starts to happen. The old learning becomes liable to change. And when this process is repeated several times, the old knowing is gone for good, in a process that is termed memory re-consolidation (MR).

So old learnings, that are no longer useful, or have passed their sell-by date, can be erased. This isn’t like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", the movie in which the Kim Cary and Kate Winslet characters have their memories of each other wiped. In MR the explicit memory is still there, but the implicit meaning of the memory has been transformed. Our butterfly could, in theory, be re-trained through a process that initiates MR, to no longer equate the smell of nail polish with something to be feared.

Memory Reconsolidation is a natural brain mechanism by which we can update our memory networks. It happens all the time in everyday life, and it is also powerfully utilised in many types of transformative psychotherapy, and most explicitly in Coherence Therapy.

For more information about Memory Reconsolidation and Coherence therapy see: https://coherencetherapy.org

....Perchance to dream

9th August 2021

In the last Blog I looked at some of the ways that we can optimise the conditions that are conducive to a good night’s sleep. In this Blog I want to explore one of the most fascinating aspects of sleep: Dreaming.

The average person dreams many times during each sleep period, though not everyone remembers their dreams. Even those who do remember dreaming will quickly forget the dream content within a few minutes of waking, unless they make a determined effort to retain the dream narrative, by writing it down or recounting it to another person.

A question that has perplexed people for a long time is this: Do dreams fulfil any useful function, or are they just random brain activity that serves no purpose? The findings sleep researchers indicate that dreams do indeed perform a vital function, in that they allow our sleeping brain to process the events of the previous day, particularly those events that have emotional significance.

The pioneering sleep scientist Rosalind Cartwright, known affectionately by her colleagues as the “Queen of Dreams”, conducted a landmark 25 year study on the relationship between dreaming and mood, by looking specifically at a particular group of people: those who were going through the major disruption of divorce. In the sleep lab she would waken her subjects as they were entering REM sleep, the phase of sleep that is most closely related to dreaming, and ask them to recount any dreams. By this process she discovered that those subjects who dreams reflected their waking concerns around the divorce, fared better in their overall mood than those who did not. Although they typically reported disturbing dreams in the early part of the night, they had more positive dreams in the second half of the night, and also better mood the following morning.

These findings suggest that for some people dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of disturbing events and so prepares them to wake ready to see things in a more positive light. 

From her many years of careful study Cartwright devised a method of dream therapy which involves learning how to remember dreams, and use simple effective strategies for “rewriting” better dreams, to help resolve depression and anxiety brought on by disturbing life events. She outlined these methods in her books “Crisis Dreaming” and “The Twenty-Four Hour Mind”.

Cartwright also writes about what happens when the healing potential of dreams breaks down as in the case of those very scary dreams that we call nightmares. When a nightmare is so frightening that it wakes the sleeper, the processing power of the dream in interrupted, and never reached a satisfactory conclusion. 

So one strategy for dealing with this is to actively confront the nightmare images with the intention of changing the ending to one in which the dreamer is in control. This idea has been refined by other people working in the field and has been called the “Dream Completion Technique”. One proponent is the therapist Dr Justin Havens who has produced a useful animated video that illustrates the steps of the technique. This is available at: https://tinyurl.com/bxmw6upu

What all this points to is a confirmation of the folk wisdom of old – that our dreams can help us to process our waking emotions and thus act as a healing balm. From this perspective we can, if we wish, learn to optimise this healing process by listening to what our dreams are telling us, and if necessary re-scripting the narrative in a healthy direction.

Top Tips for Better Sleep

30th July 2021

Good quality sleep is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing. Our periods of shut eye allow vital repair work to take place for the body and brain, boosting the immune system, while our periods of dream sleep are involved in mental housekeeping and memory consolidation. 

Sleep and dreaming have a vital role in our emotional lives, so addressing sleep issues plays an important part in maintaining health and vitality.

Here are my top tips for better sleep:

• Keep the bedroom clear of work-related items, mobile phones, computers, TVs and other electrical devises, or anything that is associated with wakefulness. Obviously if you have a mobile phone in the bedroom and it is left switched on there is always the danger that alerts and pings will disturb sleep. Even if it is switched off, the very fact that it is sitting there by the bed can be a distraction, so better to keep it in another room. If you have been using a phone alarm to wake you, get an alarm clock instead and ideally turn it around so that you cannot see it. This avoids any temptation to keep looking at it to check how long you have been awake.

• Ensure that your bedroom is conducive to sleep at night time. Consider the ways that you can keep it dark enough, quiet enough, and at an optimum temperature. Use black-out curtains or an eye mask if the sunlight wakes you up too early in the morning.

• During the daytime make a point of spending some time outdoors. This will ensure that you get sufficient daylight exposure as well as exercise, both of which will improve sleep.

• In the late evening reduce your exposure the blue-spectrum light that is emitted from computer screens, or download an app that filters out blue light.

• Eat regular meals and don’t go to bed hungry. Also avoid large meals late at night as a large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.

• Avoid coffee or other caffeinated drinks in the late afternoon and evening. Similarly any other stimulants such as nicotine.

• It is also best to moderate any alcohol consumption, especially in the late evening. Although an alcoholic “nightcap” may induce sleep, it also tends to cause waking later in the night, and the quality of sleep will be inferior.

• Find healthy ways to deal with daytime stress such as exercise, yoga, tai chi, or mindfulness meditation.

• Don’t take any worries to bed with you. Do your thinking, planning and working during the day. In the evening write down a list of any pressing concerns on a sheet of paper and put it to one side.

• Get up at the same time each day, 7 days a week. If you have a daytime nap limit this to 45 minutes and don’t take it later than 4pm.

• Before bedtime allow time for unwinding. A relaxing activity such as reading or listening to music can be part of your bedtime ritual. A warm bath will relax you. Your body temperature will start to cool down afterwards which induces sleep.

• At night time, if you don’t go to sleep after 30 minutes of turning out the light, or if you awaken during the night and don’t go back to sleep within that time, get up out of bed and go to another room. There engage in a quiet relaxing activity such as reading a book or magazine, or work on a jigsaw or do some light housework, until you feel drowsy again at which point go back to bed. (In medieval times it was common for people to have a wakeful period in the middle of the night known as “the watch” and this was considered normal).

• Progressive muscle tensing/relaxation, from toes upwards through the different muscle groups lowers cortisol, the bodies' stress hormone, and induces relaxation.