Thursday, 22 March 2012

Dissolving compulsive behaviours: Molar memories and their practical use in therapy

Following my request for blog post topics from our Twitter followers, @pauldowtherapy requested more information on molar memories and how such information can be turned to practical use in therapy to decondition compulsive behaviours.
Molar memories are memories that have two emotional 'roots', involving both 'positive' and 'negative' emotions at the source of the trauma. Molar memories typically present as irrational over reactions and extreme, compulsive emotional responses to relatively minor events or situations. Unlike conventional traumas, molar memories evoke excessive pleasurable/positive emotions (e.g. anger, sexual arousal) when unconsciously activated by pattern matching to stimuli in the present, however negative/painful emotions (e.g. fear, shame, anxiety) will be remembered when the original event that led to the pattern match is consciously remembered. 
The following points will help you understand how molar memories are formed:

1) All emotional reactions are preceded by a pattern match (as explained by the APET model) to a prior innate template or emotional memory. In 2007, the great experimental psychologist Steven Pinker was invited on the US show The Colbert Report and was asked under pressure to sum up how the brain works in five words. Pinker answered "Brain cells fire in patterns."

The perfect examples of a pattern match is a baby instinctively moving towards a nipple in order to survive outside the womb. Leaping suddenly away from a stick that you mistook for a snake is an example of an emotional pattern match. These pattern matches are the basis to our very survival. They happen instantly, before the 'thinking' part of our brain gets a look in, and are designed to save our lives. These pattern matches are patterns for a reason. If our responses were set in stone, there would be no room for flexibility to respond to the multitude of experiences life throws at us. However, the price we pay for the flexibility of these pattern matches is that problems can easily arise...

2) Negative emotional pattern matches can lead to trauma
If you have ever suffered from post traumatic stress (PTSD) or panic attacks you will know all about problematical pattern matches. Traumatic events involving negative emotions (the sort of emotion that leads you away from something, like anxiety or fear) can leave a 'trapped' emotional memory that triggers a negative fear response to a similar stimulus to the original traumatic event. (If you suffer from trauma in this way, be assured that you do not have to suffer. The 'rewind technique' is the best method of detraumatising there is so check our our Register of Human Givens Therapists trained to use the rewind technique.)

3) Molar memories are created in situations where both positive AND negative emotions were involved in the traumatic event
Here is where it's easy to get confused, as by positive we do not always mean 'happy', we mean positive as in when an emotion drives you towards something. Positive emotional reactions that become problematical can include greed (e.g. eating/drinking), anger or sexual arousal. Of course, anger, our sex drive and greed are all important positive emotions, where would we be without anger to protect ourselves against attack, or sex to continue our species? It is when both positive and negative emotions are involved in a psychologically traumatising event that strange compulsive behaviours begin.

An example in the original article of this kind of behaviour is of a man who was troubled by a sexual compulsion to dress in women's clothes. When contemplating about this feeling during guided imagery, he immediately recalled a negative, guilty memory of his mother berating him for trying on his sister's underwear as a child. He knew this memory was in some way involved in his compulsion as it was so strong, but it was only when he uncovered the pleasurable, 'positive' part of the memory that occurred before his mother discovering him, the sexual excitement of wearing the underwear, that he could understand the molar memory. After deconditioning the molar memory using the process below, a therapist was able to help him dissolve his sexual compulsion for wearing women's clothes. For more context to this case please read the original article.

4) Unconscious memories can still affect behaviours
Unconscious memories can still affect behaviours, however it's important to remember that a molar memory is never a 'suppressed memory' (as in psychodynamic theory), only one part of a molar memory is suppressed - the positive root.

5) Why is the positive emotion remembered before the negative emotion in a molar memory?
This is a good question, and the answer lies in the brain's natural assessment of risk. When recalling a memory, the brain will automatically recall the negative (e.g. fear, guilt, anxiety) emotion before the positive emotion, simply as a logical risk assessment. Recalling the negative emotion first enables the body and brain to quickly move away (or attack) danger as soon as possible. This suppression of positive emotions for risk assessment purposes is why molar memories occur in the first place.

How to decondition a molar memory
If a patient has an excessive, positive emotional response - for example, anger, sexual arousal or greed - to certain stimuli, then this could well be driven by a molar memory. A therapist may be able to uncover and decondition the molar memory using the following protocol.

To check for the presence of a molar memory, first use an affect bridge:

Step 1) Relax the patient and put them into a trance

Step 2) Ask the patient to relive a recent memory of when the positive troublesome emotion was excessive, thus making sure the emotional template is 'activated'.

Step 3) Ask the patient to focus on the feeling and see if connects to a specific memory.

Step 4) If the patient then identifies a memory which involves a negative emotion (e.g. shame, humiliation, anxiety, fear or pain) then that is a molar memory.

If a molar memory is discovered, follow steps 5 to 7 below to decondition it:

Step 5) Ask the patient to relive the memory that has been triggered and acknowledge the negative emotion, so that this emotion abates.

Step 6) Then ask them to go back earlier in the memory and describe how they felt ot describe the positive emotion - for example, anger, sexual enjoyment, the desire to eat etc. - that was experienced before it was suppressed (for risk assessment purposes) by the negative one.

Step 7) Once this is done, have the patient experience the positive emotion as intensely as possible - if the client is willing, have them verbally express it - then normalise the emotion e.g. say 'it was perfectly normal for a young child to feel that in those circumstances". This re-contextualises and deconditions the positive root of the molar memory, and dissolves the compulsive behaviour. (Even a 24 year long history of severe anorexia was brought to an abrupt end by this technique. See original article.)


Please read the article links throughout this post as they explain the concepts in a lot more detail.

For more information on understanding molar memories, please read this article which was first published in the Human Givens Journal in 2006: Molar Memories: how an ancient mechanism can ruin lives

To learn more about the mechanism behind trauma, please read the following article, first published in 2005: PTSD: Why some techniques for treating it work so fast

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