top of page
  • Writer's pictureShalvi Waldman

What is Memory Reconsolidation and why should I care?

Updated: Jan 6

What is memory reconsolidation?

How does it work?

Why is it essential for every therapist to understand it?

Until about 20 years ago, it was commonly believed that difficult experiences, ones that impact us emotionally leave permanent memories. With that belief in place, the best therapy could offer was tools to learn to live with those difficult realities.

The emerging generation of new approaches have found that it is possible to transform our experience of our memories, so that when we remember them, we have a very different emotional experience.

The neuroscience research of the last decade and a half has proven that the theory regarding the permanent nature of memory is not accurate. Under the right circumstances, memories can become labile, or changeable, can release their original negative emotional impact, and can be shifted to encompass new understandings. This process has been labeled Memory Consolidation, or MR.

The potential impact of this new research is totally transformational, but like all new science, it is taking time for this new research to become integrated into the standard training for therapists, and therefore, to become available to clients who need help.

What difference does it make if I can change old memories or not?

Clients find a therapist because they are in pain and don’t want to be. Often the pain is related to anxiety or depression, sometimes it’s about emotional fallout from difficult life experiences, or a desire to see a significant shift in the nature of their meaningful relationships. Something ails.

As I see it, emotional distress is caused either by hard experiences, or by something biological. Schizophrenia, some post-partum depressions, and some types of ADHD seem to be mostly (though not completely) outcomes of genetic predisposition, changes in the body, and other conditions that respond most effectively to medication. Many other symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD and others, seem to derive mostly from difficult life experiences, trauma, or a lack of support and resources.

Then, of course, some conditions are rooted in a combination of the two, such as OCD, some forms of ADHD, and some types of anxiety, depression and more.

As a therapist, being able to use the Memory Reconsolidation research effectively means that we can go back and change anything that was experienced or learned. Anything that isn’t biological can be shifted and healed by these techniques. (Some biologically based symptoms can be shifted as well). Meaning that most of the symptoms that bring clients to therapy can be shifted very quickly and effectively once therapists have the skills to incorporate MR techniques into their work. The impact is transformational.

How quickly will clients see results with MR therapies?

One of the most common questions that I get in that first phone call from a potential client is “How long will it take for this to work.” Or “How many sessions will it be until I start seeing a difference?”

When I first started as a therapist I did my best to evade that question. In traditional Jewish fashion, I could answer the question with another question, “How long does it take to learn to play the violin?” I would ask in response, with the understanding that there is obviously a large range of skill between the violin players who can screech out ‘happy birthday’ and professionals of philharmonic level capabilities.

As I have evolved as a therapist, and have become comfortable using techniques that facilitate MR, I have become less evasive of that pervasive question. I have acquired tools, skills that give me the confidence to answer more directly. At this point I’ll answer that the first session will be a chance for us to get to know each other, to set the GPS for our shared journey, meaning determining the departure location and our desired goals, as well as introducing the tools that we will use on our journey. In the second session we will start working toward those goals, picking one small goal at a time. By the end of the second session, clients can expect to already have a different experience around whatever it is they have chosen to work on. After a few sessions you will get a sense of your own personal pace, and have a better idea of how long it will take to reach your goals.

While some clients prefer to take time to speak their minds in a safe and supportive environment and explore their inner worlds, and not focus immediately on concrete goals or changes, in today’s fast paced world, I find that most of the people coming to me just want to feel better ASAP.

My first experience with an MR therapy helped me achieve fast, positive and lasting change.

My first personal experience with MR was when I went to an EMDR therapist about 10 years ago to process a near car accident. Years earlier I drove someone who was experiencing psychosis home from an appointment with his psychiatrist. As I was trying to navigate a bustling 5-lane highway I was attacked by this passenger from behind my right shoulder. Even though time had passed since that event, every time someone would approach me from the same angle, behind me on the right, even one of my kids wanting a hug, my body would respond as if I was in mortal danger. I had survived the near accident, but somehow my internal system was still experiencing the danger as if it was imminent. The EMDR process helped me very quickly, and after one intensive session focusing on the past event, I was no longer triggered by people approaching me from that direction. In fact, when I thought about it, I had a visceral experience of HaShem’s protection, feeling that He had actively guided me and the car to the side of the road and saved us.

While I didn’t know it at the time, what I had experienced was a process of memory reconsolidation. My internal ‘operating system’, deep in my subcortical brain, had written into the ‘code’ that intrusions from the back right are life threatening. Of course my rational mind knew that wasn’t usually true, but that wasn’t enough to change the symptom.

What does it take to make that essential, experiential shift, so that a person’s operating system can be effectively rewritten? Understanding this essential question gives us tools to help many common symptoms quickly and effectively. Let’s take a look.

We'll need to access the ‘emotional knowing’ or the core cognition that has unwittingly become a part of how the client functions in the world. In my case it was fairly straightforward. Being approached from that angle is dangerous. Often it is much more complex. To get to the emotional knowing, we start by trying to better understand the wisdom within the symptom.

The first step is to find the pro-symptom coherence.

Clients come to therapy wanting to change symptoms that they experience. Let’s take symptoms of depression for example: feeling sluggish, not wanting to engage with activities that they used to enjoy, and more. The traditional stance has been to view these symptoms as a problem that needs to be solved.

What if we turn that assumption upside down? What if the symptoms are not the problem? They are actually a solution!

What if the client is experiencing a much deeper problem, and becoming more reclusive and having fewer human interactions is actually their internal system’s solution to a much deeper problem? Viewing the situation from this perspective allows us to explore what problem the symptoms are actually solving. Once we understand that, we become aware of a ‘core emotional knowing’ that is impacting the person’s life and making the symptoms necessary.

Let’s look again at this depressed sluggish client. She had spent over a decade building a business that she enjoyed, was proud of and was able to support her family with. When Corona hit, her business was irredeemably damaged. She ended up downsizing to a fraction of what she had before, and needed to move to smaller home. This reality, combined with other situations she had experienced as a child, led her internal system to believe that her hard work is futile. No matter what she does, it can and will be destroyed in an instant. With this “core emotional knowing”, the best way to protect herself was to stop trying. Stop investing, stop trying to accomplish, stop moving forward. Why should I if I can lose it all in an instant?

Once this client and her therapist understood that in the context of her life experience, her symptoms made sense, they had gotten to pro-symptom coherence.

As long as core negative beliefs are in place, all sorts of symptomatic behaviors show up to protect a person against their reality. Here are a few more examples of such ‘emotional knowings’ that have come up recently in my practice.

  • It isn’t safe to show my real self and shine.

  • The only way I can stay safe is to constantly monitor the emotions of those around me.

  • Conflict is always dangerous.

  • If I share my truth I’ll be rejected.

These knowings are subjectively true for the client, based on their experiences, and they have been ‘coded’ into the subcortical brain as part of the person’s ‘operating system’. Our functional or implicit memory allows us to walk and talk at the same time, to know without thinking about it how much and what types of eye contact are appropriate in a conversation, how to chew, swallow and breathe without ending up with air in our bellies and food in our lungs, or really anything that we do as part of our normal functioning without giving it much thought. Along with all of that helpful and adaptive information in our ‘internal code’, we also take in all sorts of other information that was important to know in order to stay safe at some point (usually early) in our lives. The same information that was adaptive early on can become supportive of symptoms in adults, or under different life circumstances.

Shall we take a look at one more example? Michael in many ways raised himself. His father was busy with work, and his mother suffered from a personality disorder. Any time he had a thought, need or opinion that wasn’t convenient for his parents, it could lead to abuse, neglect, manipulation or other forms of distress. He learned early on that conflict is always dangerous, and he is best off taking care of himself under the radar. Showing up with needs and opinions was a bad idea, and the best way to deal with conflict is to avoid it at all costs.

As an adult Michael came for therapy because he had started a number of businesses, but somehow, they always failed. Upon further exploration, it became clear that he had excellent business ideas, had done his research, and had plans that could have led to success, but each time in the process of building the business he had come up against some sort of resistance, either from a member of his own team, or some external challenge. As soon as there was any sort of conflict, he would abandon the enterprise. He thought of himself as a financial failure, but when we explored the situation further, and explored his experiences of conflict, we discovered that abandoning his businesses wasn’t the problem, it was his solution to a deeper problem: he experienced all conflict as dangerous. If conflict is dangerous, then the best thing to do when a business is causing conflict, is to abandon it.

As a child, avoiding conflict at all cost kept Michael safe. As an adult, it was torpedoing his success. He had about as much ability to change his instinctive reaction as I had had to feel safe when someone approached me from behind my right shoulder.

So the first step of memory consolidation is accessing the pro-symptom “emotional knowing” in an embodied way. In EMDR that would be considered the target, or negative cognition. In IFS therapy we would call the conflict avoidance a ‘part’. Once we understand the core that we want to shift, we need to hold it an embodied way experientially. Since these ‘knowings’ live in the subcortical brain, it isn’t enough to know they exist. In order to change them we need them to be accessed in an embodied way that can make them ‘labile’ or changeable. It isn’t enough for the client to understand that he is afraid of conflict, he needs to access that experience in more than just a cognitive way, to a degree that he is able to feel a bit of the fear that comes with the belief that all conflict is dangerous.

Often when clients experience those emotional knowings, it is hard to stay calm, grounded and open to new learning. If my body knows that that being approached from behind my right shoulder is mortally dangerous, I’m going to have a hard time staying calm while that knowing is ‘accessed’ or being felt in my system.

Here, good therapeutic techniques are essential. In IFS therapy a client is guided to an experience of dual awareness, of being in ‘self’, calm, centered, open-hearted, while being fully present with the ‘part’ that is holding the emotional knowing. In EMDR this dual awareness is activated by using bilateral stimulation such as eye movements, tapping or other techniques. Somatic approaches use pendulation: finding moments of calm and grounding that are experienced in the body, and then going back to the embodied experience of the ‘emotional knowing’.

The essential mechanism that all of the above have in common is that they create a unique experience where there is enough ‘activation’ – that’s the distress that comes from the ‘emotional knowing’, and enough regulation – that’s the sense of calm and safety in the here and now, that will allow the brain to stay curious enough to take in new information, and not go to a full trauma response. Once this is understood, it can be integrated into most of the different types of therapies that are used nowadays.

We need a felt sense of safety in the here and now, simultaneously with the presence of the distressed knowing from the past. When there is enough activation (distress) and enough regulation (felt sense of safety), there is a capacity to shift the core experience within the client.

Different therapies offer various techniques and approaches to help clients hold the dual awareness that is necessary for memory reconsolidation to happen. Unfortunately, most of those same approaches don’t spell out the essential ingredients for the lasting change. So here they are:

  1. An experience of pro-symptom coherence – understanding that the symptoms make sense in the context of the emotional knowing.

  2. An embodied experience of the emotional knowing.

  3. An embodied experience of present safety.

There are two more essential steps to complete the process of MR.

Once the old knowing is alive in the person’s experience, and they are feeling grounded in the safe present, they need a mismatch experience. Some subjectively true ‘knowing’ that can’t possibly be true at the same time as the old ‘knowing’. If Michael ‘knows’ that all conflict is always dangerous, but in a calm resourced state with his therapist can think about that from a different perspective, he might find himself remembering that back in Yeshiva, conflict with his chavrusa could lead to new understanding, and in his experiences in competitive sports, conflict with another team led to fun, achievements and growth.

4. An embodied experience of something that is true and real, and can’t possibly be true at the same time as the original negative experience if the emotional knowing.

So, if conflict can be a source of learning, fun and growth, it can’t always be dangerous – and if conflict is always dangerous, it can’t lead to learning, fun or growth.

When a client is able to hold the subjective mismatch, with enough activation and enough regulation happening, something is going to shift.

Often at this stage a client will laugh, shake their head, or even feel a bit dizzy, or say something like, “Wait, What?! Give me a moment, something doesn’t make sense.” Once a mismatch experience has been found, often clients feel a little confused or disoriented. This is because they have internally found a flaw in the map that has guided much of their lives.

At this stage it is essential to:

5. Repeat the original knowing, and then the new one a few times, in order to give the mind the time that it needs to complete the rewriting of the new ‘code’.

While some approaches involve fancy footwork to find an experience that can serve as a mismatch to the initial emotional knowing, they aren't always necessary. Usually, the client has access to some information that can serve as the mismatch, he or she just has a hard time accessing it when the painful initial emotional knowing is present. By being able to help the client hold a state of regulation for long enough, they can find the mismatch experience inside of themselves.

In EMDR therapy a minute or two of bilateral stimulation can give the client the time and space needed for their mind to do an internal search and find a mismatch. In IFS we help the client access a state of ‘self’ which includes qualities such as calm, centeredness, presence, open-heartedness and curiosity. In that state they are often able to see their own subjective mismatch. I like combining the two approaches.

Sometimes the knowing is preverbal, sensory or otherwise not easy to put into words. As long as the knowing can be felt in the body, it doesn’t need to be cognitive. MR can occur as

long as there is enough activation, enough regulation, and a subjective mismatch experience. When the ‘knowing' is not cognitive, rather sensory, emotional, relational, spiritual or an energetic experience, an attuned therapist will look for a disconfirmation of the same nature.

In complex cases there can be layers upon layers of emotional knowings. They can mix into each other like a big plate of spaghetti. The therapeutic work of unpacking, understanding and healing them can take time. And sometimes there are skills and developmental stages that were missed that need to be healed as well. MR isn't a silver bullet that can heal everything overnight.

In my case, my response to being approached from the back right wasn’t a cognitive belief, it was more an automatic response that came when my body anticipated danger. Being able to hold the felt sense of impending danger together with the felt bodily sense of HaShem’s protection was enough to create the shift to heal from that near accident. In other cases it can take years of work to unravel and heal the various layers of experience.

While these recent approaches to therapy often allow clients to make these core changes in the inner ‘code’, the sad reality is that many therapists aren’t aware of the mechanism of this process, and aren’t able to help their clients fully complete the reconsolidation. Clients can end up revisiting the same old painful memories again and again, with the hoped for changes in current experience eluding them. Some minor shifts in the therapist’s technique can help them complete major changes in their ‘operating systems’ much more quickly once therapists understand how to apply the memory reconsolidation research effectively. A therapist could guide their client through most of the MR process described above, but if one crucial step is missing, the process won’t be completed, and the symptoms will continue. With time, I believe that there will be more awareness of the mechanisms of this vital process, but for now the research is very new, and hasn’t yet been integrated into many of the existing therapy models. While they have the potential to guide clients through MR, without the awareness of the necessity to complete all five steps listed above, many therapy sessions come very close, yet don’t have the lasting impact that they could.

Let’s get back to Michael. Once he realized that he had abandoned good potential business opportunities because he experienced all conflict as threatening, he was able to gently ‘hold’ the part that was afraid of conflict, and remember that he had had many different life experiences in which he was able to manage conflict effectively. All of that information had existed in his internal filing system before, but since the two ‘knowings’ about conflict had never been activated in a state of grounding and emotional safety simultaneously, they could have continued their parallel existence for many more years to come, with him failing at one business venture after another. Having the experience of gently holding the scared part, and showing it that he is now an adult, and has the capacity to navigate challenging situations effectively made all the difference.

The potential of memory reconsolidation is huge. It can change deep-seated beliefs that maintain painful symptoms. It can allow us to release trauma trapped in the body, shift our experiences of ourselves in the world and in relationships, and can help us attain levels of balance and wellbeing that seemed elusive before the advent of these techniques.

Many frum Jews will tell you that they have strong Emunah, and yet in certain areas of their lives, they encounter parts of themselves that hold behaviors, fears and other emotions that don’t seem to fit into their larger framework of Emunah. Using MR techniques can resolve the sense of dissonance that these gaps create. It can be deeply meaningful to find that even very hurt, scared and overwhelmed parts can experience being reconsolidated into the larger frame of Emunah that the client holds, and can be offered healing and connection to them that wasn’t available for them in childhood or other vulnerable times in their lives.

In recent decades the therapy world has offered us research-based methods that can help

clients achieve their goals faster and more effectively than was possible decades ago. My father was a holocaust survivor, and our whole family was affected by his PTSD. I have often wondered how the Jewish world would be different today, had my father and his generation of survivors had access to the types of treatments that are available today.

As I am writing now, war is taking place in Gaza and on the northern border. Everyone knows someone who has been killed, kidnapped, seriously injured, displaced, or who at any moment could be. Am Yisrael has endured unfathomable trauma throughout the ages, yet we also have indomitable resilience. Israelis are experiencing symptoms of trauma, anxiety and distress on levels that we haven’t seen before. MR can’t change that reality, but it can change our relationship with it, freeing up our current energy to be available to living full, active and resilient lives.

Trauma impacts individuals, families and communities, and can be passed on for generations; many of us carry the emotional legacies and burdens of those who came before us. In IFS therapy we speak of healing our inner ‘exiles’, the parts of us that held so much pain as children, we had no choice but to send them outside of our view in order to survive childhood intact. Memory reconsolidation can give us tools to heal these exiles on an individual level, and perhaps bring us a bit closer to healing exile on a much larger scale.

I invite our community of therapists to join me in an upcoming training that will offer hands on tools to integrate memory reconsolidation and bilateral stimulation into other forms of therapy in order to achieve outstanding results. You will learn to recognize and utilize the steps mentioned above, and learn how the use of bilateral stimulation can help us enhance, access and streamline the entire process.

270 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page