Consolidation is a term for the mental processes that come together to turn an experience into a memory.
It turns out that memories are actually fragile things. Every time we recall one, the very act of recalling it opens it up for editing. Our brain updates the memory with any new information it believes is in any way connected to the old memory and then stores it as a “new” memory.
This is what happens in a relationship that turns bad. What starts out as “this is the most wonderful person in the world and I want to spend the rest of my life with him,” over a period of a few years turns into, “this is the most miserable SOB on the planet and I can’t wait until the divorce is final.”
Memory by memory, step by step, we changed our “emotional knowing” of the other person until we can no longer remember, or even imagine, they are the one we fell in love with. Were we even aware we were doing it? Judging by the number of failed relationships the answer to that question is obviously “no.”
Reconsolidation is the term for the process that updates our memories. In retrospect, we should have realized the process was there long ago. It is entirely logical that our brain should update memories to reflect a change in our current understanding of our world. If the process was not there, we would have starved to death because we kept returning to a tree long after all the fruit was gone.
The updated memory replaces the old memory, so when we later recall the memory, we do not get the original memory, we get the updated version. That explains how we can change our thinking about our world so radically over a period of time without even realizing we have done so.
But the most important thing about Reconsolidation is this: Reconsolidation can be consciously used, as a skill, to remove most, if not all, the negativity stored in a specific memory. Reconsolidation has been studied extensively as a “fear extinction” technique in animals that have been programmed to expect a small electric shock and respond fearfully to the signal it is going to happen. It has been used in people to eliminate the fear of something like spiders, and is effective.
We can consciously use Reconsolidation as a skill to eliminate nearly all the negativity in a specific memory.
My experience with using a Reconsolidation technique.
I had developed a problem of waking up about 3-3:30 AM, and not being able to go back to sleep. This is not a horrible problem, but it was aggravating.
After reading what the current studies in neuroscience reveal about memory reconsolidation it seemed reasonable to try it in a technique I thought might work. After all it is now 3:30 AM and I have nothing to lose.
I called up all the current negative emotions I could find associated with not being able to go back to sleep.
My dialogue went something like this. I have never had a problem sleeping before. For almost all my life I go to sleep very quickly, sleep soundly all night, and wake up refreshed. This not being able to sleep is not who I am. It is only the product of some negative emotional process and memories going on in my brain. My reality is that I am a sound sleeper and I have no problem going back to sleep.
I put my head down on the pillow, took a couple deep breaths and the next thing I knew it was 5:15 am which is the time I usually awaken.
What I did is what the neuroscientists call experiential juxtaposition. If the brain is presented with two mutually exclusive versions of an experience, it chooses the original experience and discards the updated versions.
Call up the memory causing you distress. Bring up all the emotions as well. Focus on it intensely.
Next, recall the amount of time in your life that problem did not even exist.
Say to yourself, “this emotional problem is not who I am. For most of my life it did not even exist. Something happened to my memories to create the problem. I am not that problem. I am not this emotional state. I choose to be at peace and calm. That is my actual reality.
Next, think about something neutral or pleasant for a while, a minimum of 10 minutes or go do something pleasant for a while and do not think abut the old negativity in the memory while it is being erased.
It is a lot easier to use the reconsolidation skill if we are not currently involved in the situation that is causing the distress. If we just pull it up when we are calm, all the hooks to other memories are not attached.
This is one of the benefits of learning how to interrupt our negative thinking habit and choosing, instead, to think about something neutral or a pleasant memory. When we maintain our peace for a few minutes, the negative energy stored in the thought decreases greatly.
Here is a link to an excellent article by Bruce Ecker that dives even deeper into the reconsolidation technique