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Stories Behind EMDR and How It May Help Us

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

The fundamental idea behind psychotherapy is that we tend to grow mentally unwell because we haven’t been able to think with sufficient clarity about the difficulties in our past, typically in our distant childhoods. Damaging incidents have been locked away, and continue to have an outsized impact on us, but we have no way of going back over them in order to liberate ourselves from their distorting influences. At the dawn of therapy, Sigmund Freud noticed that many patients, when asked about their childhoods, provided accounts that were too neat, too intellectual, too distanced from the emotion contained in events to be of any use. In order to encourage more real feeling, he made a radical innovation: he asked if his patients might lie on a couch, shut their eyes and enter a dreamy state that he called ‘free association’. He soon found that these patients recovered far faster than those who insisted on sitting in chairs. As a result, there are now couches in therapy rooms around the world – and the past has for many of us been a lot easier to access.

Then, in the early 1990s, an American psychologist called Francine Shapiro became fascinated, as Freud had been, with the damage done in therapy by our tendencies to intellectualise the past rather than relive it. Not coincidentally, Shapiro was at work on a PhD in English literature which drew her attention to a key difference between the methods of the non-fiction essay and those of the novel. In the former, an author provides neat summaries of positions and emotions: they might tell us that their mother was often ‘sad’ and their father ‘frightening’. But novelists do something very different, they provide us with ‘scenes’: they don’t state, they show. They take us to a particular moment and let us experience it vividly through our senses. With this distinction in mind, Shapiro wondered if patients in therapy could become more like novelists of their childhoods rather than just their non-fiction narrators. And it was here that she stumbled on a remarkable phenomenon. When we are asked to perform a repetitive movement – like tapping gently on our knees or our chests from left to right or look at a finger moving from side to side a few inches from our eyes – then our ordinary practical day to day mentality often cedes