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A wide range of meta-analyses have found concrete beneficial effects from EMDR. One that was published by the Permanente Journal cited a range of positive results, with most studies reporting better and faster outcomes than talk therapy alone.

Randomized clinical trials also support EMDR’s efficacy, with the most measurable results appearing to be in treating PTSD. In one study of refugees diagnosed with PTSD, researchers found that at a follow-up assessment conducted five weeks after finishing treatment, 49 percent of participants no longer qualified for the diagnosis.

Other positive results have come in treating populations — including children — who have experienced natural disasters, and individuals enduring trauma from acute sickness as well as chronic disease.

So, what exactly enables people to reprocess traumatic memory and integrate it into a healthier psyche? No one is sure. There are three working theories, each of which is the subject of research:

The Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) Sleep Model

This first theory proposes that rapid bilateral eye movements create a brain state similar to REM sleep. “The brain has a natural information-processing system,” explains EMDR therapist Jane McCampbell Stuart, MA, LMFT. “You have sights, sounds, smells, and information that we place around them. Then it’s like you have a librarian who figures out how to catalog it all — that happens during REM sleep. The librarian comes in and decides what to keep and where it belongs, so you can check out the book if you want to but don’t have to keep reading it if you don’t.”

Trauma prevents those memories from making it into the information-processing system, she adds. They’re like overdue books sitting at the bottom of one’s psychic closet.

The REM model suggests that EMDR’s bilateral eye movements enable the librarian to process the memory like a book that’s finally been returned. It’s placed back on the shelf and “integrated” with the rest of the collection.

The Orienting-Response Model

Korn explains the second theory this way: “The act of orienting to a moving target forces the brain to constantly shift its attention, from one side to the other and then back again.” This activity appears to downregulate the threat response, allowing the rest-and-digest system to take over. This enables the brain to perform certain tasks or process information more readily.

The Working-Memory Model

More than 40 studies support this third theory. Its central tenet is as follows: “Working memory” allows us to hold a memory in mind while doing something else. Korn cites the example of remembering a recipe while cooking.

But working memory has its limits, so when we focus on a traumatic memory while performing bilateral stimulation — using both types of recall at once — it reduces the reaction. Korn explains: “Trying to do both at the same time overtaxes the system, leading to a reduction in the vividness and emotionality of the traumatic memory.”

For the moment, none of these theories fully accounts for EMDR’s efficacy. Hard data may eventually emerge that connects dreams, EMDR, and waking experience in a thoroughly explanatory way. But for now, researchers have found an effective if inscrutable tool for integrating the memories that dog us. For many trauma sufferers, that’s enough.

This was excerpted from “All Eyes on EMDR” which was published in the March 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Quinton Skinner

Quinton Skinner is a Minneapolis-based journalist and novelist.

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