The debate continues about the working mechanism of EMDR therapy. Dr. Shapiro’s original theory that EMDR may be similar to processes in REM sleep is less compelling when we consider the wide range of other highly effective forms of bilateral stimulation that do not involve eye movements. Theories built around bilateral stimulation as a tax on working memory may involve therapeutic practices that do not closely resemble Shapiro’s eight-phase protocol centered around deep noticing. When my clients process most effectively, the bilateral stimulation appears to be passively received and is scarcely much of a tax on either attention or memory.
On the most fundamental level, EMDR reprocessing involves three core components: memory activation, noticing deeply what comes as a result of the activation, and doing so while the brain receives bilateral stimulation. What if the working mechanism isn’t primarily bilateral stimulation at all? If it were, drummers would consistently be the healthiest and least traumatized people on the planet (they are not). Of the three components central to EMDR reprocessing, what if we have overly-emphasized the bilateral stimulation component simply because it is the most culturally bizarre and therefore most in need of justification? Of course, slowing down and noticing deeply is also bizarre in our cultures… as is purposefully activating a traumatic memory in cultures dead set on vanishing them. EMDR therapy is a trifecta of cultural taboo. Yet, a tricycle needs wheels, a seat, and pedals. What if the working mechanism is simply the combination of activation, noticing, and bilateral stimulation? What if the effectiveness of that combination isn’t an accidental brain hack at all, but rather something that has been with us for as long as we have been human and is important enough to have been redundantly encoded into every human cell?
The development of the human brain is measured in millions of years. Ancestral human brains have had the capacity for language for at least hundreds of thousands of years. We would have only developed and retained that capacity in the context of environments and cultures that supported it. What if our brains developed an adaptive capacity to heal itself in the context of early human cultures that supported it? This may have happened in environmental and cultural contexts very different from our own. What if Dr. Shapiro simply rediscovered a healing pathway that was widely used in communal healing for ages before we fully outsourced the burden and responsibility of trauma entirely to the individual at some point in cultural evolution? The human brain evolves slowly over many tens of thousands of years, but cultures can change on a dime. Can we imagine early human cultures for whom individual trauma was understood as a collective wound and a communal problem? Can we imagine cultures who were deeply curious and attentive to internal experiences because the sacred was also somatic? Maybe those cultures had rituals of healing after rupturing events that involved open witnessing, deep somatic noticing, and some form of drumming or bilateral stimulation?
The mechanism or pathway of EMDR may be atavistic and what might have kept it hidden until a chance discovery in 1987 are our cultural attitudes about wounding, noticing, and the body. The more trauma work that I do, the more I realize that the same “modern” cultures that traumatize us also construct rugged obstacles to healing. These obstacles often present in the most culturally-saturated emotions of guilt, shame, blame, and responsibility.
There is a pathway in the human brain that has been with us for an incredibly long time. In the right context it is easily accessible. This pathway can produce astonishing and rapid healing from the most awful things that humans do to each other. The worst of our wounds are communal. Maybe our healing was once also. When my client and I sit in a small room and I guide him toward this healing pathway, am I replicating rituals that happened over and over throughout human history? Am I sitting as proxy in this ritual for an attuned and supportive community? I love the idea that the human system has always had the means to rescue the self from the horrors of the past. In witnessing a lot of this healing, there is something about it that is central, beautiful, distantly familiar, deeply personal, and intensely communal. Surely–hopefully–we didn’t first ride this tricycle in 1987.