I recently read about a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo called The Restaurant of Order Mistakes. Many of the servers were hired because they had dementia. The restaurant’s owners wanted to help the community change their perception of people with the condition. A food blogger visited the restaurant and ordered a hamburger. She ended up receiving dumplings instead, and she loved them and had a good overall experience. Maybe it was because she was prepared to expect the unexpected.
Sometimes expectations can go the other direction, though. Recently I was talking with my spouse and I heard a flock of birds chattering outside. “I love that we have parrots roaming the neighborhood,” I said.
“I don’t think those are parrots,” he said.
“What are they?”
“Hmm … I don’t really like crows.”
When I heard the birds squawking again, the sound instantly transformed in my mind from charming to annoying. The noise hadn’t changed, but my perspective had.
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At my private practice internship, I use EMDR therapy to help clients change their perspective of traumatic memories and reduce the distress of those experiences. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. One part of the treatment involves a therapist moving her fingers in front of a client’s face (really!). The client follows the movement with her eyes and brings to mind a distressing event. Although no one knows exactly how or why EMDR works, the back-and-forth eye movements seem to allow the traumatic memory to calm down and cause less distress for the client.
There are many detailed descriptions and studies online about EMDR and how it is administered. If you’re curious, I invite you to explore those articles. In this post, I want to talk specifically about how EMDR may affect the “triune” brain — the three parts of the brain that work together in different ways. Those three parts are:
· The reptilian, or “lizard” brain. This is the oldest part of the human brain, evolutionarily speaking. It is in charge of unconscious behaviors like muscle control, balance, breathing, heartbeat, and digestion (thanks, lizard brain!). It also can initiate the fight, flight, or freeze response to perceived threats, whether real or imagined. The lizard brain is connected to…
· The limbic system, and in particular the amygdala. The amygdala is where the brain regulates emotions, often unconsciously. It labels emotional experiences as “good” or “bad.” This part of the brain does not understand the meaning of time, nor does it apply the concept of logic. Fortunately, the amygdala is sometimes in communication with…
· The prefrontal cortex. This is the “executive,” conscious part of the brain that gathers information and uses logic and rationality to make decisions. Humans tend to assume all of our actions should generate from the prefrontal cortex, especially if we consider ourselves to be intelligent. The other, more unconscious parts of the brain, however, can take over during high stress or when “triggered” by past trauma. When this happens we may do or say things that defy logic or easy explanation.
* * *
Let’s return to dumplings, parrots, and crows. In the example of the pop-up restaurant, the food blogger made a conscious (prefrontal cortex) decision to remain open to a new experience and enjoy her meal, even if it wasn’t what she ordered. In another context, and from a different perspective, this same experience may have caused her distress.
In the example of my experience with the birds, when I realized I heard crows instead of parrots, the amygdala part of my brain immediately and unconsciously switched the experience from “good” to “bad.” And if I had been traumatized by crows in the past, I might have had a “flight” response and spontaneously run out of the room (lizard brain)!
When I was growing up there was a crow in our neighborhood named Jake. Jake would occasionally chase around kids on their bikes and squawk loudly at them. Luckily for me, I was never one of those kids. But let’s say an adult former victim of Jake decided to seek out EMDR therapy to reprocess the trauma and reduce her current level of distress. How might that work?
It has been hypothesized that traumatic memories, big and small, can be stored in the nervous system and experienced as if they are happening in the moment, even if the memory is very old. According to Zoe Reyes, LMFT:
“Through EMDR therapy, the client can address those neural pathways of trauma through reprocessing the memories. … The client can then begin creating and strengthening new neural pathways that allow clients to experience themselves and their relationship to the world in a more healthy way. This process is not easy, but it offers hope and relief to those who have been spending years reliving the trauma that was experienced in childhood.”
In other words, EMDR can help the different parts of the brain talk to one another through the creation of new neural pathways. The executive part of the brain, for example, can connect with the other more reactive parts and in essence reassure them that the client is an adult now and has many more resources to take care of herself. Through this process, Jake the crow, who had dominion over the neighborhood way back when, no longer terrorizes the grown-up client now.
A final note: If you do ever order a hamburger and end up getting dumplings instead, consider pausing for a moment and allow your prefrontal cortex to decide how you want to perceive the situation. The rest of your brain may thank you for it.
Rachel Moore, MA, MFTI, specializes in therapy for creative types — writers, artists, and musicians. To learn more, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x706. You may also schedule a free, 10-minute consultation here: https://rachelmoore.acuityscheduling.com
L., Rokas. ‘The Restaurant Of Order Mistakes’ Employs Waiters With Dementia, And You Never Know What You’re Getting. Retrieved from http://www.boredpanda.com/waiters-dementia-restaurant-of-order-mistakes-tokyo/
Marich, J., Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT. Reptilian Brain of Survival and Mammalian Brain (C. E. Zupanick Psy.D., Ed.). Retrieved from http://www.gracepointwellness.org/109-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/article/55760-reptilian-brain-of-survival-and-mammalian-brain
Reyes, Z., LMFT. The Roles Neuroplasticity and EMDR Play in Healing from Childhood Trauma. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-roles-neuroplasticity-and-emdr-play-in-healing-from-childhood-trauma/
Rucker, S., LMHC. The Role of our Three Brains and the use of EMDR Therapy in Trauma Situations. Retrieved from http://suzannerucker.com/the-role-of-our-three-brains-and-the-use-of-emdr-therapy-in-trauma-situations/