Rapid eye movement effects on traumatic memories: A test of the working memory hypothesis


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a psychotherapy that uses rapid eye movements to alleviate traumatic memories. This experiment examined two working memory hypotheses proposed to explain how performing rapid eye movements can affect the vividness, emotionality and completeness of traumatic memories. Participants (N=25) recalled three traumatic memories and rated them on vividness, emotionality and completeness before and after performing rapid eye movements. Participants also completed six working memory tasks to see if a correlation existed between working memory and the effect of rapid eye movements on memory rating variables. Findings illustrate that there was a significant decrease pre-test to post-test in vividness. Additionally, the factor underlying the reading span operation task and the Sternberg item order task significantly correlated with the effect of rapid eye movements for all memory ratings. The results of the current study support the central executive hypothesis explanation more than the visuospatial sketchpad storage hypothesis for EMDR. 3 Rapid Eye Movement Effects on Traumatic Memories: A Test of the Working Memory Hypothesis In 1987, Francis Shapiro discovered that performing horizontal eye saccades while holding a traumatic event in mind helped her alleviate the negative symptoms she experienced from that memory. She developed this intuition into a psychotherapy that is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy is now a widely-used technique to treat victims of trauma, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and people suffering from phobias and other anxiety disorders (Muris & Meckleberger, 1999). Shapiro (2001) describes EMDR as an eight-phase treatment method that includes history taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and reevaluation. An important, and distinguishing, component of the EMDR procedure involves the patient performing rapid bilateral eye movements while thinking about their traumatic memory and communicating any negative cognition associated with that memory. The horizontal saccadic eye movements generally involve watching the therapist’s quickly moving finger for 15-20 seconds/set (Shapiro, 2001). Eye saccade sets continue until the patient begins to report that negative aspects of the memory are being alleviated, and that positive self-cognitions have replaced the negative self-cognitions associated with the memory (Shapiro, 2001).






Rebecca Helene Koppel

Original Work Citation

Koppel, R. H. (2009, May). Rapid eye movement effects on traumatic memories: A test of the working memory hypothesis. (Masters thesis, The College of William and Mary). Retrieved from https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/bitstream/10288/1181/1/KoppelRebecca2009.pdf



“Rapid eye movement effects on traumatic memories: A test of the working memory hypothesis,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed October 18, 2021, https://emdria.omeka.net/items/show/19520.

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