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EMDR technique has always been a subject of scientific criticism. But the recent research claims that method does work better than many others. Further understanding of EMDR may pave the way to therapeutic treatments of trauma.

A slightly bizarre (at least unusual in terms of methodology) technique for treating trauma and post-traumatic psychological disorders was introduced in 1989 by French psychologist Francine Shapiro. The technique is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and involves fast back and forth movement of eyes by patient when therapist asks to recall the details of traumatic experience.

Even though the performing of these two activities seems to be disconnected from one another, both patients and specialists claim that EMDR works much better than any traditional approach in reducing the anxiety.

How EMDR works?

The method comes from a simple empirical observation. Francine Shapiro noted that the eyes of patients move rapidly and chaotically when they recall a disturbing memory or thought. She noticed then that if this eye movement is put under voluntary control by asking the patients to move eyes in certain way, the level of anxiety tends to reduce. Shapiro’s theory says that the stressful events can overwhelm the normal neurological coping mechanisms. In this case, memories get processed inadequately and stored disfunctionally in an isolated memory network. The purpose of EMDR is to reprocess these memories thus allowing the patient to develop a more adequate coping mechanism.

Neurological basis of EMDR is still to be discovered

The theory does not say why eye movement in particular helps in developing this new mechanism of coping with the traumatic events of the past, and this was a constant source of criticism of both the method and its theoretical foundation.

Clearly, Shapiro’s theory lacks physiological basis. At present time we simply don’t know well enough how memories are formed, processed and stored. To somehow compensate for the gap in our understanding, many theories attempting to explain psychological phenomena operate on the level of scientific fact mixed with semi-philosophical concepts. These vaguely defined concepts are open for interpretation.

EMDR is rejected by many specialists as completely unscientific and impossible to prove. Many critics of this technique claim that the method is nothing more than a version of desensitization approach. In their view, eye movement is an irrelevant epiphenomenon and can be substituted by any other activity which can divert the full attention from the traumatic events of the past in the course of therapy.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Bisson, J. and Andrew, M. (2007). Bisson, Jonathan. ed. "Psychological treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3): CD003388
  • Cloitre, M (2009) Effective psychotherapies for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review and critique. CNS Spectrums 14 (1 Suppl 1). 32–43
  • Shapiro F. (2001). EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization of Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press
  • Schubert, S.J. et al. (January 2011) The efficacy and psychophysiological correlates of dual-attention tasks in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Journal of Anxiety Disorders 25, 1–11
  • van den Hout, M.A. et al. (May 2012) Tones inferior to eye movements in the EMDR treatment of PTSD. Behaviour Research and Therapy 50, 275–279
  • Photo courtesy of rickyjustus on Flickr: