What is State-Dependent Memory, Learning, and Behavior? Two cases to explore

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Learning and memory fluctuate depending on our psychophysiological state at the time of the experience (Rossi, 1986). What are the mechanisms of mind/body information exchange? How are overwhelming emotions transformed into physical symptoms? How does mind/body communication heal? Those are the questions that the theory of state-dependent memory, learning, and behavior (SDMLB) try to answer by understanding the complex system of mind/body communication.

Conditions of intense sensory experience such as intense pleasure or pain underlie SDMLB. We are often transported back in time, by a special song or the smell of perfume or aftershave that evokes in us the complexity of that personal historical memory. However, a sensory cue that triggers a traumatic memory may be overwhelming, intrusive, and painful.

Trauma Case: Roger

Roger, a forty-five-year-old war veteran, illustrates the experience of hyper-arousal and state-dependent memory learning and behavior. “I live near an auto mechanic and when I am in my yard gardening and hear a car backfire, I dive for the bushes. My wife finds me crouching and shaking and crying, afraid to come out because I am surrounded by mortar fire. When will this go away?” When Roger heard the sound of a car backfire, it brought back a state-bound memory of mortar fire. Another client who was violently beaten by her mother said to me, “When I walk into your office after your previous client, I get nauseous and feel like throwing up because she wears the same perfume as my mother.”

How do physical symptoms express emotions and become reintegrated into adaptive modes of functioning? When stress is transduced into psychosomatic symptoms, Rossi (1986) refers to this process as information transduction: the conversion of information and/or energy from one form to another. He proposes that the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary system is the major anatomical mechanism that acts as a mind/body transducer. This area of the brain is concerned with emotional experiences and reactions and includes the hippocampus, the amygdala, olfactory regions, and the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus controls the autonomic nervous system that integrates the basic regulatory systems of hunger, thirst, sex, temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. SDMLB is rooted in the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary system response (Rossi, 1999) and molecules of the body modulate mental experience and mental experience modulates the molecules of the body.
One task of all therapies is to help a client decondition from SDMLB leading to the ability to:

  • Exert control over “automatic” responses,
  • Decondition reactivity due to memories and experiences, and
  • Change maladaptive behaviors, which were acquired during a traumatic or altered (dissociated) state of consciousness.

Trauma Case: Laura

Laura experienced multiple childhood sexual and physical traumas and is now struggling to establish physical intimacy with her partner. She illustrates the difficulty of deconditioning from SDMLB: “I learned how to use my mind to control the pain in my body. I would just leave my body. But now I want to stay in my body, to feel. Why can’t I get my body to do what my mind says? I keep thinking that I should be able to –that it’s a moral failure that I haven’t succeeded by now.”

Laura reveals feelings of futility, frustration, and shame are common to people who have been victimized. Since many of the victim’s functional difficulties arise out of dissociative symptoms that include amnesias and hyperamnesias, helping her to understand and decondition triggers, along with resymbolization, forms an important part of therapy. Rossi (1986) asserts that therapies work by accessing state-bound memories and reframing cognitive beliefs, and that “every access is a reframe.”

You can learn more about integrative approaches for treating trauma cases in my book, Rhythms of Recovery: Trauma Nature and The Body.

Rossi, E. L. (1986). The psychobiology of mind-body healing: New concepts of therapeutic hypnosis. New York: Norton.

Rossi, E. L. (1999). Sleep, dream, hypnosis and healing: Behavioral state related gene expression and psychotherapy. Sleep and Hypnosis: An International Journal of Sleep, Dream, and Hypnosis, 1(3), 141–157.

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