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Molar Memories: how an ancient mechanism can ruin lives

When we react excessively to events, major or minor, we may be victims of a primitive survival mechanism gone awry, suggests research psychologist Joe Griffin. Despite often causing years of distress, it can be treated successfully — and usually remarkably quickly.

IN TIMES gone by, whenever people displayed wildly irrational behaviour or exhibited extreme emotional responses that did damage, they were said to be possessed by an evil spirit; a demon, fiend or even 'the devil' himself. Once inhabiting the poor unfortunates, these invisible malevolent beings could transform them into the very epitome of selfishness or self-destructiveness.

With the 'beast' in command, distressing manifestations could occur. It might induce previously peaceful individuals to become violent, producing sudden rages in the poor person or driving them to the most destructively devious activities. Others, once 'possessed', might starve themselves to the point of death, physically attack themselves or become quite hysterically fearful or mad. In some cases these demons would make people perform bizarre, lustful acts. But always supernatural forces were behind such goings on, or so it was thought for tens of thousands of years. 

Today, of course, we talk differently. We speak of anger disorders, obsessions, personality disorders, depression, anorexia, self-harming, psychosis, sexual deviancy and so on. And yet, by changing our language we are no nearer to understanding or curing most of these conditions.

But suppose there was a hitherto unknown psychological principle at work, one that, once understood, made possible the removal of much of this suffering? One that, for example, could, in a single session of psychotherapy, cure an anorexic, or stop an unwanted sexual obsession, or dissolve unreasonable and irrationally cruel outbursts of anger. If such were possible wouldn't much human misery be circumvented? In this chapter I am suggesting that such a psychological principle does exist and that using it may enable therapists to quickly cure at least some of these conditions.

Consider, for a moment, the following scenarios (I am sure that at least one will be familiar to you). You have a minor difference of opinion with your nearest and dearest about some entirely inconsequential domestic matter … and yet you are left with a seething rage that persists for hours. Someone close to you pokes fun at you or teases you and you are consumed with a sense of righteous indignation and respond by getting insanely angry with them. Or you are amazed to be accused by a partner or colleague of ‘winding them up' or 'pressing their buttons', after saying something you thought was completely innocuous. In other words, you sometimes (or even often) find yourself reacting emotionally in ways that are totally out of proportion to the circumstances — and no doubt you have seen countless others do the same.

Such seemingly irrational behaviour, both in myself and others, had often mystified and infuriated me over the years until, after much consideration and experimentation, I realised that 'over-the-top', 'neurotic' or otherwise inappropriate emotional reactions like these are actually the expression of a highly primitive survival mechanism: one that I have called the 'pain–pleasure recall' principle (to distinguish it from the 'pain–pleasure' principle beloved of psychoanalysts).

This principle, I suggest, is the key to understanding not only seemingly irrational outbursts but more serious pathological behaviour as well — habitual actions which lead to self-destructive behaviour or damage to inter-personal relationships. Most importantly, however, once understood we can change behaviour, fast. As we will see, using the pain–pleasure recall principle has already enabled me to help a woman recover her life by putting an end to 25 years of anorexia, a man in his 30s to deal with and stop an unwanted longstanding compulsion to cross-dress, and another man to stop putting his marriage at risk — each after only one session of therapy. And other experienced human givens therapists to whom I had explained this principle have since used it and reported back to me amazingly rapid progress with a range of cases previously considered difficult or intractable.

This chapter sets out the evidence to support this new finding: that it's the special way the brain has evolved to process the co-occurrence of pain and pleasure in a situation that shapes much human and animal behaviour. I am, of course, not the first to consider the effects of pain and pleasure — countless thinkers from ancient and modern cultures around the world have speculated about the roles of pleasure and pain in motivating our behaviour. Freud famously developed the 'pleasure principle' — the demanding of immediate gratification of instinctive needs. And a wealth of evidence has been accumulated by distinguished learning theorists, such as Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner and Edward Lee Thorndike, to show that, if an action brings us pleasure, we will choose to do it again, and that, conversely, if an action results in pain, we are reluctant to repeat it. Over the years, many laboratory experiments have shown how animals have learned to alter their behaviour in response to different amounts and types of both positive and negative reinforcements. But what has never been taken fully into account, is that, very often, an action may elicit both pleasure and pain.

Every animal must assess risk

All animals have needs that must be met if they are to live mentally and physically healthy lives (this is at the heart of the human givens approach). But to pursue needs without first making an assessment of the attendant risks — such as that of becoming another animal's lunch whilst in pursuit of your own — would lead, in all probability, to a greatly foreshortened lifespan. It would be surprising indeed, therefore, if evolution had left the assessment of risk to chance — the instinctive assessment of risk is key to the pain–pleasure recall principle.

We know that animals learn from painful experiences and are less likely to seek to repeat them. We also know that punishing animals, particularly human ones, for undesirable behaviour that they find rewarding is not as effective, generally, as rewarding the desirable behaviour that we would like them to perform instead. (If it were otherwise, we would have no repeat offenders in our prisons.) But, in the real world, desirable experiences almost always come at a price. Procuring access to a desirable mate may mean having to fight the alpha male, for example; hunting a substantial prey for dinner carries the risk of the predator getting injured by the prey being sought, and so on. Animals must, therefore, have evolved an instinctive method of gauging risk, using previous experience as a guide.

It was the failure of conditioning theory to predict how animals do this that has largely been responsible for the decline of pure behaviour therapy (which is based on conditioning or learning theory) as it was increasingly recognised that learning isn't just a mechanical association between things (such as the ringing of a bell when a steak appears, as in Pavlov's experiments when dogs learned to salivate on hearing the bell) but rather it comes about as a result of the perception of a meaningful relationship between different things.[1] For example, if a tone is sounded before laboratory animals receive an electric shock, they will learn to fear the tone. If, next, a light is also turned on at the same time as the tone sounds, and then a shock is received, the animals don't learn to fear the light; they continue to fear just the tone.[2] My colleague Ivan Tyrrell and I have argued elsewhere that it is just this perception of a meaningful relationship that generates consciousness.[3]

So behaviour therapy was superseded by cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which is based on an uneasy alliance between conditioning theory and cognitive appraisal theory — the idea that the way we think and make our judgements affects our behaviour. This alliance arose because of the demonstrable failures of conditioning theory to account for neurotic types of behaviour, especially in humans. For instance, how could conditioning theory explain why people can develop a phobia about snakes, to the point of shaking when they see a picture of a snake, when they have never actually come across a snake in their lives? However, it has become increasingly clear that the cognitive system only takes computational decisions, such as calculating which product offers the best value for money, so the alliance is becoming more and more compromised. In complex or ambiguous situations, it is the emotional brain that takes the initial decisions.[4] We see an unfamiliar manlike shape looming out of the lonely field in the dark and instantly feel fear as our bodies mobilise for fight or flight. Then our cognitive system kicks in and only at this point do we realise that we are looking at a scarecrow, and call off the red alert. Thus we can see that, for our survival's sake, it is the quicker emotional process that guides our responses in such circumstances, even if they are later informed by the cognitive system. 

Much of this confusion is due to a failure to understand the pain–pleasure recall principle.

The pain–pleasure recall principle

Pain involves negative or 'avoidance' emotions — we feel bad or we avoid a situation in which we might experience pain. Pleasure involves positive 'approach' emotions – we feel good or seek out an experience that will make us feel good. (This even includes the experience of anger because when we are angry we are both motivated to do something — go forward — and get satisfaction from feeling power.) The pain–pleasure recall principle holds that, when pain and pleasure are both experienced in connection with a given stimulus, irrespective of the order in which the pain and pleasure occur, the memory of that experience will be encoded so that the recall of the pain (the negative feelings) precedes the recall of the pleasure (positive feelings) associated with it. I have found it useful to call these memories ‘molar memories' because they have two emotional roots: the one that was painful and the other that was pleasurable. The pleasurable aspect of the experience has to stay outside of consciousness because, when a pattern match is triggered by a similar situation in the future, the negative feeling needs to be experienced first, so that risk assessment can take place. This order of events is essential, survival always being the top priority. Only if the negative feeling is defused by some response or not acted upon, mentally or physically — for instance, if we don't experience deep disgust or run away from the situation — will the positive feeling be aroused and come through to consciousness.

It is essential, I suggest, that pleasure and pain experienced in connection with the same event are coded separately like this (with the memory of the pain being accessed first, so that an informed risk assessment can be made before indulging in the pleasure again). If the negatives were not evaluated first, access to an expectation of reward might lead to a down-playing of the risks involved. This could prove fatal if, when the reward seemed sufficient, it led animals to ignore the lessons of experience.

If, however, after an automatic risk assessment, we perceive that the negative feeling which pattern matches to our current situation is not relevant, then the positive feelings will be activated by the memory. This triggers a dopamine rush, which we experience as desire. If we act upon this desire and experience satisfaction, the pattern is reinforced. If, however, pain is experienced as a further consequence of that action, this will become coded as part of our conscious, stored negative memories, strengthening their power. (For instance, if a child sneaks a biscuit from the jar and enjoys it but is told off by her mother, the telling-off is added to other tellings-off she has received for the same transgression and, the next time, she might decide not to sneak the biscuit.)

In other words, when a behaviour is punished this strengthens the negative root memory but doesn't alter the pleasurable aspect. This is why aversion therapy for compulsive behaviours is not very successful outside of laboratory conditions. When the person returns to their home environment, where there is no immediate threat of punishment, the impulse can resurface because they feel safe again.

Some bizarre outcomes

This universally applied principle has immense advantages for guiding risk assessment in animals, but there are circumstances where it can have distinct disadvantages, especially for humans. For example, a pleasurable feeling experienced at the age of five, shielded from consciousness by the pain that is also connected to the same event, may be dictating inappropriate or destructive behaviour in adulthood. Thus, the pain–pleasure recall principle may predispose us to some bizarre self-destructive behaviours and, because the motivations for them are normally outside our conscious recall, we are prevented from making a rational evaluation of them. (I will give several examples of this later.) CBT, as currently practised, is not likely therefore to be effective with these types of problems. One might suppose that the negative appraisal would stop the positive aspect of the pattern running. However, positive feelings that are reinforced by reward can be highly addictive, both because of the dopamine rush and also because we assume our response has been caused by our current circumstances; we are ignorant of the hidden childish sources of our motivation. As the mechanism must have evolved to calculate immediate risk, it may be blind to long-term consequences. Fortunately, the resulting unconscious programming can be corrected quite quickly with the right therapeutic technique. I will now illustrate this, and the pain–pleasure recall principle at work, through some personal anecdotes and cases histories.

First in the queue

I fly regularly between Ireland and England and used always to become agitated about getting to the departure lounge check-in desk well before time — often before anyone else was queuing or, indeed, before the desk was even staffed. This only happened on occasions when I was flying Ryanair, however. I had no problem with Aer Lingus. The difference was that Ryanair doesn’t allocate seats, so it was always a free-for-all. No matter how much I would reason with myself and do calming breathing, I had to be one of the first in the queue at the departure gates because I had to be one of the first people on the plane and be free to choose my seat. I knew this was neurotic behaviour but nothing would alter it.

On one particular day, I was at Dublin airport, anxiously looking at the time and itching to get to the head of the Ryanair queue, when my wife Liz, who had accompanied me with our granddaughter Jessica, suggested, after I'd checked in and we had enjoyed a cup of coffee, that I should take Jessica by the hand and walk her with me to the departure gates. Being then only just over a year old, Jessica, of course, walked very slowly. So I said to Liz, in what I thought was a calm, reasonable manner, "You do realise there’s only 35 minutes till I have to be at the departure gates!" Now Liz, who has a well-developed capacity for picking up emotional nuances, responded rather negatively to me putting my preoccupation with being at the head of a non-existent queue above the pleasure of walking with my granddaughter. 

However, despite this, I scooped Jessica up into my arms, walked quickly to the departure gates with her, gave her a kiss and then put her back into Liz's arms.

Once I was waiting at the head of the non-existent queue, I could relax. Then I started thinking to myself, what an unfortunate way for us all to have parted company. If Liz hadn't been so unreasonable and hadn't reacted like that, everything would have been perfect! But then, although loath to admit it to myself, I thought, knowing Liz she must have picked up on something in the way I spoke to her to react like that. And, when I recreated the scene in my mind, I admitted to myself that maybe there had been a certain edge to my voice. This then led me to thinking about how absurd and ridiculous my behaviour had been — about to be away from my family for a week, wouldn't I much rather have spent more time with them instead of this pressured, neurotic need to rush to the gate resulting in our unhappy farewell?

But, as soon as I started replaying in my mind what had really happened, all the feelings of urgent desperation to get to the front of the queue resurfaced once more, along with the anger at Liz for trying to stop me. However, rather than pushing the feelings away or trying to rationalise them again, I decided to explore my odd reaction by intensifying the feeling. I then imagined how I would feel if I didn't get on a plane early, for one reason or another (perhaps because people pushed me out of the way or jumped the queue), and the frustration that came up was intense. I closed my eyes, and invited my unconscious mind to see if there was something in my past that connected with that feeling. Nothing happened for a little while. But then, slowly, a childhood memory of a time when I was sent to spend a fortnight in the summer holidays with distantly related cousins crept into the edges of my mind.

Not an idyllic summer

Now, life for me at my cousins' house that summer had been extremely disorienting. I hardly knew them and it seemed to me that they had the most bizarre and uncivilised way of going about things. For instance, there might be meals provided or there might not. In my mother's very ordered household, meals were always delivered at specific times every day, so this was extremely disturbing. The only ritual I could be sure of was that my aunt would come home from work every evening with sweets or biscuits or a bag of some kind of edible goodies, and my cousins would all start screaming and jumping on her and pulling at her, to get at the bag. At first, I stood back, aghast, but it became obvious to me, after a couple of days, that whoever screamed, jumped and behaved the worst got the lion's share of the sweets. So I soon realised that, if I wasn't to starve, I had better start jumping and screaming louder than anybody else. But, when I did so, my aunt, having thrust some sweets into my hand, instantly turned on me and exclaimed, "Joe, I'm shocked at your behaviour, a well-brought up boy like you!" I withdrew in shame — but, I had got my sweets.

The emotion I recalled, when this memory came back to me, was of the social embarrassment at being told off in front of my cousins. This puzzled me because the emotion I was experiencing at the Ryanair check-in, which had taken me to this holiday memory, was not embarrassment but aggressive determination to be at the front of the queue. So I stayed with the memory, holding on to those feelings, seeing myself jumping up for those sweets and, after a brief while, with what felt like a little rush, I reconnected with them. I was jumping up aggressively, determined to fight to get my share and so, at the Ryanair check-in, I had experienced a straightforward pattern match.

That fortnight in the country with my relations had been a free-for-all; you had to fight to get what you needed. But, in my case, the situation aroused two strong, but conflicting emotions: my need to survive (expressed as desperate greed and fighting for my due) and my desire to be a good boy. But, although I had wanted to be a good boy, what had 'worked' for me then, in survival terms, was pushing and shoving and doing anything that was needed, to get fed. So when, at the Ryanair check-in desk more than 40 years later, I again experienced a free-for-all, the instinctive reaction that was activated was, "Do what you need to do to get your place, Joe!"

We can clearly see the pain–pleasure recall principle at work here. I had pattern matched Liz's social disapproval (and, on other occasions, the potential social disapproval of other passengers if I were too forcible in pushing myself forward) combined with the pleasure of getting on the plane early and choosing my seat in comfort, to the previous experience of my aunt’s social disapproval combined with the pleasure of getting the sweets. The first thing I had been aware of at the airport, however, was the pain of potential social disapproval so, in this case, I had dealt it with by lifting Jessica up and carrying her to the departure gates to speed up the whole process. I had figured that this would, to some extent, reduce Liz's disapproval. And I had also dealt with the potential social disapproval of my fellow passengers by making sure I was near the head of the queue, so that there was no need to queue-jump. Once I had a strategy in place to deal with the social disapproval (the painful or negative aspect of the memory), the positive emotion of aggression could come to the fore — getting to the front of the queue.

When I had previously brought that particular memory to mind, the only feeling I had recalled was the embarrassment at my aunt's disapproval. I had, therefore, had no conscious memory of the greed and desperation that I experienced when fighting for the sweets. But this time, when I stayed with the anger that I was experiencing as I stood in the departure lounge queue, I became conscious of my angry feelings towards her in the memory. And when, in my mind, I gave voice to those feelings ("I've got to get my share of sweets, if I'm to survive in your stupid house!"), both my desperation to get to the head of the queue, and the anger I was feeling against Liz evaporated. More importantly, the feeling of pressure to head the queue has never returned, although I have caught many more Ryanair flights since. Of course, it is always nice to be one of the first on a plane, so as to choose where to sit in comfort and have enough storage space to put cabin luggage overhead, but the crucial difference is that it is no longer an uncontrollable compulsion.

The technique of focusing on a current feeling that seems to be excessive given the present circumstances is known as an 'affect bridge'.[5] It is well known to psychotherapists as a powerful way to access a pattern match from the past that needs de-conditioning. I will illustrate with an example.

No time to play

All my adult life, when engaged in social conversations, I would soon get a restless feeling that I should be working. This feeling used to perplex me because it would occur even when there was nothing urgent that needed doing.

So, on one such occasion, when this compulsive feeling of needing to work came up, I stayed with it to see what memory, if any, might come to mind. Up came a childhood memory of how, every Saturday, my parents would go into town to do the shopping and my older sister would marshal us older boys to clean the house from top to bottom, while my younger brothers played outside. I could easily reconnect with the feeling of, "You can't play. You have to work!" Having accessed that feeling and relocated it back in its correct context, I have since ceased to be troubled by the compulsion to work at seemingly inappropriate times. Now I make more of a conscious choice about when I work. 

This is a classic example of how the affect bridge works. In this instance it had helped me to discover a sub-threshold trauma which was soon resolved. However, had this technique, as normally practised, been used on the childhood memory I had pattern matched to when checking in at the airport to fly Ryanair with its two associated emotions (painful and pleasurable), it would have had me focus on the first accessed emotion (the social embarrassment) and simply intensify it. But this would have been the incorrect emotion to focus upon as it was not what was driving the problem behaviour.

Sub-threshold trauma

We have introduced the term 'sub-threshold trauma' here to distinguish between a memory which causes excessive negative emotional arousal (eg anxiety or sadness) when activated by pattern matching to stimuli in the present and a molar memory. It is 'sub-threshold' both in the sense that you are not consciously aware of why you are emotionally over-reacting and because the symptoms do not meet the full criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder, eg nightmares, flashbacks etc.

By contrast, a molar memory evokes excessive 'positive' emotions (eg sexual arousal or anger) when unconsciously activated by pattern matching to stimuli in the present, but negative/painful emotions when the memory of the original event is first consciously remembered. Only after focussing on the memory further will the positive/'pleasurable' emotion associated with it be evoked. 

Both types of memory are capable of adversely affecting our behaviour and can be accessed via the affect bridge.

It was only when I stayed with the memory, while acknowledging that first emotion of embarrassment, that another strong emotional connection, which was at first hidden, became apparent — and proved to be the troublesome one. This explains why the affect bridge doesn't work sometimes: if the initial problem has involved both pleasure and pain, the first emotion linked to isn't the problematic one. In the Ryanair example, the problematic emotion was the second emotion related to the memory: anger. 

In psychodynamic psychotherapy, anger is often regarded as a cover-up emotion. So, in a case like this, it would be common practice to encourage the patient to be in touch with the feelings of social embarrassment that are supposedly being covered up by the anger. The patient would also be encouraged to recall other examples of excessive anger covering up social embarrassment and to give expression to those feelings of social embarrassment along with the feeling of anger thus engendered. In this process the patient would come to recognise excessive anger in situations involving social humiliation as 'one of their issues'. But the excessive anger problem would continue to exist because its source in the angry/positive root of the molar memory would remain untreated by this method.

It is necessary, then, to adapt the affect bridge to resolve a pain–pleasure problem. Here is another example.

One of the boys

Throughout my adult life, I have been aware of a strong desire — stronger, I suspect, than other men might experience — to be accepted into a group of males. This has been a strong influence on my behaviour over the years — it certainly influenced me, as a young man, to drink more than I otherwise would have done because drinking 'with the boys' was an easy scenario in which I could be accepted. Indeed, I could excel — telling jokes and contributing to the 'craic', as we say in Ireland.

So, on one occasion, when I knew a party of male friends would be meeting for a few drinks and was experiencing the usual longing to meet up with them and be one of the gang, I deliberately decided not to go. Instead, I sat down quietly and focused on this longing, now thwarted, of wanting to be one of the guys. When I focused on and intensified that yearning, it brought me straight back to a ritual humiliation that I went through day after day for years during my childhood.

I was a socially inhibited child and, for socially inhibited children, team games are torture. I had no difficulty defending myself in one-to-one arguments; it was only in team sports that this inhibition manifested itself. Every day at primary school, the boys would have to play football. Two of the best players would be chosen to pick a team each, and every day I would be standing there, with a mounting sense of shame, as more and more 'boys' names were called, until only I and a few other boys, who were equally as unenthusiastic about the prospect of playing football, were left. But the biggest terror was that I wouldn't get picked at all, that neither captain would eventually say, "Oh, let Griffin join our side, then".

When, on the day of the proposed meeting with my male friends, I stayed with that feeling of desperation for peer-group acceptance, what came up initially was this memory of shame, as I waited to be selected for the team. Now, if I were in therapy of a certain kind, at that stage I would be encouraged to really experience the shame, to get right down into it and relive every gruesome second of it. But, as we have seen, it was not the right emotion. To focus on the shame would make the experience of shame many times more neurotic and entrenched. I had no trouble experiencing shame; during my childhood, I had felt that feeling every day for years. It was totally conscious, totally explicable. What was controlling my life was an unconscious excessive desire to be accepted, under any circumstances, into a group of males I saw as peers. As an adult, I recalled the shame but I had to go beyond that, to activate that original emotion of desperation, as a child, which was always satisfied when I was eventually accepted on to the team.

On this occasion, once I had become aware of that feeling of desperation to be accepted, I quietly acknowledged it and put it back into its context: "I want to join you. I can play football. I want to be a part. Let me in." And, once I had done that, my neurotic need to have a centrestage role in male drinking camaraderie was gone.

Time to leave the marriage

Michael came to see me for psychotherapy because of concerns about his marriage to Lynette. "We had a long difficult patch but just lately we've been getting on really well again, almost like when we first met. We are best friends; we do lots together; we laugh together. But then Lynette will start haranguing me about something, and I get this extremely strong feeling that I should just walk out on the marriage. It's quite a shockingly strong feeling and it knocks me for six. I’m wondering if, underneath it all, it’s a marriage that's going nowhere and I should get out of it now, before there are any kids."

In the course of our session, I asked Michael if he could recall the last time that he had had this strong feeling and he had no difficulty in doing so. Just two days previously, he and his wife had been enjoying a weekend away. They were feeling exceptionally close to each other and had just got ready to go out to dinner when Lynette received a phone call from her nephew. She had listened for a moment and then said, "Well, all right, as long as you take care." Afterwards, Michael discovered that the nephew had asked if he could borrow their car that night. When Michael expressed surprise that she hadn't asked his opinion, Lynette became quite remote and formidable. "You wouldn’t have asked me. I have the right to make decisions too! You wouldn't have said no. What are you fussing about?" Not wanting to spoil the weekend, Michael said she was right and they went out for an enjoyable dinner. But, even as he laughed and joked with Lynette, inside himself he again became aware of a very strong feeling that it would make best sense to end the marriage.

On a hunch, I asked Michael to try and recapture that feeling of it being best to leave the marriage, and to intensify it and see where it took him. He shut his eyes and concentrated and at first he shook his head but then he said, "Something from my childhood that I haven't thought about in years has just popped back into my head!"

What flashed into his mind was a memory from when he was about 10 years old, living in a village in Ireland. He had a friend called Niall who sometimes used to call around to play with Michael and his brothers on the green outside their house. Whenever he came around, Michael recalled, his mother would call her boys in quickly afterwards. Michael would be told to go out and tell his friend Niall that he had better go home because they had jobs to do around the house. It happened so often that, one day, Niall said, "Why is it that, whenever I come down, your mother calls you in?" Michael had no idea so, that day, he asked his mum. She fixed him with a terrifying look and said, "Well, you've enough brothers to play with, haven't you?" Although puzzled by his mother's reasoning, Michael didn't question her authority but was painfully aware that this meant the loss of Niall's friendship. (It was only some years later that Michael learned the real reason for his mother's response: Niall's sister had become pregnant as a teenager and Michael's extremely religious mother thought Niall would be an undesirable influence on her boys.)

"What on earth would not being allowed to play with Niall have to do with my feeling ready to walk out of my marriage?" said Michael, after relating all this. I asked him to stay with the feeling and see where, if anywhere, it took him. "Just the sense that this must have been very embarrassing for me," he replied. I asked him still to remain with the feeling and suddenly, after a few moments, he said he had a strong, almost aggressive feeling of needing to disconnect from Niall. The relationship was not allowed. It was best if it was over. 

Michael was surprised. He told me he had thought of his friend Niall many times but had always thought about the embarrassment he must have felt at breaking off the friendship; he had never before accessed the compelling feeling of having to break off the relationship. It had been completely hidden from him. We explored the connection. Michael's mother, a figure of authority, had, in effect, told him that he couldn’t play with Niall, with whom he had been very friendly. Michael and Lynette had been very close on their weekend away and then, suddenly, Lynette had gone into authoritarian mode and started telling him off. On both occasions, a desire for closeness/connection had been threatened by an authority figure. In the incident with Lynette, however, friendship and authority were represented in the same person. As pattern matching is often by its very nature crude, this had been a close enough fit for Michael's emotional brain.

Thus Michael was unconscious that his risk-assessment of his current situation had been based on his previous experience of pain from losing that earlier, desired relationship. As a result, in order not to bring about painful loss again, he became less confrontational with Lynette and re-established rapport with her. However, having now mitigated the potential pain of the situation, the positive side of the pain–pleasure memory was free to express itself — the seemingly inexplicable aggressive desire to end the relationship, which was a pattern match to that childish feeling all those years ago when carrying out his mother's instruction to tell Niall to go home. (As explained earlier, aggression is a positive or 'approach' emotion that makes us feel powerful and dictatorial.)

When Michael understood that, and could put the experience in context, it stopped occurring. I saw him twice more, and he had felt nothing remotely similar. Indeed, he now felt all the closer to Lynette, even though occasions had occurred when he still experienced her behaviour as over-bearing. He was able to shrug them off.

'Molar memories'

The metaphor of a molar is a useful one for this type of problematic memory. A molar (grinding) tooth, of course, has two roots and a 'molar memory' has two roots; pain and pleasure. If a molar tooth’s roots become infected they have to be exposed or drilled by a dentist, in order to be treated, just as the problematic emotional memory with its two roots has to be exposed to consciousness and treated by being put into context, thereby also ceasing to cause problems. Moreover, if a dentist drills into the wrong root, he does more damage. This is analogous to a therapist who 'explores the pain' of a patient, increasing their suffering, deepening their anxiety or depression when the emotional 'abscess' is located in an unexposed pleasurable emotional root. It doesn’t matter how much 'drilling' a therapist does on the negative root, it will have no impact on the source of the infection when it is in the positive root.

It might perhaps have been CBT's inability to deal with these kinds of problems that led to the foundation of cognitive analytical therapy (CAT), a fusion of CBT ideas with Freud's psychoanalytical ones. But this has had little, if any, more success, in such situations. With the identification of the pain–pleasure recall principle, however, and its resultant 'molar memories', we have a much more accessible and straight-forward explanation for unconscious emotional conflicts — one that is fully compatible with the empirically based psychological explanations from learning theory. Perhaps even more importantly, though, the insights it brings have the potential to change some troubled lives quickly and permanently.

An important difference

It is important to be clear how molar memories differ from traumas and phobias, which can also blight lives. Traumas and phobias always have excessive fear or anxiety as their core problematical symptom. Molar memories never have fear or anxiety as their core symptom. (Sometimes people with post-traumatic stress disorder present with anger problems, but they are acutely aware that their core problem is their untreated trauma and its associated anxiety.) For molar memories, however, the problematical emotion is always excessive anger or aggressive feelings, or inappropriate expressions of pleasure (all resulting from the 'pleasurable' aspect of the original situation). The individual beset with a molar memory is always blind to the source of these 'pleasurable' emotions since they are screened from consciousness by the negative feelings associated with the memory, as these need to remain conscious for risk assessment purposes. If the risk assessment concludes that it is too dangerous for him or her to express the positive feelings, then these won't enter our conscious awareness at all. 

On the other hand, if the risk assessment concludes that it is safe to express the associated positive feelings, then that reaction is reinforced as part of the memory pattern (or template) without the person ever being aware of where the original motivation came from. Indeed, not knowing otherwise, we are likely to argue that our feelings have been aroused by whatever situation we currently find ourselves in. We remain oblivious to their origin in a childhood emotional conflict between clashing needs seeking their fulfilment. (As we are most likely to run into a conflict of emotions during the socialisation phase of childhood, it is during this time that molar memories will most probably be laid down.)

For an animal, molar memories laid down when young may continue to provide appropriate responses in its adulthood. (These responses are, in effect a form of 'learned instinct', a template that will be constantly used to scan the environment for appropriate pattern-matching stimuli.) But, because our lives are infinitely more complex and the circumstances we experience infinitely more varied than those experienced by early mammals, what gets filed away is not necessarily an appropriate reaction at all on many of the crudely similar occasions which, to the emotional brain, are an accurate pattern match.

Context is the key

So we are usually completely unaware of what is now maladaptive conditioning and, because we are unaware, we are condemned to repeat it endlessly. For, even though we know it isn’t routine behaviour to get incensed over virtually nothing or to have an overwhelming urge to walk out on a happy marriage, we tend to justify such reactions to ourselves. "Well, she is so annoying at times that it is no surprise I sometimes feel livid with her." "Everyone wants to feel accepted." "He always knows how to press my buttons. It isn’t my fault I react like this." As a result, there is nothing to tell us that there is a better way to behave. (After all, we are still surviving, so it must be 'working'.) But, when we have knowledge of the pain–pleasure recall process, we can update our molar memory conditioning.

If, as described, we stay with the feeling, when we experience an over-the-top or inexplicable reaction, we can pick up on its source. Merely recognising and acknowledging it consciously is enough for the hippocampus (a brain organ concerned with conscious memories) to be able to identify it as belonging to the past, with no further relevance for future action. Creating context serves to undo the maladaptive programming. For, it is when an emotion (and ensuing action) is unconscious that it is stripped of any context. It becomes a universal application working purely by association or pattern matching. But, if the inappropriate emotion can be activated and the original memory brought back, then context can be created for it. It is no longer universal and it is deactivated. The unconscious programming element of the molar memory vanishes and so ceases to influence our behaviour.

Overcoming anorexia

While I was still experimenting with this theory, I happened to receive a call from a 38-year-old woman called Catherine, who had struggled with anorexia since she was 13. I had seen her for therapy 15 years before, and we had managed to find ways to help her cope but had never cracked the anorexia itself. Her weight fell, at one point, to four and a half stones and she was still painfully thin when I met her this time around.

She had got back in touch because her obsessive-compulsive behaviours around food were worsening again. During the intervening years since I'd last seen her, she had had all different kinds of therapy, including hospitalisation, none of which had really helped. Just recently she had seen a hypnotherapist who had regressed her to a time when she was a very young girl, sitting in her room, hearing her parents arguing about the fact that she had soiled herself yet again. There had been a lot of arguing when she was young about her inability — or refusal — to control her bowels. She recalled feeling sadness that her parents were fighting again and that it was her fault. Catherine told me she had cried a lot when she relived this memory, and felt some relief. However, this was already a highly familiar memory for her, and reliving it didn't seem to help her in any way afterwards.

I wondered if she might have experienced some other emotion, more significant than the sadness, that she wasn't aware of right then. So, with her permission, I asked her to close her eyes and go back to that time when she was in the room. I asked her questions about the colour of the walls and the furniture in the room, to help her get fully back into the experience. Then I said to her, "What are you feeling now in your body?" And she said, “I feel I can't hold on any more. I have to let go." "How does that feel?" "One part of me doesn't want to let go," she said, "but the other part does and it feels great; it's a lovely warm feeling, doing this." Then, her parents had come in, and she began to feel sad about what she had done. I suggested that she stay in touch with the feeling of pleasure at emptying her bowel. I asked her to notice how the feeling changed over time. She reported that, as the stools got cold, the feeling became disgusting. Because of her parents arguing, she hadn't noticed that feeling before. Doing so reframed her memory of the pleasure of 'controlling' her bowel movement, so that the memory of it was not so pleasurable after all.

I knew that Catherine felt disgusted by her body because, when I asked how she felt about putting on weight, she had responded fervently, "My body feels disgusting when I put on weight. I know I’m not fat but I just hate the feeling of it. I feel as though I'm sticking out in all the wrong places." Her expression was one of disgust. So I asked her to focus on that feeling, too, and see what memory came up for her. She instantly went back to the time of her first period, which had occurred in class at school, and vividly recalled the dreadful embarrassment of having to rush from the room to clean herself up. But, as she relived the experience, while holding on to the feeling of disgust, the disgust she had felt at the time started to surface: "There's blood coming out all over the place and it’s all sticky and it’s a mess; it’s all disgusting!" What made it worse to her was that it felt unnatural; her older sister had not even started her periods yet.

I then reframed the experience for her. "Yes, it must have felt disgusting when you had your period because you weren’t properly prepared for it, and it felt unnatural. But it isn't unnatural now. Your body is at its most beautiful when it is putting on normal curves. It's not disgusting; it's something beautiful." I talked to her about feeding and nourishing her body and looking after it and invited her to experience her body as healthy when putting on weight. That was the end of the session.

The next day, she phoned up my house and left an excited message, telling me about the changes that had happened since the session. She had gone home and eaten a normal dinner, with dessert, for the first time in 25 years, with no voices in her head telling her not to. I have seen her since and she has reported that only occasionally, when under stress, has she felt an urge to restrict her eating. But, since it no longer felt compulsive, she could recognise it and deal with it. She is now steadily gaining weight and enjoying a range of foods she has never eaten before and her life is free from debilitating compulsive rituals. 

The reframes that worked

This was an astounding outcome and what I think had happened was this. When she used to relieve herself in her pants, the desire for the pleasure of doing so immediately, under her own control, vied with the feeling that she should obey her parents' instruction that she should go to the toilet. The action she took was to soil her pants and experience the lovely warmth. Taking that control was worth the price of making her parents angry, even though that made her sad. Obsessively controlling her body in this way ‘worked’ for her at that time (she would later choose to no longer do it) because her risk assessment of the pain likely to be experienced concluded that the pain of her parent’s displeasure was worth the feeling of pleasure she got when evacuating her bowels when she herself wanted. When her period arrived, it was out of the blue — she had been in class, enjoying her lesson and, suddenly, she had had to rush out to take care of herself. Now her body felt dangerously out of her control — not only had it let her down, it had done something unnatural, because her older sister hadn't even started her periods yet. She had already been feeling uncomfortable with her changing body shape "sticking out in all the wrong places". Her older sister's body hadn't changed like this. Now her body was even more out of her control, with this embarrassing, disgusting, sticky mess.

This was a traumatising experience for her. Her memory pattern matched back to the wonderful feeling of control she had when she controlled the emptying of the disgusting mess her bowels made. She had pattern matched to a pain–pleasure (molar) memory as the way to deal with the trauma of her unexpected and unprepared-for first period. The solution therefore was to take back control over her body shape and over her periods, just as she had kept control over her messy bowel movements and not allowed her parents to control them. And the way to do this was by controlling her eating, thereby reducing her food intake, so that her body would get thin and stop sticking out in "all the wrong places". An added bonus, she was to discover later, was that her messy periods would actually stop. Of course, just as in keeping control of her bowel movements, there was a price to be paid — her parent's disapproval of her action which, in this case, was her restricted eating. Clearly, her unconscious risk assessment had concluded that this price was worth paying for the pleasure gained from controlling her bodily functions.

It is worth stressing again that this molar memory influence is not a conscious process. We experience the gut feeling and feel compelled to act upon it, however inappropriate we recognise it to be and to whatever degree we may manage to modify some of our reactions: Catherine knew to ingest just enough food to keep her alive. Once the original molar memory linked to her bowel training was accessed, however, making both the pain and the pleasure conscious, and the pleasure element had been reframed to include the feeling of disgust linked to cold stools, the molar memory's power was dissolved. As this molar memory had been controlling her traumatic reaction to her first unexpected period, accessing that memory and reframing the experience as a normal and beautiful part of a young woman’s development enabled that trauma to be resolved. There was no need for the anorexia any more, so she could go home and eat dinner, followed by dessert, and enjoy it.

The cross-dresser

Jake, a man in his 30s, came to see me because he was a secret cross-dresser, and had been since childhood. As times had changed a great deal since his childhood, with cross dressing now treated as personal choice rather than a fetish, he was finding it increasingly confusing that he didn’t feel comfortable with his behaviour. It didn’t feel like a positive choice to him but a strange compulsion that took him over and made him feel distressed. He admitted that he experienced sexual arousal when cross-dressing, so, in guided imagery, I asked him to find and focus on that feeling and then to let it take him back to wherever it wanted to go. The memory that came up for him was of being caught by his mother, when he was a young boy, trying on his sister's knickers in the bathroom, and seeing what it was like to pee like a girl. Jake instantly recalled the terrible guilt he felt at being caught and the horror on his mother's face. I suggested to him that he tell his mum that he wanted to try out what it felt like to wear girls' clothes. He then got a feeling of sexual excitement as his young self, as he experimented with his sister's clothing. Reliving that feeling was a shock to Jake. It was completely concealed from his consciousness — he hadn't realised that, at such a young age, he was even capable of sexual feelings.

The pain–pleasure recall principle would hold that this experience was bound to trigger a molar memory. A boy with natural childhood curiosity explores aspects of female sexual identity, experiences sexual arousal in the process, and is then humiliated by his mother’s disapproval. The pain is consciously recalled but the pleasure is not. However, ever afterwards, when he encounters female underwear, his brain pattern matches back to the molar memory. He does an automatic risk assessment for potential embarrassment and, if that is not problematic, experiences the desire to wear female clothing.

If acted upon, this reinforces the pattern. Such behaviours are notoriously difficult to change in therapy. However, if we bring the underlying molar memory into conscious awareness, the inappropriate pattern match dissolves and so does the desire. After that therapy session, during which the memory and associated pattern matches were reprogrammed by consciously putting them into context, Jake never again experienced a desire to wear female underwear.

Pain and pleasure are at the core of what motivates us in life. Pleasure is nature's currency for rewarding behaviour that gets needs met. Pain exists to warn us of danger. It is the way our ancient animal ancestors evolved to make the best use of these two systems, however, that leaves us so vulnerable to maladaptive conditioning as we grow up. I suggest that molar memories play a significant role in many neurotic, over-the-top reactions that involve both positive and negative emotions and with an understanding of this process we can significantly improve the quality of our own lives as well as that of our patients.

As well as using it with their clients, several of the psychotherapists with whom I have discussed this principle have also experimented on elements of their own behaviour too, reporting back that it brought equally rapid and effective results. Bringing molar memories into consciousness, therefore, is not only a powerful way (where applicable) to help patients, it has huge potential as a self-development tool, creating spare capacity by allowing individuals to become more objective about themselves and the way they react to life circumstances. Difficult though it can be, doing this is, of course, subject to our being ready to admit that our angry outbursts and pursuit of pleasurable experiences are not entirely due to external factors. Thus the usefulness of this technique as a self-developmental tool is entirely dependent on our willingness to investigate the sources of our own emotional responses in those very instances when we are most likely to be defensive of them because of the emotional intensity that motivates them.


Choose a case study from a human givens therapist working with molar memories:
Case study 1 — Pamela Woodford
Case study 2 — Mike Beard


JOE GRIFFIN is a psychotherapist who, with IVAN TYRRELL developed the human givens approach.


This article first appeared in "Human Givens Journal" Volume 13 - No. 3: 2006

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  1. Mackintosh, N J (1983). Conditioning and Associative Learning. Oxford University Press, New York.
  2. Rescorla, R A (1980). Pavlovian conditioning: it's not what you think it is. American Psychologist, 43, 151—60.
  3. Griffin, J and Tyrrell, I. (2003). Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. HG Publishing, East Sussex.
  4. Damasio, A (1994). Descartes' Error: emotion, reason and the human brain. Avon Books, New York.
  5. Watkins, J G (1971). The affect bridge: a hypnoanalytic technique. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 19, 1, 21—7.

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