Emerging research suggests a method to prevent relapse to an old harmful behavior is to match a new behavior to the originating stimulus.

Researchers base the new approach on the fact that behavior associated with addictions, phobias, and even post-traumatic stress disorder are difficult to treat. And the unwanted behaviors can be painful and harmful problems.

Another reason for a new approach is that in therapy, a person may suppress the association between the stimulus and the response — say, a bar with ashtrays and smoking — by learning to pair the stimulus with a new memory not involving smoking.

However, once out in the world, faced with bars and ashtrays aplenty, an individual can easily relapse into the old behavior.

A traditional approach has been to counsel the individual to avoid locations and stimuli that trigger the harmful behavior — unfortunately, this is often a difficult task.

“The therapist really has little control over the context in which the patient finds himself,” said Dr. Ralph R. Miller, distinguished professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who wrote the article with SUNY colleague Mario A. Laborda.

A more promising method, then, is: “Make the treatment memory stronger.”

Miller’s research is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Experimentalists like the authors use the term “extinction” for the process, as Miller puts it, of “teaching the subject new memories that oppose the old memories.” Clinicians call it “exposure therapy.”

As found in the article, psychological literature supports four methods to make the extinction memory stronger and therefore more enduring:

  • Give more therapy (or in the experimental context, more trials).
  • Conduct the therapy in different locations and contexts—for instance, different rooms rather than always the same office.
  • Space the extinction exercises—or in the lab, the experimental trials—over the therapeutic session.
  • And finally, provide the treatment sessions separated by more time.

All of these methods are based on traditional principles of learning: that increased practice enhances learning, and “spaced practice results in better memory than when the learning trials are massed,” said Miller.

Although lab research is sometimes denigrated, Miller stressed the importance of animal laboratory research in finding new treatment methods.

“We are developing excellent means in the animal lab to model human psychopathology, not just for screening drugs but for screening behavioral treatments. We additionally now have models of the treatment and the limitations of the treatments,” he said.

Determining how to reduce those limitations using rats rather than humans is faster and requires fewer subjects, he says. Numerous clinical studies, moreover, “certify that our findings with rats also apply to humans.”

The new research supports the theory that memories are forever, said Miller. As such the finding supports proven facts about learning.

“We are providing alternate memories that compete with the deleterious memory”—say, a new, automatic mental image of having a drink and a conversation in a bar without picking up a cigarette, perhaps accompanied by a feeling of relaxation.

“The trick is that the newer memory when it is retrieved will be stronger than the deleterious memory,” he said.

Source: Association for Psychological Science