LOOKING AT HEALING PRAYER THROUGH THE LENS OF NEUROSCIENCE: MEMORY RECONSOLIDATION & THEOPHOSTIC PRAYER

Healing prayer, inspired by the teachings and life of Jesus and his disciples, is still being performed today. Healing prayer is a form of ministry, where one faith-filled person prays with someone who is hurting, with the goal of bringing healing and transformation through an experiential encounter with a loving God (Johnson, 2005; Nelson, 2009). Most Christians deem healing prayer to be a miraculous event, which is due solely to a direct supernatural encounter with God. While I do not doubt God’s presence in the midst of that encounter, I also believe what occurs in healing prayer is attributable to a natural, innate process, neuroscientists call, “memory reconsolidation” (Ecker & Ticic, 2012; Ecker, 2015).

While there are diverse forms and methods of inner healing prayer (Hurding, 2005; Garzon & Burkett, 2002 & Johnson, 2005), the type of healing prayer I will focus on is Theophostic Prayer Ministry (TPM) (Smith 2000; 2007). It is not called “Transformational Prayer Ministry.” Although the model has changed recently changed alot, some of the principles discussed in this piece still apply. Additionally, I will briefly explore the neuroscience and research surrounding memory reconsolidation. Bruce Ecker’s conceptualization and clinical application of memory reconsolidation, as synthesized in his groundbreaking book, Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation (2012), will be the main text for this exploration. I will conclude with a short case-study, using a transcript taken from a live ministry demonstration, led by the founder of TPM, Dr. Ed Smith. Lastly, throughout the session, I will offer a commentary in italics, describing how the transformation sequence of memory reconsolidation is at work.

Theophostic Prayer Ministry

Theophostic, coined by its founder Ed Smith, is derived from the Greek words meaning God (Theos) and Light (phos) (Smith, 2000; 2007; 2016). TPM is a specific model of prayer designed to bring healing to hurting persons (Smith, 2007). Although it is has been referenced as a form of healing prayer (Johnson, 2005), the founder of the approach has tried to distance himself from that terminology and prefers ‘mind renewal’ (Smith, 2007, p.155). Smith’s avoidance of “healing prayer,” is due to critics associating TPM with “healing memories” (Garzon & Burkett, 2002). Ed Smith defines TPM as: “Intentional and focused prayer with the desired outcome of an authentic encounter with the presence of Christ, resulting in mind renewal and subsequent transformed life” (Smith, 2007, p.2).

Theophostic Prayer Ministry Process of Transformation

According to Smith (2007), there are four key elements that need to take place within a session for the participant to be released from “lie-based thinking and emotional pain” (p.5). They are (1) identify the presenting painful emotion which the participant is struggling with, (2) find the original memory which the painful emotion has its root, (3) discover the original lie-based thinking that was planted in the person’s mind due to the event in the memory, and (4) offer the exposed lie to Jesus to receive his perspective of truth. Once a facilitator has helped the ministry recipient fully experience the steps above, the participant can then achieve God’s freedom and peace. TPM has recently been “updated, revised, streamlined, and simplified” and will be disseminated to the wider public in the coming months (Website, 2016).

TPM Research and Criticism

TPM has minimal research and is limited to surveys and case studies (Garzon & Poloma, 2005; Kleinschuster, 2004; Tilley, 2007). For example, Tilley (2007) surveyed 2818 people who had at least one Theophostic session. It was reported that 95% believed their ministry experience deepened their relationship with God, 72% believed TPM was “very helpful to the most helpful thing tried,” and 87% reported TPM to be at least “helpful.” Additionally, Garzon (2008), demonstrated through 13 outcomes-based case studies that TPM is effective at reducing psychological distress with gains maintained at a 3-month follow-up.

TPM also has its critics. Some conservative Christians have considered it “psychoheresy” (Bobgan & Bobgan, 1999), while others, although not dismissing the approach outrightly, have had some legal, ethical and overall concerns about TPM (Hunter & Yarhouse, 2009; Entwistle, 2004a; 2004b). The founder of TPM values the criticism, is open to correction where needed, and acknowledges that the approach is continually developing over time (IATM, 2008-2011). TPM has recently been “updated, revised, streamlined, and simplified” and will be disseminated to the wider public in the coming months (Website, 2016). Despite TPM having critics and not being an evidence-based, empirically validated approach, it is being used by people in over 140 countries and appears to be effective in bringing transformation from all different kinds of emotional and spiritual problems (IATM, 2008-2011).

Memory Reconsolidation

When you have an experience, especially if it is full of intensity and emotion, after a period of time it becomes consolidated and wired into the brain at the synaptic level. In essence, it becomes an entrenched memory (Lieberman, 2012). It was previously thought the synapses would be locked, and those memories would remain stable and fixed throughout a person’s life (McGaugh, 2000). Contemporary research has shown the above is no longer the case. Memories can, and do, change.

Memory reconsolidation is a remarkable discovery within the field of neuroscience. Memories that were once consolidated can become altered and updated (Alberini & LeDoux, 2013; Bailey & Balsam, 2013; Birbaumer, 2010; Ecker & Ticic, 2012; Ecker 2015; Otis, Mueller & Werner, 2015). Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s natural capacity and process for overriding the negative baggage that comes with painful or traumatic memories thus bringing forth lasting, transformational change (Ecker & Ticic, 2012; Ecker, 2015).

Ecker (2012) summarizes memory reconsolidation as, “the surprising discovery of the brain’s ability to delete a specific, unwanted emotional learning, including core, non-conscious beliefs and schemas, at the level of the physical, neural synapses that encode it in emotional memory” (p.13). In some cases, the memory itself might change as new details emerge through the reconsolidation process. In other cases, the details and events may remain the same, but the painful, overwhelming emotions and negative thoughts associated with the event, disappear.

Ecker, a researcher, therapist, and author, has brought the practical applications of memory reconsolidation, via workshops and publications, to mental health communities all over the world. Based on the synthesis of memory reconsolidation to date, Ecker (2012), has identified a three-step erasure sequence that when utilized in the therapeutic process can bring about transformation and lasting change. “Transformation change” involves the complete cessation of maladaptive emotional learning and unwanted symptoms, in contrast to what Ecker (2012), describes as “incremental change,” which involves ongoing management of symptoms (p.9).

Additionally, Ecker notes that the erasure sequence of emotional implicit learning, which is at the root of clinical symptoms, is a “theory-independent, universal meta-process” (2012, p.27). Welling (2012), also considers memory reconsolidation to be a viable explanation for the primary change mechanism within transformational therapies. In other words, both Ecker (2012), and Welling (2012), propose that if transformational change takes place, regardless of the therapeutic model or spiritual approach, then memory reconsolidation, along with its three-step erasure sequence, has most likely occurred.

The 3-Step Memory Reconsolidation Transformation Sequence

How does memory reconsolidation become the key to unlocking memories at the synaptic level to bring about healing and transformation? Although there are three preparatory steps, for simplicity, I will describe the three main steps of memory reconsolidation. Ecker (2012) states there are three necessary steps, based on the synthesis of memory reconsolidation research, which allow the brain to unlearn and erase targeted emotional learning.

The first step is to reactivate and re-evoke the symptom-generating learning that is keeping the person stuck. The therapist would guide the client into a specific memory, whether past or present, where the emotional learning, or schema, is deeply present and in operation. For example, Sarah is shy, anxious and seldom speaks her mind with her friends, although she desperately wants the confidence to do so. Through working together with her therapist, she uncovered the implicit, emotional truth (schema) that propels her symptoms. Her emotional learning was, “if my parents got angry when I wanted to express myself than others will too. I am deficient, and my voice is not worth listening to, therefore it is better to keep my mouth shut when around others”. This schema is outside of her awareness, yet profoundly affects her ability to share her voice and opinion with confidence, and leaves her feeling anxious and sad.

The second step is having the client think about, in a deeply experiential manner, a mismatch and contradictory experience of the targeted emotional learning. This step is the key to unlocking the synapses of the original memory. The research demonstrates that the memory then becomes labile, no longer consolidated, for a period lasting roughly five hours (Ecker, 2012). The memory, along with its emotional learning (schema), can be changed/updated/revised within that period of time. Without this step, the synapses cannot be unlocked and transformation cannot occur. After five hours or so the memory will no longer be labile, and will remain unchanged.

Let’s continue the example with Sarah from above. In speaking with Sarah, the therapist uncovered a fairly recent example of Sarah speaking out with her group of friends and helping one of them find a solution to a difficult problem. Sarah recalled how her friend was extremely grateful and gave her a hug. Sarah reported feeling excited, loved, and special afterward. This would be the mismatch and contradictory experience needed for step 2.

Finally, step three is the erasing, or revising, of the memory or emotional learning. This step typically entails a few repetitions of the juxtaposition experience between the original emotional learning, or schema, and the contradictory experience. For example, in Sarah’s case, the therapist would juxtapose a particular memory, whether past or present, of Sarah avoiding sharing her voice, while letting her being in contact with her implicit, emotional learning (“I am deficient and my voice is not worth listening to”), alongside her powerful memory of her sharing her voice and helping her friend. The memories would be shared side-by-side, in a deeply experiential manner, with the feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations accompanying them. The therapist would take Sarah through this juxtaposition process several times, while being in touch with the emotional experience of both experiences.

When all three steps are completed, which are the brain’s natural requirement and conditions for erasing and revising emotional schemas, then transformation and elimination of emotional learning can be achieved. The therapist could verify with the client whether transformation has occurred by going back into the painful memory and asking whether the schema still feels true. In Sarah’s case, transformation would be evident if she felt her schema were no longer true, she was devoid of anxiety when thinking about sharing her voice, and was able to express herself freely with her friends.

Theophostic & Memory Reconsolidation

Although memory reconsolidation is not a model of therapy, Ecker’s memory reconsolidation transformation sequence, can clearly be found in the practice of TPM. For example, Smith is targeting emotionally laden, lie-based thinking, and Ecker promotes doing the same, although he calls it, “implicit emotional learnings”, or “schemas” (Ecker, 2012). Both believe that lies (Smith), or schemas (Ecker), have come about due to highly emotional, pain-based memories in the past. Both believe that the maladaptive thoughts, behaviors, and emotions in the hurting person’s life are due to the underlying lies/schemas.

Similar to Ecker’s notion of “transformational change,” is Smith’s concept of “maintenance-free victory” or “effortless victory” (2007, p.25). Smith believes TPM participants can achieve complete transformation without needing to maintain problematic symptoms. In other words, once Jesus has replaced His truth with the lie-based core beliefs, then the emotional distress and subsequent symptoms they produced would be completely eliminated (Smith, 2007). This is in contrast to what Smith (2000), has previously called, “tolerable recovery” (p.22), where there is a slight change but the continual need, to monitor and tend to, ongoing emotional distress and symptoms (similar to Ecker’s “incremental change”). For both Smith and Ecker, if transformation has truly occurred, there will be no need to deal with further symptoms. In an effort to balance some people’s perception that TPM, is a fix-it-for-life cure, Smith has recently emphasized healing in the context of a life-long process of sanctification. Smith reminds readers, “Total release of all lie-based thinking is not possible within our earthly lifetime” (2013).

Though there are similarities, there is a key difference. Smith believes that transformation is solely the work of the Holy Spirit bringing liberating truth to a person’s mind, releasing the person from harmful, lie-based core beliefs (Smith, 2000, p.7). Ecker believes transformation can occur through any model of therapy, or spiritual practice, that incorporates the transformation sequence of memory reconsolidation, knowingly or unknowingly (most practitioners do not realize that the transformation sequence has occurred). Instead of the contradictory experience being solely the spoken truth of the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, Ecker believes that it could be truth coming from any person or situation. The new truth will be sufficient as long as it is contradictory to the person’s original schema, and is juxtaposed artfully, and experientially, within the five-hour window, which makes memories, and thus entrenched schemas, labile and open to change. For example, there are practitioners, using various therapeutic approaches, who see transformation occur using an imagined loving parent, grandparent, or even their adult self, speak truth to their lie-based core beliefs/schemas (Greenberg, 2011; Lee & James, 2011; Desmond, 2015).

Smith (2007), states that TPM is founded on “the faithfulness of God’s Word and on the consistency of His created order” (p.5). While Smith (2007), believes that Jesus is the primary agent of change in the TPM process he also acknowledges that TPM also takes advantage of the “laws of God’s creation” and “many basic principles,” that have existed since the creation of the world (p.5). Although Smith never refers to memory reconsolidation, this author believes that memory reconsolidation is one of the natural laws and principles that are a part of the created order, and is specifically at work in healing prayer. I attempt to demonstrate this hypothesis through the case example below.

Case Prologue

In this session (Smith, 2006), Dr. Smith is meeting with an older man, who we will call John. John reports struggling with anger for many years. John is currently not getting along with his wife and stepchildren, although we are not sure of the specific details. Though the session is lengthy, I will demonstrate the TPM model through selected moments in the session. I will write a commentary in italics within each step and show how the process of memory reconsolidation is at work. Though Dr. Smith takes John through several painful memories to find the root of John’s lie-based core beliefs, we will focus on one memory in particular. In this memory, John was a young boy and thought he had done a good job cleaning the barn but was told by his father to clean it again. John was disappointed and internalized the lie/schema, “Nothing I do is ever good enough”.

Case Example

(1.) Identify The Presenting Painful Emotion Which The Participant Is Struggling With

Dr. Smith- I will ask you to just look inside and feel what you feel and just uh report to me whatever you see, sense, hear, feel. Whatever is going on.

John- I am feeling a lot of angry. I am an angry person the last few years.

Dr. Smith- Tell you what I want you to do. I want you to feel that anger if you would. Would you do that? Really focus in on that anger and let your mind show you where it is rooted. I believe that you are angry for a reason and you have specific and legitimate reasons for being angry. And if you will just feel that anger your mind may let you connect it where it is coming from. And take your time and let your mind show you, let your mind do what God created it to do, designed it to do. And just connect you to the source.

The first step of the memory reconsolidation sequence is to reactivate and re-evoke the symptom-generating learning that is keeping the person stuck. Dr. Smith accomplishes this through steps 1-3 of his approach. In this first step, Dr. Smith asks John to enter into his emotion of anger. Notice, Dr. Smith doesn’t ask him to merely talk about his anger, but he asks him to experience his anger. The emotions must be felt in a deeply experiential manner. The task in this stage is not to talk “about” the emotions, but “from” the emotions. This is a necessary beginning step for the process of memory reconsolidation. Dr. Smith asks John to allow his mind to connect the anger to its original source. This demonstrates the wonder of the unconscious. John’s deeply ingrained pattern of anger, which is affecting his current relationships, has its roots in the past. John allowed his somatic intelligence to guide him to a deeper implicit truth that his prefrontal cortex (the more rational, logical part of his brain), was not fully aware of. This technique is common in mindfulness based approaches, such as Focusing (Gendlin, 1978), Hakomi Method (Kurtz, 1990), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (Ogden, 2006), and others.

(2) Find The Original Memory, Which The Painful Emotion has its Root

John We uh, the place is out on a farm we grew up on, we had a few head of cattle that we also milked that was, uh, my responsibility after my brothers had left high school and gone away from home. I was the only one at home then, I had to take care of all the chores and I thought I was doing a pretty good job doing the chores and uh, we were trying to get stuff straightened out with some cattle that we had we were selling and uh, calves, and uh, I thought I had them already to load up in the truck and Dad comes down and to the barn, the night before we were going to load them up the, you know he said that why don’t I instead of chasing the calves around for another hour, why don’t I get a couple of pens inside the barns cleaned out.

Dr. Smith is attempting to get to the original memory where John’s anger is rooted as a way to uncover the lie-based core belief. Dr. Smith is reactivating and re-evoking the symptom generating learning, which is key for the memory reconsolidation sequence. One of the primary reasons to delve into the memory is to locate the particular schema (lie) that John believes, which fuels his present symptoms, so Jesus can speak His truth in its place. Although there are a few key memories where the core belief is most pronounced, John’s mind takes him to a specific memory when he was young.

 (3) Discover The Original Lie-Based Thinking That Was Planted In The Person’s Mind Due To The Event In The Memory

Dr. Smith- And what are you feeling right there? What is that emotion right there?

John- I am so disappointed.

Dr. Smith- And your disappointed why?

John- Cause I thought I had done a decent job getting them ready to go.

Dr. Smith- Uh, hmm

John- Dad didn’t see that or say a word about it, if he did see it.

Dr. Smith- And that means what to you? What do you believe right there?

John- No matter what I am going to do, it is not going to be good enough.

Dr. Smith- And would you let yourself feel that right there? No matter what you do it is never going to be good enough. Does that feel true in that place right there?

John- Absolutely

Dr. Smith helped John find the implicit lie, or schema, that is most likely perpetuating some of his present difficulties. Being able to retrieve, in a deeply experiential manner, the lie/schema, which is perpetuating John’s present symptoms, is imperative. The emotional learning driving John’s present symptoms is exactly what is needed for step 1 of the memory reconsolidation transformation sequence. Although John does not provide details, it is possible his lie/schema,“Nothing I do is ever good enough,” is the emotional learning that becomes triggered, as well as defensive anger, when he perceives he is not getting it right with his family.. Ecker would want to find out more details of how the schema has effected his relationship with his stepchildren and wife, however, Smith does not deem it necessary.

 (4) Offer The Exposed Lie To Jesus To Receive His Perspective Of Truth.

Dr. Smith- Okay, just focus on that and would you be willing to hear what the Lord wants you to know about that?

John- Yes, please

Dr. Smith-  (praying) Lord Jesus what is that you want in that memory right there for that little boy to know? What’s the truth? He believes that no matter what he does it will never be good enough. What is the truth you have in that place Jesus?

John- (John with eyes closed pausing and sensing for Jesus’ truth) I don’t see him there physically, I can feel him there though, I can feel him.

Dr. Smith- uh hmm, what are you sensing He wants you to know?

John- He says what you do, what you’ve done is good and your doing good things

Dr. Smith- What else is still left in that memory? Is there anything else that is still causing pain for you in that memory?

John- (eyes closed, pausing) I don’t believe so.

Dr. Smith- Just kind of look at that whole memory, that whole cleaning the stall memory there. What do you feel when you look at that picture now and how true or does this thought feel true: That no matter what I do it will never be good enough? Does that feel true in that place?

John- No

Dr. Smith- No

John- No it doesn’t

Dr. Smith- Does that memory feel like it has been resolved? It feels peaceful and calm?

John- (eyes closed) I believe so

Dr. Smith has entered into step 2 & 3 of the transformation sequence of memory reconsolidation. Step 2. “Activating the disconfirming knowledge”, is demonstrated by John feeling the presence of Jesus and hearing Jesus’ truth “what you do, what you’ve done, is good and you’re doing good things.” The simultaneous juxtaposition of the lie, “no matter what I am going to do, it is not going to be good enough,” and Jesus truth, “what you do, what you’ve done, is good and you’re doing good things”, is the defining mechanism in the transformation sequence of memory reconsolidation. It is precisely the mismatch between the lie that John believes, and the deeply felt presence of Jesus and His words of truth, which according to neuroscience research, unlocks the synapses surrounding the painful memory, enabling them to be labile and open to change. Once again, the memory and Jesus’ truth is not talked about and in a cognitive manner. In order for memory reconsolidation and transformation to take place it must be a bottom-up, emotional experience/encounter with both the lie and the mismatch.

 Step 3. “Repetitions of the lie/schema with the disconfirming and contradictory knowledge,” is engaged once in this sequence, although later on in the transcript, Dr. Smith takes him through a similar memory with his father, and goes through the juxtaposition process again. Below is additional truth, or disconfirming knowledge, that Jesus spoke to John after describing a later memory:

 John: He (Jesus), is telling me dad did not do this on purpose. I am also getting the feeling that He’s telling me that dad isn’t perfect either. Why should I try to hold him up to be a perfect person if he is not? Much in the same way, no matter how I long to be a father to my children, I will never be a perfect stepfather.

The synapses, being unlocked, along with the the lies and negative emotions that accompany the painful memories with his dad, are now being updated/revised/erased through each juxtaposition sequence between the lie/schema and new truths from Jesus. Dr. Smith engages in a verification step to see if John still believes the lie, “No matter what I am going to do, it is not going to be good enough.” John acknowledged that the memory felt resolved, and he concurred with Dr. Smith in feeling peaceful and calm.

At the end of the session, and after many juxtaposition sequences, Dr. Smith engages in a final verification step:

 Dr. Smith- when you first sat down one of your first comments was “I am just angry person” does that feel true to you when you think of it right now?

John- No

Dr. Smith- No

John- No it doesn’t

Dr. Smith- Do you feel like things have been resolved in there and there is a sense of peace? Presence of Christ?

John- Yes, I do.

Dr. Smith- Okay

John- I think I can face my step-children, my wife’s children, and look them in the eye and they will smile and I will smile back.

It is apparent that transformation did occur, and John left the session much differently than when he came in. Dr. Smith acknowledges in his commentary on the session, that time will tell if genuine transformation has occurred. If transformational change has taken place, then one could expect John to experience a cessation of anger as the predominant emotion he experiences on a daily basis, and potentially, enhanced relationships with his wife and stepchildren. Additionally, if transformation has occurred, then so has the memory reconsolidation process.

 Pastoral Implications

Though this article sought to integrate memory reconsolidation and TPM, there are two key principles for all pastoral and lay counselors to keep in mind when praying for hurting persons. First, it is clear from research surrounding MR, that bottom-up ministry, verse top-down ministry, is vital for transformational change to take place. In other words, pastoral counselors who focus on the emotional landscape of a person’s distress, including somatic experiences, rather than purely cognitive (i.e. “let’s focus on what you intellectually believe), can take advantage of the first step of the transformation sequence proposed by Ecker (2012). This means, in part, that pastoral counselors become comfortable with their own emotions, and do not dismiss them as irrelevant, or largely subordinate, to cognitive beliefs.

Secondly, based on step two and three of MR, pastoral counselors who seek to juxtapose the mismatch of God’s experiential truth are more apt to see profound changes in those who seek their help. It is the juxtaposition of God’s truth, alongside the ministry participant’s pain, that will unlock the synapses and prime the implicit memories filled with a negative valence, to become updated and revised, thus leading to transformation. Reading scripture verses, or offering sage advice to wounded persons who are crying out for help (top-down ministry), is not as transformative as providing a healing space for ministry participants to experience God’s love holistically; mind, body, soul (bottom-up).

Conclusion

Ecker (2012) states that the neuroscience-based, three-step memory reconsolidation erasure sequence, is both “technique-independent and theory-independent” and “’belongs’ to no single system, school or theory of psychotherapy or personality” (p.30). Memory reconsolidation can be found where ever transformation takes place. Theophostic Prayer Ministry, a transformational model of healing prayer ministry, as demonstrated through the article’s case-study, clearly, and unknowingly, incorporates the erasure sequence. TPM practitioners, as well as pastoral practitioners using other models of prayerful healing approaches and methods, can be informed of the advances in neuroscience, in particular memory reconsolidation, allowing for optimal transformation to occur with those they minister to.  

If you would like a pdf of this blog, email: markgkarris@gmail.com 

References

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DIVINE ECHOES

“People who intentionally set aside time to prayerfully listen and conspire with God, humbly opening themselves up to receive God’s wavelengths of love, and creatively and subversively reverberate them out to the world around them.”