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The History of EMDR Therapy and the EMDR Controversy

Updated on September 29, 2010

EDMR is not a new form of psychotherapy. Research on the therapy began in the late ‘80s but still continues to this day. In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro was taking a stroll through a park and for some reason or another, began to notice that her eye movements helped to reduce some negative feelings towards some unpleasant memories from her past. She decided to further explore this unusual discovery and began conducting research to test her theory of eye movements and their connection to the desensitization of traumatic memories. (History of EMDR)

In her premier study, she assigned 11 patients to EMD therapy (the application of reprocessing came at a later date) and 11 patients to a form of imagery therapy. In the EMD therapy, participants were told to focus on the unpleasant target memory, all while moving their eyes back and forth in a bi-lateral pattern, from side to side. The other group of participants were asked to recall their unpleasant target memory and simply discuss the memory in great detail. No eye movements were involved with the second group of participants. Remarkably, participants in the EMD group claimed that their feelings of distress lessened much more so than the participants in the image therapy group. This original study resulted in Dr. Shapiro’s pursuit to learn the methodology and effectiveness of eye movements and their potentially beneficial application to psychotherapy. (History of EMDR)

Eye Movement Reprocessing Desensitization (EMDR) is a hot & controversial topic within the psychology community.
Eye Movement Reprocessing Desensitization (EMDR) is a hot & controversial topic within the psychology community.

The Controversy Surrounding EMDR Therapy

In addition to furthering Dr. Shapiro‘s desire to learn more about her discovery and laying the foundation for future research, her original study also brought about critics as well as many supporters. The  PTSD car accident victim mentioned in her book is just one of the many  individuals that experience relief and resolve for distressing memories due to their EMDR therapy; Shapiro claims that over 2 million people have been helped by EMDR. In 2004, another influential support by the American Psychological Association described EMDR as a “probably efficacious“ method of therapy for PTSD. In lieu of the APA‘s endorsement, there are still psychologists that are skeptical due to lack of concrete evidence about eye movements and the effectiveness of EMDR. (Does EMDR Work?) 

            The most commonly recognized hallmark of EMDR is bi-lateral stimulation of the eyes which is initiated during the recollection, evaluation and reprocessing of a distressing, targeted memory. (A Brief Description of EMDR) After the conception of EMDR theory, critics began to argue that eye movements or other forms of bi-lateral stimulation aren’t necessary for the treatment to be successful. (Cowley, Geoffrey) Dr. Shapiro’s original study concluded that eye movements did seem to help lessen the symptoms of distressing memories, but additional studies by other psychologists and organizations to follow provided inconclusive results about the effectiveness of eye movements combined with the forms of psychotherapies used in EMDR. Likewise, studies have also been done that provide additional evidence and support for Shapiro’s theory of eye movements and their association with increasing the benefits of psychotherapy.

            One of the main reasons that critics are wary of EMDR is because there is not solid, scientific proof that eye movements help patients. Therefore, some psychologists believe that EMDR is only effective because it uses therapy forms of desensitization and cognitive behavioral recognition to help patients re-visit their distressing memories and discover new feelings and emotions about past experiences. Critics claim that Shapiro‘s studies are biased and recognition from the APA doesn‘t necessarily hold any merit. (Shermer, Michael)

            In recent years, there have been little to no case studies conducted that seek to prove the efficacy of eye movements and EMDR. Recent case studies are focused on the benefits of EMDR and gauging success rates and relief for patients. Skepticism still exists about eye movements and bi-lateral stimulation, but in the late 90’s, case studies seemed to come to a halt to disprove Shapiro’s theory about eye movements.

            A more recent study about the efficacy of eye movements and EMDR was conducted in 2002 and provided additional merit to Shapiro’s original findings. The study concluded that various types of bi-lateral stimulation, albeit eye movements, hand taps and bi-lateral tones, are effective for clients when recalling their traumatic memories.  Even still, skepticism still resounds regarding bi-lateral stimulation because it is still unknown how EMDR works. There are theories of eye movements and their connection with the REM sleep cycle, but to this day, there are not enough scientific facts to prove that bi-lateral stimulation(s) are the key to EMDR’s success. Some researchers believe that EMDR is just another form of exposure therapy and that may explain the effectiveness of the treatment. Other forms of therapy that are also used to treat symptoms of PTSD, which is EMDR‘s most common use, include exposure therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. While EMDR uses elements of both of these therapies, it is unique because of its use of stimulation, i.e. eye movements. (Plotnik, Kouyoumdjian, et. al)

EMDR Video

Works Cited

"A Brief Description of EMDR." 2004. EMDR Institute, Inc. 24 July 2009 <http://www.emdr.com/>.

Rod, Plotnik, and Haig Kouyoumdjian. Introduction to Psychology. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. 

Shermer, Michael. The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience 2 volume set. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002. 

Strand, Erik. "Does EMDR Work?" Psychology Today 37 (2004): 16. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 28 July 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=13430984&site=ehost-live>.

"History of EMDR." 2004. EMDR Institute, Inc. 27 July 2009 <http://www.emdr.com>. 

Comments About EMDR Therapy

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    • profile image

      Psychedelianne 

      7 years ago

      I've done two sessions of EMDR using a tactile process where I hold an object in each hand and they buzz back and forth stimulating each side of the brain

    • girly_girl09 profile imageAUTHOR

      girly_girl09 

      8 years ago from United States

      That is a good question! I did find a link to a form of EMDR that uses one eye at a time, however both eyes are still used. (One eye is covered while the other is used to process a memory and then the other eye is uncovered and used). http://www.emdr.org.il/dls/apr/one-eng.doc

      However, I do recall running across some research where bilateral noises were used instead of eye movements. Apparently the noises alternating back and forth between each ear helps to stimulate the same areas of the brain that eye movements do.

      This bi-lateral noise therapy was developed for the blind as well as individuals who are sensitive to light or may be prone to seizures.

    • tom hellert profile image

      tom hellert 

      8 years ago from home

      neat...i wonder if it works with people with 1 eye or if that will just make me dizzy.

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