Eye movement desensitisation treatment utilises the positive visceral element of the investigatory reflex to inhibit the memories of post-traumatic stress disorder: a theoretical analysis

Br J Psychiatry. 1996 Nov;169(5):571-9. doi: 10.1192/bjp.169.5.571.


Background: Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) has attracted controversy and has led to publications covering a wide range of psychological problems treated by EMDR, in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is growing clinical evidence of the effectiveness of EMDR, but a lack of a convincing theoretical basis to explain its rapid effect.

Method: This paper argues that a combination of Pavlovian and Darwinian theory provide a theoretical explanation for the therapeutic effectiveness of EMDR.

Results: We suggest that the investigatory component of the orienting reflex is an evolutionary development enabling organisms to assess their environment for both opportunities and threats. We propose that EMDR is rapidly effective because it is a clinical method of Pavlovian conditioning by which the positive visceral element of the investigatory reflex can be paired with clinically-induced noxious memories to remove their negative affect.

Conclusion: Compared with established forms of treatment for PTSD, EMDR is rapid, with resulting clinical and economic benefits. Our suggested theoretical basis for EMDR has implications for further explanatory research and for developments in EMDR treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Arousal
  • Biological Evolution
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Desensitization, Psychologic / methods*
  • Eye Movements*
  • Humans
  • Orientation
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome