UA PSYCHOLOGIST LABELS POPULAR TRAUMA THERAPY "PSEUDOSCIENCE"

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Seeking recovery from emotional distress and traumatic experiences, millions of people have turned to a new psychological therapy that promises miraculous results in a matter of weeks. But a University of Arkansas psychologist claims this miracle treatment is based on inadequate scientific evidence and is no more effective than existing treatments.

It’s called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and it first entered the field of clinical psychology in the late 1980s. Since its introduction, more than 25,000 mental health professionals have been trained in the procedure. It has been applied to millions of people worldwide and promoted as a "paradigm shift" in psychological treatment.

It has also been shown to be scientifically and theoretically inadequate, according to Jeffrey Lohr, professor of psychology.

"EMDR is being touted as a breakthrough therapy, practically a miracle cure for post-traumatic stress disorders," Lohr said. "But as more and more objective scientific testing is performed, the treatment proves less and less effective."

Lohr knows how to spot bogus therapies. For the past four years, he has dedicated his expertise to identifying and debunking pseudosciences, particularly in the field of psychology. He acts as president of the Science and Pseudoscience Review Special Interest Group of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and has published several articles on pseudoscientific treatments.

His latest article, co-authored by James Herbert of MCP Hahnemann University and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University, is titled "Science and Pseudoscience in the Development of EMDR: Implications for Clinical Psychology" and appears in the latest issue of Clinical Psychology Review. The article takes a skeptical look at the development and promotion of EMDR and concludes that practitioners of the therapy cloak it in scientific trappings while disregarding the scientific evidence against it.

That’s because the theory behind EMDR is not scientific at all, says Lohr. The creators of EMDR developed the therapy based on research which showed that rapid eye movement aided in the processing of memories during sleep. They theorized, therefore, that inducing rapid eye movements while a patient remembered a traumatic event would help the subject more quickly process and come to grips with that memory.

To facilitate this, the therapy consists of three components: prescribed eye movements (EM), in which the patient’s eyes are to follow the therapists fingers in specific patterns; desensitization (D), or the ebbing of emotional distress through the repetitious remembering of trauma; and reprocessing (R), in which the patient reinterprets negative experiences in a benign way, free from self-blame.

In order to qualify as a new form of therapy, a treatment must consist of unique components, and each of the components must be essential to the outcome of the treatment. EMDR meets the first criterion but not the second, Lohr states.

In their article, Herbert, Lilienfeld and Lohr cite numerous scientific experiments, which compared patients treated with the traditional EMDR protocol to patients treated with the EMDR protocol, sans eye movements. Both groups showed similar relief from trauma. Further, other research has reported that removing the reprocessing component from EMDR made no impact on the outcome of treatment.

"Basically, the research says you can take the EM and the R out of EMDR," Lohr said. "All that leaves is D - desensitization - and desensitization is the same sensible form of treatment that psychologists have been practicing for over 30 years."

As a result, the eye movements and reprocessing techniques do not represent a therapeutic innovation, as EMDR proponents claim. Rather, they amount to little more than sales gimmicks that can be used to market the therapy.

And the marketing tactics - rather than scientific evidence - are responsible for the widespread use and glowing reputation of EMDR, said Lohr. Promoters have given the therapy an illusion of scientific veracity by creating a specialized terminology for its procedures, by instituting training and certification requirements, and by referring to case studies in which the treatment produced seemingly fast and effective results.

This effort to appear scientific is part of what qualifies EMDR as pseudoscience rather than outright bunk. It’s also partly the reason that so many mental health clinicians have chosen to adopt the treatment.

Lohr points out that the mental health field has experienced a boom over the past three decades, producing more and more psychologists and therapists who must now compete for clients. Offering a treatment that claims to produce significant therapeutic results in record time made good business sense to many practitioners.

Furthermore, because patient testimonials seemed to support the efficacy of EMDR and because rigorous scientific testing was slow to refute these claims, many psychologists and therapists had no reason to doubt that EMDR worked. However, now that the empirical data is in, many of these same therapists seem reluctant to abandon the treatment.

This makes little sense to Lohr. "The fact that some psychologists - who are supposedly trained in scientific methodology - are disregarding scientific evidence and continuing to offer an ineffective treatment does not bode well for the integrity of our profession or for the public’s perception of psychology as a science," he said.

Though the continued use of EMDR may result in a loss of reputation for the mental health profession, Lohr is quick to assert that the therapy does not constitute criminal fraudulence, nor does it pose a health risk to patients.

"The only danger I perceive is that patients who receive an ineffective therapy now will be less likely to seek out effective treatment later," Lohr said. "Over the long haul, that may just aggravate their problems."

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Contacts

Jeffrey M. Lohr, professor of psychology, (479) 575-4256, jlohr@uark.edu

Allison Hogge, science and research communications officer, (479) 575-5555, alhogge@uark.edu

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