Sensory Experience Memory (SEM) in Pathology and Treatment

Professor Gordon Emmerson, PhD

Sensory Experience Memory (Emmerson, 2014) has become an important part of my theoretical understanding of pathology, and strategically influences the therapy I do and the trainings I conduct. When we think of memory we normally think of intellectual memory. It is the thoughts and images of the past that we think of as memory. A SEM is not a thought, but an emotion which may be associated with an intellectual memory, or it may have been dissociated from its intellectual memory.  Bridging to an ISE (Initial Sensitizing Event) is a process that can re-associate a SEM with an intellectual memory.

A common type of memory in psychological literature is Sensory Memory. This is a short-term memory of sensory perception, “The effects are extremely short term with this information forgotten within a few seconds” (, 2011). An example of this type of memory is glancing at a picture and visually remembering the detail in the picture. This memory is not associated with Emotion, and in my view has little therapeutic significance.

A type of memory that has direct therapeutic significance is Intrusive Emotional Memory (Brewin & Saunders, 2001; Davies & Clark, 1998; Halligan, Clark, & Ehlers, 2002; Holmes, Brewin, & Hennessy, 2004; Schlagman, Kvavilashvili, & Schulz, 2007) or also called Involuntary Memories (Staugaard, 2014).  These are the negative, emotional memories one experiences, for example with PTSD. These types of memories are included in my conception of Sensory Experience Memory, but also are our positive emotional memories. Therefore, Intrusive Emotional Memory or Involuntary Memories are only subclass examples of Sensory Experience Memories.

By better understanding SEMs we can better interpret client pathology and devise more powerful treatment responses.


When an event is experienced the memory of that event is recorded both intellectually and emotionally. In the short-term the intellectual memory and the emotional memory are connected. If an individual witnesses a car crash and immediately tells a friend about that car crash the emotion of seeing the crash will often be re-experienced. It is the emotional memory that is the Sensory Experience Memory. The fact that a SEM is easy to experience in the short-term explains the real benefits of some therapeutic techniques. This will be further explained below.

Most normally, over time, the emotional memory fades even quicker than the intellectual memory. A year after the crash the individual might relate the experience of seeing the accident without experiencing any significant degree of emotion.

I theorize that one reason the Sensory Experience Memory and the intellectual memory are separated over time is due to the fact that the state that relates the memory is not the same state that experienced the event. Hypnotic regression to the original experience, where the original state recalls the event, will most often facilitate an awareness of the Sensory Experience Memory.

A SEM can be a memory of a positive event. Regressing a person to their first swim in the ocean is an example of bringing to the conscious the state that originally experienced the event; thus enabling the positive emotional memory to be re-experienced. I often first train students in bridging techniques by encouraging them to bridge other students to positive SEMs.

Pathology and SEMs

When a state is Vaded with fear or rejection (that is, experiences a level of fear or rejection that cannot be incorporated or understood) the negative experience held by that Vaded state may come to the conscious later in life. When this happens that negative re-experience of the event is a SEM. This negative experience can come to the conscious even without an intellectual memory. The client may report experiencing negative feelings without knowing the origins of those feelings.

Examples of pathologies caused by SEMs include panic attack, phobias, PTSD’s, many anxieties, fear, sense of worthlessness, or sense of being unlovable. These negative SEMs are directly associated with addictions, OCD, eating disorders, narcissism and a myriad of other complaints (Emmerson, 2014).

Treatment and SEMs

Some of the most powerful treatment techniques incorporate the use of SEMs.  Intellectual understanding does not equate to emotional calm. A client may know all people are lovable, but may still feel unlovable. 

If a client felt profoundly rejected by a parent that client may have a state that became Vaded with rejection.  That state carries a SEM of feeling rejection.  The client who feels unlovable may feel a need to please to be good enough, may feel that, “If others really knew me, they would not like me”, or may attempt to escape from feelings of non-worthiness, e.g.,  by engaging in compulsive shopping, or addictive behavior.

This client may intellectually understand that he or she is just as good as the next person, but may still feel profoundly unworthy. The state Vaded with rejection needs to internalize a feeling of being lovable.  An important component of resolution (see Emmerson, 2014 for the complete resolution regimen) is, after Bridging to the Rejection ISE, to facilitate the Vaded State to speak as the ‘rejecting parent’ so the Vaded State can actually feel what if felt like for the parent to be unable to share unconditional love.

When the therapist again speaks directly with the Vaded State; that state has been able to internalize that it was the parent who was at that time unable to show unconditional love.  The immediate SEM from just having been the parent, allows for this cathartic understanding.  It is not what the parent introject says to the Vaded State, it is the feeling the parent introject has that brings about the catharsis. The state Vaded with rejection will always have an introject that is not unconditionally loving, otherwise it would not be holding a feeling of rejection.

Let me say that more clearly.

  • Child state feels unlovable.
  • Child state internalizes through the SEM of speaking as the parent that it was the parent who was unable to show unconditional love.
  • Experiential paradigm of ‘I am unlovable’ is changed to ‘Parent did not show unconditional love’.

This internalized cathartic understanding cannot take place through intellectual understanding. It has to be experienced.  The ‘I get it’ comes from feeling what it felt like being unable to share unconditional love as the parent, and then immediately bringing that fresh SEM back to the previously vaded state. Hence, the realization, ‘It was not me that was unlovable.’

The next step is to prove the loveable nature of the state by asking a mature nurturing state to nurture the state that had felt unlovable.  Here again, using a SEM in the therapy is pivotal.  The client is asked to speak as a nurturing state that wants to love and nurture the child state that had felt rejected.  When the child state is then immediately asked how that feels, that child state carries with it the feeling of the nurturing state that loves it.  This SEM of loving the child state, internally experientially proves ‘I can be loved’. This is proved because this state holds the memory of the older state actually loving it. Now the internalized experience is, ‘It was the parent who was unlovable at that time, I am lovable’.

The change for the client is profound, as life experiences that had been moderated by a state Vaded with Rejection can be interpreted as they actually are.

There are several other powerful uses of SEMs in therapy (Emmerson, 2014) as they enable states to resolve confusion and conflict by internalizing the Sensory Experience Memory of having just spoken as another state or as another person. It is the immediate return to the state that had carried a feeling of conflict or confusion, when the SEM is still fresh, that facilitates the cathartic breakthrough and understanding that is desired.


Brewin, C. R., & Saunders, J. (2001). The effect of dissociation at encoding on intrusive memories for a stressful film. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 74, 467–472.

Davies, M. I., & Clark, D. M. (1998). Predictors of analogue posttraumatic intrusive cognitions. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 26, 303–314.

Emmerson, Gordon (2014). Resource Therapy. Blackwood, Australia: Old Golden Point Press. (Aug 27, 2011). Sensory Memory. Retrieved Feb 26, 2015 from

Halligan, S. L., Clark, D. M., & Ehlers, A. (2002). Cognitive processing, memory, and the development of PTSD symptoms: two experimental analogue studies. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33, 73–89.

Holmes, E. A., Brewin, C. R., & Hennessy, R. G. (2004). Trauma films, information processing, and intrusive memory development. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133(1), 3–22.

Schlagman, S., Kvavilashvili, L., & Schulz, J. (2007). Effects of age on involuntary autobiographical memories. In J. Mace (Ed.), Involuntary memory (pp. 87–112). Malden, MA: Blackwells.

Staugaard, Søren R., (2014). Involuntary memories of emotional scenes: The effects of cue discriminability and emotion over time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 143(5), pp. 1939-1957.