Published: 10-10-2023 10:48 | Updated: 22-03-2024 10:48

Preventing flashbacks with new knowledge of the power of imagery

Better psychological treatments based on science – this is what Emily Holmes is passionate about. Her research concerns how we think and remember in mental images, and developing new treatments based on this knowledge. Among other things, Holmes’ group has developed methods for reducing the risk of intrusive memories (also known as flashbacks) soon after trauma.

Emily Holmes. Photo: Martin Stenmark.

Thinking in mental images is different to thinking in words. We can “see” with our inner eye, “hear” with our inner ear and can have the experience of being transported in time and space – for example when remembering an event. This also means that mental imagery can have a very strong emotional impact as she has shown in the lab. Emily Holmes is researching these processes in order not only to understand what happens when we think in mental images but also to be able to develop new psychological treatment techniques.

“Imagery plays an important role in a number of mental disor¬ders. For example intrusive images of a trauma, commonly known as flashbacks occur in post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD,” she explains.

“Our hypothesis is that targeting imagery can also play an important role in interventions to prevent PTSD symptoms.”

In two recently published clinical studies, Holmes’ research group has demonstrated that a single session treatment including a visually demanding computer game (Tetris) significantly decreased the risk of flashbacks for people who have experienced either a traumatic traffic accident or a traumatic birth. Recalling the traumatic memory in combination with new visual impres¬sions can make it less intrusive.

“Now we are preparing to try similar strategies with other groups who have also been involved in trauma. Refugees comprise a group of which many we know are plagued by intrusive memories of trauma,” comments Emily Holmes.

Her translational research also covers mental images in connec¬tion with bipolar disorder and depression – in part how extremely positive or negative mental imagers contribute to the disorder, and in part how therapeutic innovations based on mental images can be designed.

About Emily Holmes

Professor of Psychology at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience

Emily Holmes was born in Surrey, United Kingdom, in 1971. She has studied psychology at the University of Oxford, Uppsala University and Royal Holloway University of London, where she completed training as a Clinical Psychologist in 2000. She was awarded her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2005.

As a researcher, Holmes has worked at the University of Oxford where she was appointed Professor in 2010. From 2012–2016 she was Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Science Unit, Cambridge. Holmes came to KI as a Guest Professor in 2014. Emily Holmes has been ‘called’ from 1 August 2016 to be Professor of Psychology at Karolinska Institutet.

Text: Anders Nilsson, in translation from Swedish. First published in the booklet 'From Cell to Society 2017'. Details in CV updated in January 2023. 

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