EMDR: Science or Pseudoscience?

By: Allison Garibaldi

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR, has been making waves in the clinical world particularly with regards to PTSD. According to an article in Scientific American, EMDR supposedly reduces symptoms of PTSD by forcing the patient to reprocess the traumatic event while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth (Rodriguez 2012). The article cites a few studies demonstrating the efficacy of the therapy, and in particular the eye movement portion which is the most controversial aspect of EMDR. In this blog, I’ll try to dig a little deeper to try and determine whether EMDR is scientifically effective, or whether its effects are simply the result of the placebo effect.

Right off the bat, I was turned off by the article’s failure to properly cite the studies it was using as evidence for EMDR’s effectiveness. This immediately gave off a whiff of pseudoscience, as the article was seemingly supporting its claim with scientific evidence, but failed to properly cite its evidence for anyone who wanted to investigate the claim further. After some digging, I was able to find the study I can only assume the article was citing after searching “Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2011 EMDR,” since that was the only information the article gave. The study from Murdoch University investigated whether or not rapid eye movement was actually effective by subjecting one group of patients to reprocessing therapy without eye movement, and another group with eye movement (). The researched used the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUD) and vividness rating (VAS) to measure participants’ stress levels before and after their respective treatments (). The Scientific American article used this study to support its claim that Eye Movement is critical relieving symptoms of PTSD, when in reality the differences in SUD for the eye movement and non-eye movement were relatively small, and no significant difference was found between the two groups on the VAS scale.

One of the characteristics of Pseudoscience is that the claim in question is disguised with supposedly scientific evidence and language. This article’s exaggeration of scientific findings is something I think puts it in that category. It also goes along to claim that EMDR “causes the trauma to be less intense (Rodriguez 2012),” because the eye movements create less space in the working memory for the traumatic event. Again, this claim is laden with scientific language, this time without even a study to supposedly back it up. I think more research is necessary to classify EMDR as pseudoscience, in particular a placebo effect. However, this article supporting the efficacy of EMDR, in my opinion is pseudoscientific, even though the therapy itself cannot yet be classified as such.

References

Rodriguez, T. (2012, December 19). Can Eye Movements Treat Trauma? Retrieved November 3, 2015.

Schubert, S., Lee, C., & Drummond, P. (2011). The efficacy and psychophysiological correlates of dual-attention tasks in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25(1), 1-11.

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