Francine Shapiro, who developed EMDR therapy, dies near Sea Ranch
One spring afternoon in 1987, a psychology student trying to shake off an upsetting memory took a stroll through a park in Los Gatos, distracting herself by darting her eyes back and forth. The sting of the memory quickly faded, and the student, Francine Shapiro, glimpsed her future.
In the ensuing years she developed a popular, if controversial, therapy for trauma that has attracted devotees worldwide: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.
“I noticed that when disturbing thoughts came into my mind, my eyes spontaneously started moving very rapidly back and forth,” Shapiro wrote in her textbook on the therapy. “The thoughts disappeared, and when I brought them back to mind, their negative charge was greatly reduced.”
Shapiro died June 16 at a medical facility near her home in Sea Ranch. She was 71. Robbie Dunton, a longtime friend and associate, said the cause was uncertain, but she had been unwell for more than a year with respiratory and other problems, he added, and had declined suddenly.
Shapiro built the case for therapy based on eye movement one person at a time, experimenting first on herself and then on friends and colleagues. The technique she settled on, after working with some 70 people over six months, was straightforward: People would bring an upsetting memory to mind and at the same time track her fingers as she moved them back and forth, for 20 to 30 seconds.
She integrated this technique into a variant of what is called exposure therapy, in which people engage and reprocess painful memories in an effort to blunt their sharp edges, and then reinterpret them by repeated recollection, or exposure.
This work became her Ph.D. thesis and, in 1989, the basis for an article in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
The reception was mixed. Some therapists tried the eye-movement technique and found that it helped, and quickly, even for many people with chronic post-traumatic stress.
“I was skeptical at first,” Roger Solomon, who was a psychologist for the Washington State Patrol at the time and now consults with government agencies on the therapy in Arlington, Virginia, said in a phone interview. “But I went to see her speak, began trying the technique, and found it worked.”
He added, “I have found EMDR to be extremely powerful, effective and efficient, and I find it effective for any psychological disorder that involves disturbing memories.”
Many other therapists were intrigued, and Shapiro began giving seminars and demonstrations around the country and, in time, all over the world.
The scientific community was harder to persuade. The central question was whether the eye-movement technique reliably added value to classic exposure therapy, which is often effective on its own.
Studies published by Shapiro and her allies were almost all positive; several reported an 80% to 100% cure rate in three sessions for people with post-traumatic symptoms from a single incident, such as a car crash or a rape.
Studies by outside researchers were not nearly so consistent, and some found no added effect. EMDR practitioners countered that the authors of those studies had not practiced the therapy properly. The fight boiled over in the late 1990s and early 2000s into online forums and academic journals.