Blank Slate or Tabula Rasa in Therapy

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In psychology, the term “blank slate,” or tabula rasa, actually has two meanings. The first refers to a belief that at birth, all humans are born with the ability to become literally anything or anyone. This belief downplays the effects of genetics and biology on the development of the human personality.

The second definition of “blank slate” refers to a technique that was once used heavily in psychoanalysis and is still employed by some therapists today. When using this technique, the therapist is careful to avoid revealing any personal information about themselves.

What Is Tabula Rasa?

Tabula rasa translates to "blank slate." In therapy, it refers to either the idea that we are solely the product of our upbringing and experiences, or, it refers to the technique therapists use when they themselves become "blank," and allow the recipient to project their own needs, desires, and beliefs onto them.

Blank Slate

Behaviorists believe you are born with your mind as a blank slate and you learn all your behavior from the environment you live in. Therefore, therapy focuses on unlearning unproductive behaviors. Behaviorists posit any symptoms of a psychological disorder are the result of classical and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is also known as learning by association and causes most phobias. Meanwhile, operant conditioning refers to learning by positive or negative reinforcement and, for example, causes eating disorders. Modes of behavior therapy commonly used to treat phobia include:

  • Systematic desensitization
  • Aversion therapy
  • Flooding
  • Exposure therapy and virtual reality exposure therapy
  • Behavioral rehearsal
  • Skills training

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is an effective treatment for specific phobia (a fear of a specific object or situation) and social phobia (social anxiety disorder). The theory is the phobia is a learned behavior you imposed on your blank slate. Therefore, you can unlearn your feelings of anxiety.

The therapist helps you learn to relax in what's referred to as your "target situation." After reaching a state of deep relaxation, you vividly imagine your target situation repeatedly.

Eventually, you learn not to react, which allows you to feel more comfortable and confident the next time you face your fear.

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is useful in cases where you have an attraction to your bad behavior and despite the pleasure, both you and your therapist acknowledge it's an undesirable trait. You were born with a blank slate but learned a destructive behavior. A good example of this is an alcoholic starting the recovery process.

The therapist helps you associate your undesirable behavior with an extremely unpleasant stimulus. For example, she may ask you to sip an alcoholic drink after you've taken a medication to induce nausea. After vomiting, the hope is the smell of alcohol would trigger your new and unpleasant memory, causing you to skip the alcohol next time.

Flooding Therapy

Proponents of flooding believe in confronting your fears and the goal is to ameliorate your phobia by flooding your environment with the situation or object of your fear. Sort of like teaching someone how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of a pool.

The idea behind this treatment is that fear is a response with limited time and the body will exhaust itself by going through the stages of extreme anxiety.

For example, if you are claustrophobic, therapy might involve locking you in a closet for several hours. Once you calm down you've changed your negative association with your fear into a positive one. Behaviorists also believe flooding prevents avoidance behaviors, which reinforce your maladaptive condition.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy works by exposing yourself to the source of your phobia over time. So if you're afraid of spiders, for example, your therapist might start by showing you a picture of a spider.

Later in the process, you might look at a live spider or even hold one. With each step, the "power" of spiders to scare you diminishes until the phobia is gone. A newer form of this is virtual reality exposure, which allows you to accomplish the same goals via virtual reality technology, thereby avoiding the need to, for example, find real spiders.

A 2019 review in Frontiers in Psychology found that virtual reality exposure therapy is no less effective than the non-virtual kind and anticipates that with further advances in the technology, it might one day be considered more effective.

Behavioral Rehearsal

For patients who fear situations, rather than things, a therapist might help you imagine a difficult situation. For example, if you fear a large party, the therapist might guide you through the process of facing and successfully dealing with it, step-by-step.

Skills Training

For some people, phobias develop as a result of not having the appropriate skills to handle certain situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy skills training can take the form of direct instruction or role-playing.

For instance, the therapist might pretend to be an interviewer for a job, and you would pretend to be interviewing for the job. The idea is that you'd have learned some skills to implement during a real job interview.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McLeod S. Behavioral Therapy. SimplyPsychology.

  2. Stevens TG. Self-Desensitization Instructions:The most proven method to reduce phobias, anxiety, and fear. California State University.

  3. Wechsler TF, Kumpers F, Muhlberger A. Inferiority or Even Superiority of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy in Phobias?—A Systematic Review and Quantitative Meta-Analysis on Randomized Controlled Trials Specifically Comparing the Efficacy of Virtual Reality Exposure to Gold Standard in vivo Exposure in Agoraphobia, Specific Phobia, and Social Phobia. Front Psychol. 2019. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01758

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.