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What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Psychotherapy?

A client comes into therapy complaining of standard symptoms of depression: low mood, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating. Some day in the near future, will therapists begin treatment, not by focusing on clients’ descriptions of their feelings, desires, and beliefs, but by directly assessing brain functioning and using techniques that stimulate activity in some parts of the brain and reduce it in others? Are we on the cusp of a fundamental shift in the methodology of psychotherapy?

The question of whether neuroscience will change psychotherapy was debated in the July/August issue of the Networker, “Searching for the Therapeutic ‘Aha’: Brain Science and Clinical Breakthroughs.” In the article “Therapy Isn’t Brain Science,” Steve Andreas argued that “brain science has yet to translate its findings into effective or practical recipes for therapists,” while in “Unlocking the Emotional Brain,” Bruce Ecker claimed that “the discoveries of brain science can help us create liberating breakthroughs for our clients.”

These contrasting perspectives reflect a larger conversation in the scientific community about the relevance of neuroscience. A recent article in Slate, for example, titled “The End of Neuro-Nonsense,” for example announces the decline of “neuro-hype,” the overenthusiasm for neuroscience that’s led to claims that it can be used not only to understand people’s thoughts and feelings, but to reliably predict and shape their behavior. In a recent blog post for the New Yorker, however, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus suggests that the pendulum might be swinging too far in the other direction, resulting in a “reckless backlash” against neuroscience. He gives examples of insights gleaned from neuroimaging, such as the recent finding that depressed and nondepressed people show different patterns of brain activity. Turning our backs on neuroscience, he warns, “might sacrifice important insights that could reshape psychiatry and medicine.”

A number of recently published books have deepened and intensified the neuroscience debate as well. In one of the of most discussed, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, Scott Lilienfeld, often a scathing critic of the therapy field, raises basic questions about the relevance of neuroscience. Although it has the potential to inform psychotherapy, he says he’s “surprised at how oversold it’s been given how little data are out there.”

Neurofeedback is an example of a technique whose practitioners have far more enthusiasm than the science supports, Lilienfeld says. During neurofeedback training, clients are given ongoing feedback about the activity in different parts of their brain as recorded by electrodes attached to the scalp, and are taught to regulate that activity in response to various stimuli. The technique has received attention for treating symptoms for a range of disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, and autism.

Lilienfeld thinks neurofeedback is “intriguing and worth pursuing . . . but not ready for prime time.” There simply isn’t enough empirical evidence to show that it works, he says. Yet he sees potential for the technique to address brain abnormalities in some disorders—the atypical reward circuitry observed in depression, for example. More generally, he believes neuroscience can inform treatment of various disorders, citing as an example a recent study suggesting that neuroimaging can be used to select the optimal treatment for those with major depression. Still, Lilienfeld insists that “it’s going to be incumbent on neuroscience researchers to show that we need to look directly at the brain” to understand mental disorders better. Brain-based techniques are often time-consuming and expensive, he explains, “so there’s a burden of proof to demonstrate . . . incremental validity above and beyond what we already have at our disposal.”

For practitioners of neuroscientific methods, the proof is often in clients’ dramatic responses to treatment. Sebern Fisher, a psychotherapist in Northampton, Massachusetts, who has a forthcoming book on neurofeedback, says she’s observed amazing recoveries using the technique. For her, the decision of whether to use neurofeedback rests on a key question: “Are rage, shame or fear driving the situation?” She says, “I know I can help people quiet those emotions,” and psychotherapy can then be much more effective.

Fisher points out that the principle behind neurofeedback and other brain-based methods—that certain mental disorders are caused by faulty brain circuitry—is starting to gain traction in the mainstream scientific community. She mentioned a recent TED Talk in which Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, argues that we should view mental disorders as brain disorders. As a result of this shift, Fisher says, methods such as neurofeedback are moving “away from the fringes.”

Tantalized with the new doorway that neuroscience research offers into their work, some therapists, at this early stage, are certainly guilty of applying neuroscience-based techniques excessively and imprecisely, and of overreaching for general truths about the results. Nonetheless, there’s a growing consensus that when it comes to disorders of the mind, it’s important to look at the brain. Thus, it seems inevitable that as we expand our understanding of how the brain functions, we’ll look to understand what happens in therapy more and more in neuroscientific terms. In fact, the future of psychotherapy is likely to be dominated by the language, and possibly the technology, of neuroscience. But that day is not yet here, despite a bold prediction by Insel in a 2010 Scientific American article: “today’s developing science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment and bring real and lasting relief to millions of people worldwide.”

– Jennifer Richler

Tell us what you think about this article by leaving a comment below or sending an email to letters@psychnetworker.org.

Resources

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us:

Daniel Engber. “The End of Neuro-Nonsense.” Slate, 29 July 2013.

Gary Marcus. “The Problem with the Neuroscience Backlash.” The New Yorker, 19 June 2013.

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