Underestimating the Mind
It’s all too easy to lose sight of the power and potential of the mind in the midst of our fascination with the brain. Big psychological changes typically involve tiny neurological changes. For example, when someone has a revelatory insight into his or her childhood, or truly commits to stop using drugs, or finally works up the courage to say “I love you,” there’s certainly a shift in neural structure or function, but that shift is minuscule in the grand scheme of the brain. Further, much as a chalkboard can represent an infinite variety of pictures or words, the association cortices of the brain can represent an infinite variety of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires. The flow of information across a chalkboard or through a brain is shaped by the unfolding logic and associations of the information itself more than by the properties of whatever physical substrate processes it. As psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher Daniel Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. Since the normal brain can hold a vast range of thoughts, mental plasticity holds vastly greater opportunities for healing, well-being, and contributing to others than neural plasticity does. If the brain is an enchanted loom—in the famous metaphor from neuroscientist Charles Sherrington—it’s a loom that’s capable of weaving an infinite variety of tapestries whose patterns can never be reduced to the mechanics of the loom itself.
Over the past century, before much was known about the brain, therapists have helped millions of people feel better and lead more loving and productive lives. For example, I recently met with a mother trying to figure out whether to take a foster child into her home, given the potential impacts on her teenage son and an already strained marriage. We talked about the love that was leading her to consider this step, her worries about her son, and some practical actions she could take. What I know about the brain didn’t help me think more clearly about her issues or respond more skillfully, nor was it a relevant topic to bring up with her. This would be true for most of my sessions each week, and I suspect it would also be true for most therapists. In fact, brain science’s biggest effect has been establishing the neural basis of certain ideas and methods that have long existed in one school of psychotherapy or another. When an insight about the brain leads to a supposedly new approach with a catchy title, it’s usually old wine in new bottles. On this score, it’s ironic that our field, which so appreciates the effects of a person’s history, can be so casual about its own. Neuroscience has highlighted the importance, for example, of unconscious beliefs and motivations in influencing our experience and actions. Good stuff, but not news at 11, since Freud and others began writing about the dynamic unconscious more than a century ago.
Similarly, recognizing that the neural substrates of language processing—mainly in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas—are a small fraction of the volume of the brain underscores the need to address nonverbal processes and ground psychotherapy in embodied experience, in sensation, emotion, and imagery. This is great to highlight, but already long emphasized in Jungian therapies, as well as in Reichian, bioenergetic, psychosynthetic, and somatic treatments.
Occasionally, learning more about the “black box” inside each person’s head does suggest genuinely new approaches. Neurofeedback is an example, as are emerging trauma protocols that use the “window of reconsolidation”—the relatively brief period during which negative material is rewoven into the networks of emotional memory—not merely to overwrite painful thoughts and feelings with more positive ones, but to erase the painful material altogether. Ultimately, as knowledge about the brain grows, so will the number of such novel and useful interventions.
The Real Story—Bigger than You Thought
Even granting the benefits of these new approaches, the impact of brain science on the everyday work of most therapists has been pretty limited. That’s because most of the new findings we get excited about—no matter how many bright blobs the MRI scans show—have little, if any, relationship to how we actually conduct therapy. Meanwhile, I think we’ve been missing the big picture. The real gift of modern neuroscience research, in conjunction with evolutionary biology and psychology, is to provide us with a much bigger, broader, and deeper general understanding of how the brain works as a whole: what its organizing principles are, how neural structures are built, and how they can change over time. We now have a much better grasp of the rules by which every human brain runs—rules set down through the processes of natural selection over eons of time since before the earliest hominid walked the earth. To borrow a metaphor from neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, behind the eyes of every person today is a kind of living museum containing Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal cavemen and cavewomen, as well as ancient monkeys, mice, lizards, worms, and jellyfish.
Ironically, the lessons our ancestors needed to learn to survive under harsh and brutal conditions—lessons now woven into every nook and cranny of our brains—make it hard for our clients to learn to feel, think, and act in healthier and happier ways. Sure, every practitioner knows that learning new habits of mind and behavior is often hard; people resist change, even positive change they say they dearly want. But I don’t think our field as a whole has fully confronted how powerfully evolution has primed our brains to be really good at learning bad lessons from bad experiences, and relatively bad at learning good lessons from good experiences—what researchers call the brain’s negativity bias.
How powerful is the negativity bias? Very powerful. Much scholarship—including a literature review with the arresting title “Bad Is Stronger than Good” by research psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues—has shown that the brain continually looks for bad news, zeroes in on it while losing sight of the big picture, reacts intensely to anything negative, and quickly stores the whole stimulus-response package. While there’s a mild positivity bias for recollections—we tend to edit pain out of personal memories—there’s a marked negativity bias for implicit memory, the vast neural storehouse containing our expectations, assumptions, attitudes, motivations, models of relationships, effects of life experiences on mood and self-worth, and the overall inner atmosphere of the mind.
Consequently, negative states are fast-tracked into neural structure. We learn faster from pain than pleasure: once burned, twice shy. Something bad about a person is more memorable than something good, which is why attack ads dominate political campaigns. Negative interactions have more impact on a relationship than positive ones. It’s easy to develop “learned helplessness” from a handful of experiences of inescapable pain, and it takes many times as many counter-experiences of agency and efficacy to feel more like a hammer than a nail. The negativity bias pervades daily life, not just laboratory experiments. For example, a client of mine recently received a performance review with overwhelmingly positive feedback, but she couldn’t stop obsessing about the one suggestion for improvement. Another client has led a mainly decent and moral life, but is still haunted by the time he betrayed a lover as a young man.
During the 600 million years of its evolution, the nervous system’s negativity bias developed for a good reason: it helped our ancestors survive in harsh environments, live to see a new sunrise, and pass on their genes. In effect, they needed to get “carrots” (i.e., food and mating opportunities) and avoid “sticks” (i.e., predators and aggression within or between primate bands). Sticks usually have more urgency and effect on survival than carrots do. If you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll have another chance to get one tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid that stick today, then whack! No more carrots forever.
As a result, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are routinely caught and turned into enduring neural structure. Our brains are, in effect, Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. This hard-wired asymmetry in the conversion rate of mental states to neural traits—with negative states having the advantage—is the fundamental weakness in psychotherapy and other paths of healing and growth, such as mindfulness training, coaching, social-emotional education for children, addiction recovery, and human resources development. Unless people install, or internalize, useful experiences in brain structure, they have little or no lasting value. So, both in psychotherapy sessions and in daily life, we need to help our clients learn to turn positive mental states into positive neural traits.