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Engaging the Emotional Brain

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Highlights from Symposium 2014

With over 3,000 high-spirited attendees and 150 workshops, the annual Networker Symposium is a four-day festival of inspiration in which therapists from around the country get a chance to step out of the often monastic isolation of their professional lives. They come together to scan the horizons of the field, exploring the new ideas, clinical innovations, and research developments that are generating buzz within the profession. Here’s a look at some of the people, events, and ideas from this year’s Symposium that attracted the spotlight.

Rich Simon on the Cult of Emotion

In his welcoming remarks, Networker editor Rich Simon reminded the audience of how radically the psychotherapy profession has transformed the cultural attitude toward emotion since the days of Freud.

Among the many things that would be startling to my parents about this Symposium, including the sight of me standing up here today, would be our conference theme—Engaging the Emotional Brain—and all this talk about emotion. As survivors of the Great Depression and solid citizens of the 1950s, it never occurred to them that people would discuss—much less act out—their emotions, particularly the more lurid, less presentable ones. To them, emotions were private, unacknowledged, and meant to remain that way. Blabbing about how you felt, or how you wanted to feel, or what you thought other people were feeling—much less showing your emotions to people by sniffling and sobbing all over them—would be like going to synagogue and sharing publicly all the gory details of your sex life with the rabbi.

In fact, for much of human history, presenting the world with your own big, high-def, full-color emotions was the very last thing you wanted to do. People didn’t think in terms of how they felt—life was a matter of survival that had basically two default settings. One was a sense of anxious watchfulness when things were going okay (meaning that, for the time being, your crops hadn’t been wiped out or your house hadn’t burned down). And the other default setting was the bone-deep fear, grief, or rage you experienced during the common periods of total disaster. It was just understood that life was one awful thing after another. The last worry our ancestors had was whether or not they were adequately expressing their emotions.

But that was then. As you all know, we now live in a world suffused with what you might call the Cult of Emotion—ads, movies, TV shows, websites, and therapists’ offices are all regularly the scene of the most flagrant expression of emotion. The pervasiveness of appeals to emotion in marketing is so universally obvious that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been going on forever. But it was our profession, as much as any other influence, that contributed to the great bombardment of emotion-inducing messages in our culture. In fact, the clever souls who created modern advertising and public relations to get people to buy more stuff took their early inspiration from Freudian insights about human emotion. Ever since, we therapists have played a central role in making the emotional self an object of enormous fascination.

So having unleashed all the force of emotion into the culture at large, it seems only fitting that in more recent years, therapists have been trying to distance themselves from the caricature of our profession that came out of the ’60s—the heyday of the counterculture and the encounter movement. Back then “self-actualization” became a buzzword synonym for the fulfilling, well-lived life. But the way you actualized your actualization was not through traditional means like learning a profession, building up a business, or becoming a scholar. For a time, self-fulfillment was conceived as a kind of personal apotheosis of emotional self-expression, which meant “Let it all hang out all the time, baby!”

This year’s Symposium is devoted to exploring what we’ve learned since that somewhat embarrassing era in our field’s history. From the viewpoint of psychotherapy today, what’s the elusive mix of emotion, reflection, self-awareness, adult responsibility, and true wisdom that lies at the core of the well-lived life? After all, few therapists still believe in the idea that catharsis in and of itself is the key to emotional healing and that the appropriate response to all the complexities of life and relationships is to “let it all hang out.”

We’ve also learned that in many ways, exclusive reliance on “the talking cure” and the cognitive mind can limit our capacity to be helpful with our clients. Advances in brain science, mindfulness practice, and somatic therapies have shown us that it often takes more than logic, kindness, and support to help people expand their capacity to engage with life. More and more, it’s become apparent that there are methods besides meandering chat for helping clients have compelling felt experiences that open doorways to new possibilities. As practitioners, we’re learning more about expanding our own expressive range in a way that—as the client and situation demands—has the power to engage, rivet, and even entertain those who come to us in ways that stir their hearts and souls and propel them into action.

 


 

Anna Deavere Smith on The Art of Listening

An actor, playwright, author, and professor, Anna Deavere Smith is renowned for her unique version of “documentary theater,” which is based on her interviews with real-life participants in controversial social and political events whom she portrays in her extraordinarily compelling one-woman shows. Describing her approach as an actress, she’s written what should also be the therapist’s credo: “The key to performance is listening. To develop a voice, you must develop an ear. To develop a vision, you must learn how to watch.” At the Symposium, Smith offered her perspective on the process of genuinely taking in another human being and what this leap means for our work.

Do you know about the French idiom entre chien et loup, which means “between the wolf and the dog”? It’s used to describe a specific time of day just before night when the light is so dim you can’t distinguish a dog from a wolf. However, it’s not all about levels of light. It also expresses that limit between the familiar and the comfortable, the unknown and the dangerous, or between the domestic and the wild. It’s an uncertain threshold between hope and fear. All of the work I’ve been doing for 40 years as an actor and as a teacher is about navagating that in-between state. Now I wonder how the idea of the broad jump toward the other, or even the idea of the gap between the comfortable and the unfamiliar, the domestic and the wild might be useful to you. And I suggest that if you’re a psychotherapist who’s in the listening profession, people aren’t just telling you their story. In a musical way, they’re inviting you into the genius that they have to turn their world right-side up with their words.

 


 

Rick Hanson on Hardwiring Happiness

In his best-selling books Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson challenges psychotherapy’s focus on all the pain, trauma, and suffering that are so endemic to our human species. His clinical premise is that we therapists are too drawn to exploring the deep muddy of whatever psychic mess clients bring in. Instead, we should be turning our attention to the positive experiences that directly address their deeper, unsatisfied needs. In his keynote talk, he explained the importance of what he calls “antidote experiences.”

According to Paul MacLean’s model of the triune brain, all animals have three fundamental needs—safety, satisfaction, and connection—that are managed by three overarching neurological systems that help us avoid harms (feel strong, safe, at peace), approach rewards (feel glad, grateful, satisfied), and attach to others (feel seen, liked, appreciated, loved). So if a person has a need in a particular system, they need what I like to call “antidote experiences” to address that need. For example, I grew up in a safe environment—a middle-class, suburban setting in southern California—so I didn’t have big issues growing up around safety. Also, I was successful in school, so I didn’t have a lot of issues around failure, and I didn’t experience any shocking losses in terms of my need for satisfaction.

But, as with most people, everything wasn’t absolutely perfect in my upbringing. I grew up in a home with loving parents who happened to be bad at empathy. Plus, I was very young going through school and had lots of experiences feeling left out. So when I finally got to college, I was determined to make myself feel safer and strong, which was nice, but it didn’t reach my deepest need for connection. Even as I put my energy into getting high grades and becoming more successful—which was, again, nice—it wasn’t the medicine my heart needed. It’s only when I started appreciating the importance of everyday experiences of feeling included, seen, wanted—some girl would smile at me in the elevator, some stud athlete would throw me the ball during intramural football—that I started filling the hole in my heart.

As therapists, it’s useful for us to think about antidote experiences that will help our clients fill the particular need in the particular systems in which they have deficits. If you have scurvy, you need vitamin C. Iron’s good, but it doesn’t address your need. So you might ask yourself, “What’s my vitamin C these days? What’s a key resource I need to develop inside, and how do I activate and install that resource?” Or, to put it in a way that addresses MacLean’s triune brain—the reptilian, mammalian, and primate phases of evolution—what do I need to do to pet the lizard (for safety), feed the mouse (for reward experiences), and hug the monkey (for connection) that will fill the holes in my heart?

As I close, I’d like to ask you another fundamental question that can guide you in your role as an agent of change: what’s the most important moment in your life? We can’t do anything about the moments in the past, and as soon as we jump ahead more than a few minutes in the future, we start losing influence to make a difference. But the next minute, the minute that’s right in front of our nose all the time, that’s the most important minute.

So what will we do with the most important moment of our lives? And what will we do to help our clients deal with the most important moment in their lives? Will we make use of the good that’s actually present in that most important moment of our lives, or will we waste it? As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

 


 

Bessel van der Kolk on The Frontiers of Trauma Treatment

Bessel van der Kolk is a classically trained psychodynamic psychiatrist who’s almost single-handedly shifted the way the entire psychotherapy field views and treats trauma. He’s the first “establishment” psychiatrist to explore and ultimately recognize the value of mind–body approaches—including yoga, mindfulness, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, neurofeedback, sensorimotor therapy, martial arts, and theater—in treating trauma. In his keynote, he offered a whirlwind tour of the frontiers of trauma treatment today.

When people remember their trauma, several areas of their brain go offline, particularly the Broca area in the frontal lobe, the part that helps you put into words what you’re feeling. So traumatized people, as they’re in their trauma, are incapable of putting into words what’s going on with them. Thus, you need to get below the verbal system to transform these deeper animal layers of fear and terror. Also, the parts of the brain that give you a sense of self—who you are, what your priorities are, what you really believe in, what that passion feels like in your body—is knocked out by trauma. Conventional psychotherapy simply will not get those parts of the brain back online. Trauma is replayed not in your frontal lobe, but in your emotional brain. So in order to recover, people need to access the limbic system, which has a life of its own and is barely affected by cognition. There are almost no pathways from the conscious brain into the limbic brain.

In 1924, Pavlov wrote, “The most important effect of trauma is that it causes dogs”—and dogs are very much like people in this regard—“to lose their sense of purpose.” I say one of the greatest challenges in work with trauma sufferers is to help them reestablish a sense of purpose. In the several decades of my experience as a therapist, I’ve discovered that the most powerful way to accomplish that, especially with severely traumatized people, is reactivating the part of the brain that connects people with their moment-to-moment somatic experience, their fundamental sense of who they are as biological creatures. As therapists, we can change the brain, but we can’t change it by just talking and understanding.

When people are traumatized, they lose the capacity to look at the consequences of their actions. Since they’re just trying to survive in any way they can, they often do stupid things because they can’t use their imaginations. At its best, trauma treatment should be about opening up imagination and new possibilities for action in the world. And that’s why I do theater with people, for example, because in theater you can get to experience what it’s like to be a person radically different from the role that you’ve assumed in your own life.

 


 

Barbara Fredrickson on What if Everything You Know about Love is Wrong?

As members of a culture infatuated with the idea of a deathless, delirious love, most of us have been trained to think that one of life’s primary goals is to find that certain someone, that one-and-only soul mate, who’ll make us complete and give our life meaning. But Barbara Fredrickson—a leading scholar and researcher in the fields of social psychology, affective science, and positive psychology—challenges this pie-eyed view of love in her new book, Love 2.0. Rather than simply debunking a daydream, her research brings us good news that’s really revolutionary: as far as the impact on our bodies and our health is concerned, love is literally any positive connection between two or more people at any time. Here’s how Fredrickson described her concept of love 2.0.

We sometimes forget that love is an emotion, and the truth about emotions is that they happen in the span of a micro-moment. It’s in that micro-moment that you truly connect with another living being, whether you share a laugh with a friend, hug your neighbor with compassion, or smile at a baby. When you really connect with another person, a beautifully choreographed dance unfolds between you as your smiles, your gestures, your postures come to mirror one another and come into synchrony. But that’s only the synchrony that you can see. In addition, there’s the synchrony that you can’t see, because when you really connect with another person—when you’re sharing this positive vibe with them—your neural firings come into sync, your biochemistries come into sync, even your heart rhythms come into sync. It’s as if in that moment of connection, a single emotion is growing across two brains and bodies at once, creating a momentary resonance of good feeling and good will between you and the other.

Every day, our habits of connection are deeply affecting our physical health. So these micro-moments of connection should be considered on par with eating your vegetables and staying physically active. But more than other healthy behaviors, when you’re connecting with another person, it’s not just your heart and your immune system that’s getting a mini tune-up—the other person’s is, too.

If you say that we have rapport, we really clicked, you’re suddenly suggesting that the goodness of our connection is somehow optional, like icing on the cake. But more and more data are repeatedly showing us that the goodness of our connection is a biological imperative. It gives us life in the same way that the right combination of sunlight, soil, and water gives life to plants.

 


 

Dan Siegel on What We Can Learn from the Teenage Brain

We tend not to think of adolescence as a stage in life that holds much wisdom. But in Brainstorm: The Power and the Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dan Siegel challenges many myths about adolescence and offers a fresh perspective on this time in our lives of exploration, innovation, and passion. In his keynote, Siegel called for a much-needed cultural shift in the way we raise, talk about, and treat teenagers.

When adults lose the four distinguishing features of adolescence—novelty seeking, social engagement, emotional intensity, and creative exploration—life becomes boring, isolating, dull, and routinized. Who would intentionally choose to live like that? Mostly no one. So I’m suggesting that what adolescents have going on for them that’s both a challenge and a gift is actually what adults need to maintain vitality in their lives. Here’s a way to remember this essence of the brain changes in adolescence.

Emotional Spark—honoring these important internal sensations that are more intense during adolescence but serve to create meaning and vitality throughout our lives.

Social Engagement—the important connections we have with others that support our journeys through life with meaningful, mutually rewarding relationships.

Novelty—how we seek out and create new experiences that engage us fully, stimulating our senses, emotions, thinking, and bodies in new and challenging ways.

Creative Explorations—the conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning, and expanded consciousness that create a gateway to seeing the world through new lenses.

I wonder if some of the tension that I see in parents as a reaction toward adolescents is at times a deep longing for those very features they themselves may have lost. We as a psychotherapy community need to realize that this essence isn’t tapped into in our society. But we can restructure how families approach adolescence, and we can inspire people to rewire their own brains toward integration. As therapists, we’re in an incredibly important position to support this change in the cultural conversation.

How many adults do you know in your practice, or in your personal life, or maybe even in your own body, who’ve given up many elements of the essence of adolescence? A lot of people. But we can regain this essence. We can empower adolescents to have the courage and creativity that’s innately within them—schools can support that. And if we tap into the inspirational way that these adolescents can be, there’s a chance we can move the direction of our world’s health in a positive way.

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