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Therapy's Effect on Brain Cells
For the first time, a study has shown that effective psychotherapy with depressed clients is associated with changes at the brain's cellular level. While previous studies have found that psychotherapy affects the brains of depressed people, they've relied on brain imaging and scans—relatively crude instruments that some critics contend are akin to trying to determine details of the lunar surface by looking at the moon through an Earth-based telescope. After all, what does brain imaging really tell us when one area "lights up," beyond that there's some kind of increased activity in a relatively large area?
Now a study led by psychiatrist Jakob Koch of Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, reported in the April Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, has looked at a key brain protein called phosphorylated cyclic adenosine monophosphates (pCREB). While there's already some evidence that neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine are less available in the brains of depressed people, proteins like pCREB operate several rungs below neurotransmitters, helping to construct brain cells and nerve endings—in effect, creating the highways and byways along which neurotransmitters travel. They're also the basic ingredients of neurotransmitters themselves.
Koch's team found that people who responded positively to Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), a therapy that addresses both cognitive and interpersonal issues, also had increased production of pCREB, raising the possibility that something about psychotherapy promotes the growth of brain cells. "In depression, brain growth in response to experience has been demonstrated to be slowed down," says psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, who's contended for years that the empathic attunement of relationships promotes the growth of new brain cells and neural connections. "Decreased protein production may be a result of such dampened neural growth."
Koch's study can identify only an association between IPT and increased pCREB production and can't definitively state that IPT caused the increased production. But those whose depression wasn't alleviated by IPT showed no increase in pCREB.
Do Therapists Perpetuate Myths?
What do these statements have in common? High levels of motivation help in solving difficult problems. Women have better social intuition than men. Positive self-affirmations boost self-esteem among people with poor self-concepts. Most people who were physically abused as children become physical abusers themselves. Venting anger in a safe, controlled manner is an effective anger-management tool. The answer, according to Emory University psychologist and researcher Scott Lilienfeld: they're all largely or entirely false.
Lilienfeld's new book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (which actually demolishes more than 250 myths), written with Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late Barry Beyerstein, is intended for a general audience and psychology students, but Lilienfeld says therapists should read it, too. He argues that when therapists believe in them, even myths refuted by research can take on a life of their own.
In fact, Lilienfeld and his coauthors insist that the volume of dubious, potentially damaging psychological myths is increasing. The self-help industry publishes more than 3,000 books a year, often taking something with a kernel of truth and magnifying it into broader statements. For example, John Gray's Mars/Venus series flies in the face of research demonstrating that men and women have more similarities than differences in their emotional and cognitive styles. Books on self-esteem perpetuate the myth that high self-esteem inevitably leads to psychological health and low-self-esteem inevitably leads to unhappiness and failure. The Internet and popular media are also fertile breeding grounds for myths.
Therapists, says Lilienfeld, have an obligation to stay on top of research and to question and check the supporting data even—perhaps especially—on the things they assume they "know." The more we hear something, the more we tend to believe it; but just because we've heard something doesn't mean it's true.
Many myths come from confusing causation and correlation: the correlation between full moons and increased homicides, for example, seems due not to lunar gravitational power, but to the fact that over the periods studied, more full moons occurred on weekends, when assaults increase. Biased samples often breed myths: for years it was thought that AD/HD was much more prevalent among boys, when, in fact, it may be just as prevalent among girls, although girls usually have the inattentive type that leads to quiet daydreaming, while boys more often have the hyperactive kind that draws the attention of parents, teachers, and therapists. Some myths simply reflect outdated knowledge. Twelve-step programs were once the only widely available treatment for alcoholism and, as a result, many people still incorrectly believe they're the only effective treatment.