The “Decade of the Brain” officially ended 14 years ago, but certainly not the explosive growth of neuroscience research, nor the popular interest in the three pounds of tofu-textured tissue between our ears. In fact, President Obama has just pledged $3 billion (a billion per brain pound!) toward what amounts to another brain decade—a 10-year project that would, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review modestly describes it, “reconstruct the activity of every single neuron as they fire simultaneously in different brain circuits, or perhaps even whole brains.” Only a few years ago, such an undertaking would’ve seemed like sci-fi fantasy; today, it’s just the latest, biggest, and priciest exploratory trip into Brainlandia.
Meanwhile, the tidal wave of popular and professional interest in the brain surges on. In terms of psychotherapy, there’s hardly a professional conference in which the brain doesn’t figure prominently in a good chunk of the workshops: “the brain and emotion,” “the brain and addiction,” “the adolescent brain,” “the brain and couples,” “your brain on sex”—you get the point. Plus, there are all of those pop-science books, articles on The Huffington Post site, TV shows, “brain games,” and do-it-yourself neurofeedback.
I fully understand this infatuation with neuroscience, having fallen hard for the little charmer myself. How could I not, given the sheer wonder of the extraordinary complexity of the brain? Here are just a few numbers: it has 100 billion neurons amidst another trillion support cells. A typical neuron connects with 5,000 other neurons, adding up to about 500 trillion synapses. The number of possible combinations of those 100 billion neurons is more than 10 to the millionth power—that’s a one followed by a million zeros (the number of particles in the universe is estimated to be merely one followed by a paltry 80 zeros).
Especially exciting for psychotherapists are the implications of breakthrough understandings of the depth and breadth of neuroplasticity, the nervous system’s capacity to be changed by experiences. Of course, neuroplasticity itself isn’t breaking news. The breaking news is in the specific details of the many mechanisms of neuroplasticity and their great reach and power. Make an impression on somebody’s mind, reinforce it often enough, and bingo! A new neural network forms. In other words, the mind has altered a little part of the brain. The possibilities radiate hope.
Since the nervous system is enormously plastic, with enough effort, skill, and time—not to mention therapy—a person really can do a lot to overcome the effects of trauma, a lousy childhood, or major misfortune. This powerful idea has encouraged psychotherapists—some of us understandably troubled by the growing ascendancy of Big Pharma and psychoactive meds—because it indicates that our work in the consulting room can have a real impact on the concrete, physical brain, as much or more than do meds.
Like a lot of therapists, I was excited about neuroscience early on because I knew that the more we learned about what was going on inside the “black box” of the brain, the more effective we could become at intervening inside it. It’s perfectly natural to be enthralled by this wonderful—and scientific!—new framework that’s starting to offer neurological evidence for the effectiveness of different therapeutic methods. Compared with the murky ambiguities of psychotherapy, the sheer visibility of the scanned brain—the ability to watch its neural structures and processes in res media
—is thrilling indeed. But, if we get too infatuated with brain science, we’ll forget how young this field really is, and how little we actually know.Find the full article by Symposium 2014 presenter Rick Hanson, "The Next Big Step: What’s Ahead for Brain Science in Psychotherapy?" in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.