How can therapists acquire the knowledge of how the brain works without becoming brain scientists themselves? Even more pressing, what real-life practical therapeutic implications, if any, can truly be drawn from neuroscience? To the rescue come two brain experts who are very good teachers, and who not only elucidate—each from a unique perspective—dynamic brain processes, but demonstrate with remarkable clarity what they mean for the daily practice of psychotherapy.
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Norman Doidge[/caption]Norman Doidge:
One person who taught me an enormous amount is a psychologist named Barbara Arrowsmith, who was born with a devastating array of learning disorders, including dyslexia, great difficulty processing concepts, an inability to sense where her body was in space, and difficulties in the Broca's area of the brain that made her sound at times like someone who’d had a stroke.
Despite a traumatic childhood, she managed to get through college because of her remarkable memory and extraordinary determination. As a graduate student in psychology she heard about some lab research with rats and mice whose brain functioning had been shown to improve dramatically after receiving special cognitive stimulation in stimulating environments with various kinds of rat toys. After learning about that study, she had an epiphany and decided that she should be able to improve her own brain function through cognitive exercises. Since one of her most obvious problems was reading a wristwatch, she got pictures made of how the hands looked at different times. She started off simply with just an hour hand, then added a minute hand, and made hundreds of these cards. Then she got one of her friends to hold up a card with the answer on the back, and she had to guess it right before she went on to the next card. Then she added seconds, then weeks and months and years. She kept doing this despite the fact that it was mentally exhausting. Eventually, she was able to tell the exact time using five- and six-handed clocks and also began to be able to understand numbers and logic and calculation.
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Stephen Porges[/caption]Stephen Porges:
Polyvagal Theory begins with the recognition that mammals come into the world needing other mammals to take care of them and interact with them. So we have to convey to each other that we’re safe to come close to, and we have to utilize others to help us self-regulate. When we come into the world, we have to functionally trick the nervous systems of our parents into saying, "This baby is cute; I want to take care of this child." Throughout life, we have to continue to functionally trigger the nervous system of others in our species into saying, "I’m safe and it's OK for me to hug you, to have sex with you, and to reproduce with you." What makes human civilization possible is our ability in the appropriate context to present the cues of safety to each other to down-regulate defensiveness and, thus, make further interaction possible.Read Mary Sykes Wylie's full interviews with Norman Doidge and Stephen Porges in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.