The problem with brain science being all the rage in psychotherapy is that most therapists find their eyes glaze over and their own brains go offline as soon as they go beyond the oversimplifications of pop neuroscience. And yet, if therapists are ever going to bring genuine insights—not just soundbites—from neuroscience into the practice of therapy, they need a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how the brain actually works. How can they acquire this knowledge without becoming brain scientists themselves? Even more pressing, what real-life practical therapeutic implications, if any, can truly be drawn from neuroscience?
Enter Stephen Porges, whose Polyvagal Theory has been called “a truly revolutionary perspective on human nature.” In this video clip, he talks about what the Polyvagal Theory tells us about what makes a good psychotherapist. In the Networker Webcast series Why Brain Science Matters
, he goes on to explain how the Polyvagal Theory clarifies the fundamental task of psychotherapy.
As he put it in a recent interview
in the Networker
magazine, “Humans when threatened are similar to other mammals: they shift states to defend, become more reptilian, and lose access to their social communication skills. By understanding this adaptive reactive to danger, we’ve uncovered a neurobiological mechanism that enables us to better understand and treat mental disorders.”
Porges also explains that what first caught the attention of therapists regarding the Polyvagal Theory is that it provided an explanation of shutting down as a defensive strategy to threat. “If you're immobilized, held down, and abused, you may dissociate or pass out,” he says. “It’s like the mouse playing dead in the jaws of a cat. Does the mouse want
to immobilize? There’s no choice; it's a reflex. And humans behave in this way, too. This gave trauma therapists, in particular, new insight into the terrifying experiences and subsequent reflexes that their clients had long been telling them about. When that ancient evolutionary defense system of freezing and going numb is put to use, it’s not easy to stop it.”
Why Brain Science Matters
Concrete Strategies for Your Practice
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