The Merits of Applying Brain Science in Therapy

Using the Brain to Explain Fear and Anxiety Objectively

Louis Cozolino

Anatomically, modern humans evolved from our chimplike ancestors around 100,000 years ago, although it took another 50,000 years for our brains and culture to evolve sufficiently to make us capable of language, planning, and creativity. But this extended, complex history has a downside: the more recently emergent aspects of our brains---which give us astonishing powers of thought, logic, imagination, empathy, and morality---must share skull space with the ancient brain equipment that we've inherited from our mammalian and reptilian forebears over the past several million years. So even today, one of the most basic human challenges is integrating and coordinating the complex and highly specialized systems that comprise our brains.

The neocortex, for example---the part of the brain that organizes our powers of conscious thought, imagination, and empathy---must coexist and cooperate with primitive survival networks conserved by natural selection through hundreds of thousands of generations. This means that beneath our newer equipment, capable of composing sonnets and developing computers, are structures driven by primitive instincts, unconscious impulses, and primordial fears. Within our skulls, the reptilian, ancient mammalian, and modern human brains attempt to coexist and cooperate, at least enough to get us through the day.

In an image suggested by the British cultural philosopher and management consultant Charles Hampden-Turner, the human brain is an anachronistic menagerie, which confronts the psychotherapist with the challenge of treating a human, a horse, and a crocodile attempting to inhabit the same body.

The Social Brain

Our brains are inescapably social, their structure and function deeply embedded in a group of other brains—the family, the tribe, the society. Because we've evolved in this context, we've individually developed the ability to link with other brains, attuning with each other, regulating each other's emotional systems, helping to grow each other's neural networks. Similarly, the ability to link with, attune to, and help build new neural connections in the brains of clients is at the heart of psychotherapy. This is why therapists are in a position to counterbalance some of natural selection's less stellar choices.

The Bias toward Anxiety and Fear

As we've seen, human survival, like that of all animals, is based on rapid and accurate decisions to approach what's safe and avoid what's dangerous. Therefore, we maintain some common anxieties—fear of spiders, snakes, open spaces, and heights—which appear to be hard-wired and linked to the survival requirements of our tree-dwelling ancestors.

The core of the neural circuitry involved in fear and anxiety is the amygdala, a structure we share with our ancestors who only had to navigate their physical environments and basic social interactions. Unfortunately, these primitive fear circuits deep inside our brains still have a lot of power and are unable to tell the difference between real and imagined danger. We now have the capacity to experience anxiety associated with just about anything—from public speaking, to existential despair, to the thought of an asteroid striking the earth.

The amygdala is central not just to the immediacy of fear, but to the memory of fear. The role of the amygdala is to remember threats and apply the "lessons" contained in these memories to future circumstances, while generalizing fearful experiences to as many situations as possible. That's why a panic attack outside the home can lead to agoraphobia, or getting scratched by a cat can result in a fear of all furry animals.

The fear and anxiety resident in older parts of our brains can make us cognitively and emotionally rigid. We become afraid of taking risks and learning new things, resulting in what psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich described as a tendency for those who become sick to remain sick. Once our brains have been shaped by fear to perceive, think, and act in specific ways, we tend to remain in cognitive and emotional ruts that are reinforced by what we perceive as our continuing survival needs.

But within the consulting room, therapists attempt to be amygdala whisperers: we work to activate networks of new learning in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Warmth, empathic caring, and positive regard create a state of mind that enhances neuroplastic processes and increases the likelihood of positive change.

Why Does Neuroscience Matter for Psychotherapy?

Information about the brain and how it evolved helps us communicate with clients about their problems in an objective and non-shaming manner. Adding a neuroscientific perspective to our clinical thinking lets us talk with clients about the shortcomings of our brains, instead of the problems with theirs.

Some therapists bristle at the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy, calling it irrelevant or reductionistic. If you have a model of therapy that works, they seem to be saying, why bother with the brain? Would Carl Rogers or Heinz Kohut have been better therapists if they'd been trained as neuroscientists? Probably not. But it's hard to grasp how the brain could be irrelevant to changing the mind.

We carry within our skulls the entire history of the brain's evolution, from its primitive origins in the fishes, up through the early and later mammals, to the unimaginably complex organ of today's Homo sapiens. And evolution hasn't stopped! The human brain will probably continue to grow in size and capacities, barring the potential catastrophes that this amazing organ can create for the world and itself, on a scale inconceivable to our ancestors even a few hundred years ago.

This blog is excerpted from “It's a Jungle in There". Read the full article here. >>

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: brain science | add | agoraphobia | amygdala | ED | emotion | empathy | family | hippocampus | imagination | learning | neuroscience | neuroscientist | panic attack | phobia | psychoanalyst | psychotherapist | psychotherapy | science | SPECT | TED | the human brain | therapist | therapists | therapy | Psychotherapy Networker | clients | pot

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *