Therapists were doing helpful work long before neuroscience made its official debut and the field developed a collective case of “brain fever.” In fact, at this stage of its development, neuroscience may be irrelevant to what needs to happen in therapy.
Some years ago, during the heyday of the self-esteem movement, I was invited to teach at a large weekend drug and alcohol conference. Most of the presenters talked about how critical it was to build up clients’ positive self-concepts to help them stop using drugs. But while everyone seemed convinced that self-esteem was important, when I asked my workshop group what exactly self-esteem was and, more important, how they could help clients enhance theirs, the room went quiet.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s imagine that I’m hooked on drugs. Help me improve my self-concept. Help me out. What should I do?”
“Well, you could use operant conditioning,” someone suggested.
“Great!” I responded. “Condition me. Show me what you can do to help me improve my self-esteem.”
The room got quiet again. “I’d start by helping you heal your past traumas,” another person eventually volunteered.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s imagine that I was sexually abused as a child. Show me how to build up my self-concept in a way that’ll heal that.”
Again, the room went quiet. My point in keeping up this line of questioning for almost 20 minutes was to make a clear distinction between what psychologist and communications…