Counseling & Psychotherapy…Work!

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In his recent book The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy (2012), UCLA researcher Allan Schore writes:

“The decade of the brain, which spanned from approximately 1995-2005, heralded the appearance of innovative neuroimaging technologies that allowed for studying the brain as it is processing external and internal information. The amount of neurobiological research on emotional and social processes increased exponentially over this period.” (p. 2)

As a result, we know now that the brain is much more “plastic” (changeable, malleable, modifiable) than ever dreamed. In his “Preface” to The Brain that Changes Itself (2007), Columbia University psychiatrist Norman Doidge observes:

“(For hundreds of years) mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed. The common wisdom was that after childhood the brain changed only when it began the long process of decline; that when brain cells failed to develop properly, or were injured, or died, they could not be replaced. Nor could the brain ever alter its structure and find a new way to function if part of it was damaged.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

The clinical implications of this “hardwiring” meant that positive “brain change” was considered limited at best.  So, writes Doidge (a research psychiatrist and psychotherapist), “When patients did not progress psychologically as much as hoped, often the conventional medical wisdom was that their problems were deeply ‘hardwired’ into an unchangeable brain….with permanently connected circuits, each designed to perform a specific, unchangeable function….(But, this ‘hardwired’ understanding of the brain) could not fully account for changes the scientists were seeing. They began to call this fundamental brain property ‘neuroplasticity.'” (pp.xviii-xix).

Which brings me back to the clinical implications of “brain change”. As a psychotherapist, privileged to work with people during a “neuroscience revolution” (Panksepp, 1998), I take great pride and satisfaction in knowing that my efforts are potentially–and empirically–making a positive difference in peoples’ lives.  Not only do we have a better understanding of how the brain functions, we also have a much better understanding that counseling and psychotherapy – work!

Even as the “decade of the brain” began to dawn, Consumer Reports (1995) published a massive study headed by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman titled : “The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy.” The Abstract began: “(P)atients benefited very substantially from psychotherapy…”

Once again, Allan Schore(2012) :

“In 2005 the Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist Eric Kandel argued that there is no longer any doubt that psychotherapy can result in detectable changes in the brain….(P)sychotherapy affects regional cerebral blood flow, neurotransmitter metabolism, gene expression, and persistent modifications in synaptic plasticity….(P)sychotherapy research is no longer concerned with efficacy but rather with ‘how effective change occurs.'” (p. 10)

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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