When “Talking” Doesn’t Seem to Help


In a December 4, 2012 “Huffington Post” article entitled “Jumpstarting the Talking Cure,” journalist Wray Herbert writes:

“The ‘talking cure’ originally referred to psychoanalysis, the brand of therapy made famous by Sigmund Freud and his followers. Today the phrase describes a very wide range of psychotherapeutic approaches…that begin with clients, well, talking about themselves – their experiences, relationships, thoughts and feelings. Frank disclosure is considered the cornerstone of a trusting therapeutic alliance – and thus key to psychological healing and well-being.”

Indeed, putting words to our feelings and experiences is the sine qua non of counseling and psychotherapy. However, the neuroscience revolution of the past 15+ years has revised what we understand as the “talking cure.” Specifically, it has a lot to do with brain lateralization, or left- and right-brain research. While the left-hemisphere of the brain is integral to the words we use to understand and express conscious experiences and memories, the right-hemisphere of the brain dominates all the nonverbal ways we encode and express unconscious experiences and memories. This explains why we can “know” something is true (for example, “The abuse was not my fault”), but not “feel” that it is true.  Consequently, disturbing experiences and memories don’t always respond as well to the “logic” and “language” of traditional talk therapy; the problems lie elsewhere. This “elsewhere” has much to do with the right-hemisphere of the brain.

In his splendid book, I Imagine; How Creativity Works (2012), Jonah Lehrer quotes: “The world is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time….It needs to see the forest and the trees. The right hemisphere is what helps you see the forest.” (p. 9) While traditional talk therapy (“the talking cure”) tends toward the “trees” so to speak, different approaches to therapy help us see the “forest”. For example, I might say to a person in therapy, “When you bring up that disturbing memory, what are you feeling just now and where are you feeling it in your body? Just notice that.” Such a request does not exclude left-brain language and logic (we will always need words and insight), but includes right-brain memories, emotions, and body sensations – that sometimes elude our verbiage in therapy.

Professor and psychologist John Watkins (1997) offers another useful analogy:

“An insight that is only cognitive or intellectual is like an individual standing on a hill and viewing the perspective of his home town in the valley below. He sees the crooked streets, the neglected slums, the crime-laden areas, etc., and he understands the needs. But as long as he views this town from the hill only as an object out there, no change occurs. Through insight he knows that he is looking at himself, but it is like a picture of himself. It is an object, and not a real experience of ‘selfdom.’ He must descend into the town, experience it as a citizen, feel its pain, and become involved. The ‘self-town’ must become a subject, not remain merely as an object. Since it is ‘his town’ he must reexperience it with his whole being, as he did ‘for real’ originally as a child. To change something he must be there, where it is. Insight must be much more than cognitive understanding. It must be a level of meaning that is experiential…(as well as cognitive), involving every tissue of his or her make-up, physical and mental. It is a ‘gut’ understanding as well as a cerebral one. Such genuine insight releases in the (person) new reserves of vigor, because energy that had previously been employed in repression or (avoidance) is now made available for more effective living.” (p. 57)

 Such is the role–and importance–of the left- AND RIGHT-BRAIN  in therapy.

So, if psychotherapy is not merely the “talking cure”, then what is it? UCLA’s Allan Schore (2012) provides an apropos revision: “Psychotherapy is not the ‘talking’ but the ‘communicating’ cure.” (p. 39); that is, a “communicating cure” that includes both left- and right-brain communication.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

One Comment

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