The Brain on the Couch

Some therapists are introducing their clients to a new tool: brain science

| September / October 2004

Daniel Siegel is using his brain a lot more these days. But it's not the one in his skull that's got him so excited; it's the plastic one in his office.

The associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Developing Mind (Guilford Press, 1999) is one of a new wave of psychotherapists who are discovering the power of neuro-biology in their everyday counseling work. 'I not only have a model of the brain that I . . . take out maybe three or four times a week with different patients, but I also have a chalkboard I constantly use to draw brain diagrams to help people see their problems in a different light,' Siegel tells Mary Sykes Wylie and Richard Simon in Psychotherapy Networker (March/April 2004).

The results, he says, have been eye-opening. 'Patients keep telling me things like, 'You know last week when you drew that picture of the brain? I finally understood my amygdala. It's changed my whole view of what's been going on with me all these years.''

Siegel and others are looking at new ways to read brain activity and apply that information to psychotherapy. Their recent embrace of neuroscience, argue Wylie and Simon, represents a fundamental shift in a profession that historically has been at odds with neuroscience and its tendency to see an individual's temperament and psychological health as ruled by genetics and seldom subject to change. But as scientists have learned more about the brain's innate 'plasticity,' psychotherapists have become more willing to use that knowledge to help their clients.

Contrary to earlier thinking, researchers now know that the brain produces new cells throughout a person's life and that its development is influenced by experience as well as genetics. Each stimulus we experience causes millions of neurons to fire together in the brain, creating neural maps or networks that add up to what Wylie and Simon call 'the architecture of all our experiences.' This new knowledge of the brain, combined with advances in technology to measure and interpret brain activity, have allowed therapists and their clients to consider how an individual's brain functions in a way that goes well beyond the word-bound techniques of traditional 'talking cure' therapy.

'Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and CAT scans can now photo-graph the brain at work and play and even after therapy,' Wylie and Simon note. 'With electron microscopes, the nuclear tagging of living human molecules, and other biochemical investigative techniques, scientists can now see what happens in different parts of the brain when an alcoholic looks at a martini, or a schizophrenic has a hallucination, or a meditator experiences spiritual transcendence.'

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