NeuroScience, Psychotherapy and the Brain
Neuroscience surprisingly teaches us that not only is psychotherapy purely biological, but it is the only real biological treatment. It addresses the brain in the way it actually develops, matures, and operates.
It follows the principles of evolutionary adaptation. It is consonant with genetics. And it specifically heals the problematic adaptations of the brain in precisely the ways that they evolved in the first place.
Psychotherapy deactivates maladaptive brain mappings and fosters new and constructive pathways.
Neuroscience: Simple Explanation of Psychotherapy and the Brain
The operations of the brain are purely biological. The brain maps our experiences and memories through the linking of trillions of neuronal connections. These interconnected webs create larger circuits that map all throughout the architecture of the cortex. This generates high-level symbolic neuronal maps that take form as images in our consciousness. The play of consciousness is the highest level of symbolic form. It is a living theater of “image-ination,” a representational world that consists of a cast of characters who relate together by feeling as well as scenarios, plots, set designs, and landscape.
As we adapt to our environment, the brain maps our emotional experience through cortical memory. This starts very early in life. If a baby is startled by a loud noise, his arms and legs will flail. His heart pumps adrenaline, and he cries. This “startle reflex” maps a fight-or-flight or freeze response in his cortex, which is mapped through serotonin and cortisol. The baby is restored by his mother’s holding. Her responsive repair once again re-establishes and maintains his well-being, which is mapped through oxytocin.
These ongoing formative experiences of life are mapped into memory in precisely two basic ways.
These two basic modes underlie the mapping of the entire play into memory.
A play written through positive attachment and emotions will promote authenticity and love. One written from trauma can generate a darker narrative and psychiatric symptoms. A problematic play affects the very sense of Self of the child, his self-worth and value. It also warps the quality of relatedness with other people to one of distrust, emotional removal, and anger.
It is our individual genetic temperament combined with early attachments (secure vs. insecure attachments) that determines the form of psychiatric symptoms, whether depression, anxiety, phobias, hyperactivity, obsessions, compulsions, or psychosis. It even influences how we handle Stress.
Deprivation and abuse in one individual may generate depression, while a similar trauma in another may generate a phobic state. One’s temperament is the genetic component in the formation of psychiatric conditions combined with attachment (i.e. through environmental experiences primarily with mother and father) and neuropsychobiological encoding of these attachments in the development of the Self.
Repairing the Brain through Psychotherapy
The process of psychotherapy specifically and neuropsychobiologically repairs damage done to the play of consciousness.
The process for brain change involves deactivation—not using the old brain map; and then creating a new positive experience which is activated, then creating another new positive experience, and so on.
In the emotional sphere of the play of consciousness, change and growth are complicated. Because the play is written through the amygdala and the limbic system, change has to proceed through feeling. The process of change is often called mourning.
The trauma has to be mourned in order to move on to something new and better. Trauma is the hardest of all attachments to mourn.
In psychotherapy, the patient mourns the pains of his life in the context of emotional trust with the therapist. The patient mourns the abuse and deprivation of his life and faces the pain anew in order to deactivate negative linked brain mappings.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief accurately describe the processes involved in relinquishing the old play to accept and inhabit a new one. One must go through the following stages: challenge and denial—to be willing to open and feel the pain again. Then one feels the anger at the real source of the abuse; and one feels the sadness at losing old problematic sources of security or feels the pain deprivation itself; and finally acceptance of no longer inhabiting one’s old familiar identity. The trauma has to be mourned in order to move on to something new and better. Trauma is the hardest of all attachments to mourn.
The old play that generates maladaptive behavioral patterns, symptoms, and suffering was written from trauma, neuronal mappings involving serotonin and cortisol activity and influence in the limbic system, which is involved in emotional experience.
Traumatic attachments need to be mourned for them to lose their power and then to be relegated to deactivated memory. In the context of the safe harbor of the therapist, one slowly digests, deactivates, and lays to rest the mappings of the old play; the maladaptive behavioral patterns, symptoms and suffering generated by the old play disappear.
During the therapy, the patient writes and inhabits a new play of trust and positive emotions and attachment. Here oxytocin is the mediator, rather than serotonin. The process of mourning is one method in psychotherapy that specifically repairs the brain in the very way that the original play was constructed.