The Downside of Talk Therapy

The Downside of Talk Therapy

Does left brain "talk" therapy describe your therapy sessions?

Here's why that may be a problem.

The left brain "thinks" in language. It's that "calculating intelligence"1 that tells us not to forget to pick up milk on the way home from work.

You've probably seen a human brain, that two sided grey mass with deep groves cut into it. The two sides or hemispheres each has separate ways of organizing our experience of the world: simplistically speaking, the left brain deals with thinking while the right brain processes emotions.

These are broad characterizations and in any given moment we can be in both the right and left brain when we are engaging in any activity or thought. However, this distinction is useful to the degree we want to understand how traditional therapy underutilizes the right brain processes.

The Left Brain Function in Personal Counseling

Psychotherapy has had a long tradition of using left brain "talk therapies". Creating meaning from our experiences is undoubtedly one of the most useful aspects of left-brain talk therapy, and what often draws people into counseling.

All psychotherapies use a left brain approach to some extent, since we typically use the left brain when we talk or reflect on our thoughts.

Using reasoning from an exclusive left brain perspective (ie. the power of thought) to make decisions is a valued aspect of our culture. Indeed, those who do this well are highly regarded.

One example of left brain decision-making is considering all the pros and cons of a difficult choice. As we think through a decision we have the feeling of control. We have a sense of mastery. It might go something like this: "I will think through this decision, make a choice, and do it!" This sense of empowerment is often why a strategy of relying on the left brain to make decisions is so attractive.

It's in the "doing" where the problem surfaces. When you fail to follow through on your decision you will likely blame it on faulty thinking--or worse--a lack of will power.

However, given our greater understanding of the mind-body connection today, left brain approaches when used on their own are overrated in terms of their ability to produce long term results.

If you reflect on this process you might find that what is often left out is the emotional element, in other words your feelings. Yet our feelings do not lend themselves to easy interpretation and that's the difficulty. Emotions tend to be messy--and don't give us the same feeling of control.

I believe the popularity of left brain approaches can be attributed to this fact. One can feel more in control (solely using one's thoughts) and be more comfortable in the counseling session (i.e. for the client and therapist).2

Traditional "talk therapies" focus on the left brain in order to create change. The theory is that by changing the way you think you automatically change your emotions, and thus your behaviour. These approaches (e.g. solution-focused, cognitive behavioural) have been very successful in changing discrete aspects of behaviour and we have several decades of research that confirms this fact.3

You can imagine that using a left brain approach is a good way to start the change process especially if you are really nervous about starting therapy. You can always move on to an approach that utilizes both right brain and left brain strategies when you're ready.

However, as we have tried to explain on this site, in comparison to a right-brain focused psychotherapy, the left brain strategy is limited in its ability to effect fundamental change. Progress is much faster and the potential is there for more significant shifts when the right brain is included in therapy.

In summary...

On this site we use "left brain" to reference the fact that the left hemisphere is the physical location of our capacity for logical thinking, abstract analysis, and verbal dexterity.

In short, the left brain specializes in processing information in a conscious, specific and linear way, while the right brain specializes in unconscious, global and holistic processing.

We could say that the left brain sees the trees, while the right brain takes in the whole forest!

"Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic."                                                                     Frank Herbert

Related Topic

Right Brain Functioning


1 From an awesome video by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor as she describes her experience when she lost a good chunk of her left brain functioning.

2 Karen J. Maroda was pretty honest in her estimation of what it's going to take to do good work as an analyst: "The type of emotional availability I am discussing requires so much energy and attention from the analyst, as well as self-awareness, that it severely limits the number of patients that anyone could see in a given day. Thus, practicing this way is not only potentially personally threatening, but also places significant limits on the analyst's personal income.

From: Maroda, Karen, J. (1999) "Show Some Emotion: Completing the Cycle of Affective Communication". In Seduction, Surrender, and Transformation: Emotional Engagement in the Analytic Process. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press pp. 121 - 142.

3 There are probably few therapists who actually solely use left brain strategies. A therapist who is attuned to the client is using their right brain strategies to calm the clients' right brain. Cognitive behavioural therapy often includes the use of relaxation. Most relaxation exercises are calming to the right brain.

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