Why Neuroscience Matters to Psychotherapy

Ever hear the common colloquialism - that the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing? Quadruple that happening in the world-wide scientific community. Yup, went on for decades.

Hey! Come to think of it - it's still going on, dagnabit!!!

Why neuroscience and therapy are a happy couple

For many years medical scientists in separate fields were happily working in their own specialties, developing their own terminology and approaches to the study of the nervous system.

In the last two decades there's been an unprecedented movement to brake down barriers and learn from each other.

...Which is kinda cool when you think of it!

Why neuroscience is important to psychotherapy

The reason why neuroscience is important to psychotherapy--and particularly body psychotherapy--is that it's helping us to understand the connection between human experience and biology (i.e. the mind body connection).

We're looking to answers to questions such as:

  • What changes in the brain when we have a thought or an emotion?
  • How does learning affect the brain?
  • What types of learning change the brain?
  • What happens in the brain during psychotherapy?
  • And, the ultimate question...how does consciousness arise?

Yes, there is indeed cause for celebration. Neuroscience is giving us hope. It's re-shaping our understanding of what happens when the brain changes and solving some age-old mysteries. 

New developments in neuroimaging (e.g. PET, fMRI, SPECT) are making it possible for us to witness physical changes. In other words, we're seeing evidence that psychotherapy makes possible structural changes in the brain possible.

In our clinical practices (especially somatic therapies) we've seen not only better emotional health, but better physical health. We now have some scientific principles that help us understand how this occurs.

Neuroscience is now the exciting culmination of those research efforts in these and other disciplines:


Developmental Neurobiology







Is biology the cause of mental health problems?

Some people might confuse the insights of neuroscience for a substantiation of the bio-chemical causation for mental health problems.

What I feel is critically important to understand is that the presence of biochemical changes in the brain does not substantiate a biological causation anymore than does being thirsty with a high temperature. That is, just because my body is dehydrated does not mean a lack of water caused my high temperature!

Similarly, we can't say that a lack of serotonin (the bio-chemical hypothesis put forth by the pharmaceutical companies) causes depression. Indeed, we know that there are many people with low serotonin levels who are in fact not depressed!

The unfortunate situation is that this bio-chemical hypothesis--though lacking in hard evidence--seems to get translated to clients in a way that rules out psychotherapy.

"Oh, it's a chemical imbalance" 

How many times have you heard that?

It's tantamount to saying: pharmaceuticals are the solution since psychotherapy can't change that.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Funny enough, I have also run across resistance to a neuroscience approach from psychotherapists who, I suspect, fear exactly what I've described above. That is, they fear that a neurobiological understanding of psychotherapy distorts the need for medications at the exclusion of psychotherapy.

Ironically, I believe the opposite is the case.

Neuroscience supports the need to re-consider our pharmacological approach to mental health. It is my belief that neuroscience offers psychotherapy a great deal. It provides the scientific basis for how psychotherapy changes the brain.

And, I imagine it may simply reflect the need for changes in how we describe our work to clients...

As advances in neuroscience reach a critical mass of understanding it will undoubtedly re-shape our conceptions of psychotherapy. I can imagine that we may need to re-visit and revise some longstanding concepts. For instance, how will we explain an "ego" if there is no such function in the brain?

Neuroscience is an exciting, emerging field of study for the 21st century. In future, I hope to bring you more insights on how it helps us to understand the therapy process, and ultimately the nature of being human.

Brain plasticity and the change process in psychotherapy

Brain Plasticity, "Neuroscience's Holy Grail" (Colburne,1999) is the ability of the brain to update itself over the lifespan. And it does so via experience.

And there's one thing that somatic therapy and any therapy that emphasizes the relationship can give you that a book rarely can, and that's an experience.

Probably the hottest topic to come out of the 'Decade of the Brain' (i.e. the 1990's) was the realization that the ability of the brain to reorganize itself--brain plasticity--was greater than originally thought.

For instance, it once was believed that our characters or personalities were hard-wired during childhood, and that after those times passed, significant change was no longer possible.

But it turns out that our brain is not so limited. Neuroscience research shows that although the brain is most malleable (i.e. teachable) during the early years, it retains an ability to augment and rearrange its circuitry throughout the lifespan.

An important implication of this research is that psychotherapy can take advantage of the brain's plasticity. Much of the content on this site is alerting you to this possibility.

Parents Alert

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that there are critical periods during an infant's character development (i.e. via our emotion based right brain) where there's no turning back.

As with our vision, there is a window of opportunity through which our needs for attachment must be met if we are to develop to our full potential. (Children who are born blinded by cataracts never develop their full ability to see if the vision is restored after puberty.)

The well-respected researcher and educator, Dr. Allan Schore, explains that our experiences in the first couple years of life sets the foundation for our relationships with our mother (or father, if he is the primary caregiver). Most important for our therapy, this emotional template determines the scope and flexibility of our emotional responses in all our future relationships.

The growth of our emotional brain starts before our motor and thinking skills. Furthermore, it appears that poor emotional development sets the stage for later cognitive and motor deficits (Spitz, 1945; Spitz & Wolfe, 1946)!

Please don't miss the boat. Don't over emphasize the later years (e.g. the "right" preschool) at the cost of what really counts. What's fundamentally important is the connection with your child in the first few years of life.

In other words, we don't get a second chance to make a first impression!

Related Topic

The Medical Model and Psychotherapy

External Resources

Mind Hacks

This is a popular blog about neuroscience that explores what's going on inside your brain.

Neuroscience for Kids

I included this site because I don't know about you but when I dig into something complex, I like to have the simple version first. So if you're new to neurscience this is a good site to begin your learning...interactive elements and loads of information.

Readers Comments
" I'm so excited! "

Dear Suzanne, Well, the more I apply things I learn from you regards neuroscience, the more I am able to help myself and the psychotherapy with which I was having so much difficulty.

Its a long long road, and I have far to go I know, but I also know at last, thank the stars above (and your BCP etc) I am on my way. I know I have told you this but I am so excited.


PS. Please tell Dr Carole I love her expression "when the rubber hits the road". Oh so apt!


It's wonderful to hear your excitement Sky. It's exactly how I feel. There's so much potential out there for all of us. I'm always inspired by other people's journey...probably why I became a therapist.

And I'll be sure to pass on your sentiments to Dr. Carole!


WordPress Video Lightbox