A good therapist wouldn’t treat his or her clients like a science project. Though there is a scientific basis for how brain chemistry and feelings correspond, we don’t experience our world through chemicals. We experience it through pain and sadness, joy, and relief. These are the mediums that the psychotherapist works with, and these are where we make sense of our world.
But that doesn’t mean that better understanding of brain chemistry and neurology can’t inform even more effective therapy. Take, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who’ve lived through trauma know that their experiences are the cause of their flashbacks, moodiness and other symptoms. But severe forms of PTSD can be very hard to work through, even with the help of a great psychotherapist. Late last year, scientists performed experiments with rats to better understand how the brain processes memory in relation to stress. Physically documenting changes between experience and brain behavior can help therapists better understand how things like PTSD work and, therefore, develop specific therapeutic strategies in light of that new knowledge. Those strategies don’t manifest through scientific terminology—they may be as simple as changing the therapy setting—but they use the science as a jumping off point for real-world strategies.
It’s not just therapy for PTSD that benefits from a scientific understanding of the brain. Depression and anxiety have been key areas of research for quite some time now. And researchers at New York University have just received funding to move forward on a project examining how fears are passed from generation to generation. Children raised by parents who experience trauma are exposed repeatedly to their parents’ reactions to emotional triggers. Kids internalize those fearful reactions and carry them on into their own lives. Some may see therapists as caring only about the human element of these processes and scientists carrying only about the scientific element, but that’s simply not the case. Jacek Debiec of NYU explains the goal of his new research thusly: “This research will give us a better understanding of brain networks involved in a transfer of fear across generations and thus will lead to a development of early therapeutic remedies.” A scientific approach to psychology may be more empathetic than you think.
© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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