Psychotherapy and Science Go Hand in Hand

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 Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sebastian V

    Sebastian V

    January 26th, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Well maybe it’s all chemical stuff happening in my head but to me there is much beyond that. It is emotions and feelings and experiences and other things. So it is good that psychotherapy takes these things head on with science in the background rather than making science the center of treatment.

  • Jon S

    Jon S

    January 27th, 2011 at 5:37 AM

    Is there are a reputable therapist who would not think that therapy and science go hand in hand? They have to be able to peacefully coexist.

  • clara

    clara

    January 27th, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    psychotherapy does involve the practical application of sciences but then the patient needs to be treated with empathy and its also important to be aware of his/her feelings and fine tune the treatment accordingly.

  • o laker

    o laker

    January 27th, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    looks like the job of a counselor or a psychiatrist is a tough one indeed…understanding the science behind the problem a patient is facing and then putting it in perspective of what is actually happening in the patient’s life and then finding a solution to it all is just oh-so-tough! kudos to all you professionals out there :)

  • CoolCathy

    CoolCathy

    January 28th, 2011 at 3:46 AM

    No doubt that psychology is an advanced science and is a very important one because it deals with people directly.

    Its nice to know that more and more newer methods and techniques used in the field are scientific in nature.

  • trav good

    trav good

    January 28th, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    I have always been fascinated with the inner workings of the brain and how we may be hard wired to become the person that we are. And now if those in the therapy field would get that in tune with their patients then imagine the progress that many people could make as a result of their counseling sessions! That’s pretty amazing.

  • Philip

    Philip

    January 28th, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    @CoolCathy It’s not that nice a thing really if established fact wasn’t used from the very beginning. It’s better to know that a working method is proven (e.g. scientific experiments that can be repeated provide proof of a theory), rather than being credited as successful because the thinking is fashionable for the era. How many therapists now do you hear talking about Freud? His theories based upon his work have been largely discredited now.

  • Cameron

    Cameron

    January 30th, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    Of course they go hand in hand. Medicine is science, psychology is science of the brain, and knowing how to find what’s wrong with them is science. If you know how something works, it’s a lot easier to fix.

  • Alexander

    Alexander

    February 1st, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    @Jon S: If I wound up with a therapist who worked purely on superstition and opposed science, I’d take a bathroom break and be straight out the door before he started sticking needles in my chi points.

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