Somatic Psychology: Brain Development Informs Therapeutic Approach

A doctor holds up a brain-scan.It is an exciting time in the world of somatic psychology! Over the past 15 years, or so, our field has grown to find itself positioned on the cutting edge of many leading developments in psychology and mental health. Many mindfulness-based practices, trauma-treatment therapy, attachment theory, and other growing parts of the mental health field have come to a basic conclusion: a focus on the body in psychotherapy is necessary for healing.

Researchers, including Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, Allan Davidson, John Briere, and others, indicate that a focus on the body is paramount to recovery for a wide range of issues.

A primary reason for this development has been an explosion in the field of neuropsychology. With the advancement of scanning and imagery technology, researchers are now seeing and understanding, on a neurological level, how the brain is impacted by various mental health conditions. With this understanding has come a clearer and more precise ability to understand how certain conditions develop and how they might be treated.

Experience dependency, a core principal of brain development, is a primary example of how the study of neuroscience is further enhancing the value and importance of somatic work. When we were infants, our brains were growing rapidly. And while we were born with various neurological organs fully intact, much of our brain—including the verbally-oriented left hemisphere and the cognitive, higher order processing of the neo-cortex—were highly under-developed.

Our brains develop in an experience-dependent manner. This means that the parts of our brain that are utilized again and again become dominant and will help determine our personality later in life. Those parts of the brain that are under-utilized will develop less and, in some cases, will literally be pruned away. If we are loved, soothed, and made to feel secure, those parts of the brain will become well developed and strong. If we are abused, neglected, or our caregiver was inconsistent with his/her love, the parts of the brain associated with survival—the fight or flight responses—will become highly developed.

While this mechanism helps us survive, it also becomes the underpinning for our future development and functionality. Who we are in this world, how we relate to others, and how we understand ourselves is a result of this experience-dependent brain growth during the first two to three years of life.

It is important to realize that much of this early brain development occurs prior to the acquisition of language. Words come later and are built on top of this nonverbal, right-brain-oriented structure. Additionally, this all occurs without the development of what is called explicit memory, the kind of memory we use every day to remember something. This is why most people have few memories prior to the age of three.

What does this mean for work in the psychotherapy office? It means that if we, as therapists, are working on material that derives from this period of explosive growth (basically any issue that can be traced back to our first few years, including attachment issues, issues of relationship, of emotional instability, feelings of not trusting others or not belonging in this world) then we must include a nonverbal, right-brain-oriented approach to our work. We must work with and through the body!

Allan Schore says it best: “We need to go beyond objectively observing the disorganization of left-brain language capacities by dysregulating right-brain states and feeding this back to the patient in insight-oriented interpretations. Rather, we can directly engage and therefore regulate the patient’s inefficient right-brain processes with our own right brains.”

In short, because many of our psychological complaints derive from this early, nonverbal development, relying on talk therapy alone will fall short of real change and transformation. A somatic orientation is imperative and necessary to fully help our clients grow and heal.

References:

Schore, Allen N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. New York: Norton

© Copyright 2010 by Chris Tickner. 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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  • Shaun King

    Shaun King

    January 6th, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    It is no doubt that what we do regularly and more repeatedly becomes who we are and quite often what we are too. We can use this to our advantage and be involved in activites that will actually make us better people. Its like having a bag of goodies that we can use to our benefit…

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    January 7th, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    Always glad to see more research being done in areas that are going to be so worthwhile to all of us in the very near future. Kind of gets frustrating sometimes when I see and think that research dollars are going to waste, but this is one where I think they have hit the needs right on the mark.

  • Chris Tickner, PhD(c), MFT

    Chris Tickner, PhD(c), MFT

    January 7th, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    Shaun, you are so right. The brain is plastic, it can grow and change. This is why mindfulness is so powerful, becuase it actually grows cells in the brain (neurogenesis) in areas that are connected to empathy, compassion, etc. Keep in mind that while the certain parts of the brain as plastic throughout life, many areas are only so during those first few years. This is why the environment into which a child is born, the quality of nurturing, is so incredibly important. It will determine our character structure, our personality, our way of being for the rest of our lives!

  • Chris Tickner, PhD(c), MFT

    Chris Tickner, PhD(c), MFT

    January 7th, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    Georgia, yes!!! Very important and useful research!! I’ve also found that the more we come to understand about the neuroscience of various mental illnesses, the greater amount of compassion and tolerance people seem to have for individuals with those issues. Maybe it puts mental illness more on par with other diseases like cancer? The phrase “it’s all in your head” begins to fall apart doesn’t it?

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