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.
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.
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