What is psychotherapy in neuroscientific perspective?
Throughout the 20 years of my practice as a clinical psychologist, many people asked me similar questions, “Is psychotherapy just a chit chat?” “How does chit chat in psychotherapy different from my chit chat with family and friends?”. In fact, asking such a question is similar to asking “How does a professional photographer’s way of taking photographs different from my way of taking photographs with iPhone?”. Both ignored the scientific, theoretical and technical basis of the professionalism of a clinical psychologist and a professional photographer.
From a neuroscientific perspective, a clinical psychologist conducts psychotherapy in a way for symptoms reduction and experiential change by altering the neural networks in the brain. Human behaviors and emotional experience are mediated by two processes in the brain. One is a neural process that is the expression of our genetic makeup and evolutionary process. The other is the continuous shaping and developing of our brain circuits due to our interactions with others in relationships. In fact, our brain is continuously developing throught our positive or negative interactions with others.
If a person was having a deprived childhood or being abused in the developmental years, his or her neural networks in the brain would be underdeveloped, underregulated or disintegrated. This caused many different types of symptoms in all sorts of mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive disorders, to name a few. If, on the other hand, a person was being brought up in a loving and caring environment with lots of experiential stimulations, his or her neural networks are enriched, regulated and integrated. He or she would be more emotionally stable and capable in coping with stressors and adapting to challenges.
In fact, psychotherapy is a specific type of nurturing relationship that provided an enriched environment for the brain to change and develop. Research in recent years showed that our brain is plastic, that is, a ongoing process of development in our neural circuits is possible through our continuous experiential learning. Through the experience of a nurturing relationship betwee the clinical psychologist and the client, new neural circuits are developed in the client’s brain. For example, for a client with affect dysregulation, a therapist could play the role of a “parent” and model affect regulation to him or her. When the client’s negative affects are repeatedly brought up in the therapy sessions and being successfully regulated by the clinical psychologist, the client become equiped with necessary affect regulation skills. This process of interactions between the clinical psychologist and the client enriched the neural development of the brain of the client.
For some clients with traumatic experiences and suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, there is a disintegration of neural networks in their brain. It is manifested by a disconnection among behavior, emotion, sensation and cognition. Through psychotherapy, a clinical psychologist helps this type of clients to integrate these different neural networks in the brain. It is an integration and communication between behavior, emotion, sensation and cognition.
Psychotherapy conducted by a clinical psychologist can be understood from the perspective of neuroscience. Indeed, it is an enhancement of growth, integration and neural plasticity in the clients’ brain.