Neuroscience and Psychotherapy

Neuroscience and Psychotherapy

Discoveries from brain research are changing how we do therapy

© Linda Graham, MFT

Technologies of MRI’s, PET scans, CAT scans, may seem irrelevant to the warm, empathic intuitive work therapists do with clients. But discoveries from the last decade of brain research can be profoundly relevant to the relational-emotional work we do. Neuroscientists can now map how our brains function when we greet our lovers or yell at our children or plan a project or meditate. Becoming brain-savvy clinicians helps us help clients shift more quickly from entrenched, dysfunctional; patterns to more flexible, adaptive patterns of behaving, thinking, feeling, relating. Key research findings:

Neural plasticity: The human brain grows new neurons, synaptic connections, neural circuits and networks throughout the lifespan. Thus re-programming old patterns and learning new patterns can occur throughout a lifetime. Clients don’t have to remain stuck with old demons and old tapes.

Memory: “Rules” of how life and people and self are supposed to work are stored in memory both explicitly (within awareness) and implicitly (outside of awareness). We operate from implicit (unconscious) patterns most of the time; nature’s way of processing experience quickly to keep us alive. Neuroscience helps us understand how to access and re-program implicit “procedural” patterns as well as explicitly conscious patterns.

Neural circuits are developed on a genetically programmed timetable and in relationship – brain to brain. As therapists, the neural networks of our brains are available to clients to change their self-regulating neural circuits, helping those circuits become more adaptive.

Emotions organize patterns: Emotions operate from birth, long before words, as signals for survival and connection with others. The emotional processing networks (limbic system) of our brains process experience from the bottom up: experiences of bodily states, perceptions, motivation, cognitions, social relating, meaning making and self hood. The more deeply therapy can engage the client’s emotions, the more neural circuits change, thus the client’s brain – mind – self are able to change.

Language re-organizes patterns: Children and parents co-construct many narrative a day before the child is three, helping the developing brain organize experience on multiple levels. Making story is how we make sense of our experiences. Cognitive processing networks (the cortex) process experience from the top down: observation, reflection, regulation. Therapists help clients create new understandings of themselves, using words, narratives, concepts, to cohere a new sense of self and identity.

Integration of neural circuits is key to mental health and well-being: Our brains work best when neural networks are firing together along well-connected neural pathways. Besides the integration of implicit and explicit memory, and the integration of bottom up – top down (emotional-rational) processing, the processing the left and right hemispheres of our brain must be integrated. The right hemisphere processes information visually-spatially, imagistically, holistically, and is better connected to physical-emotional neural circuits than is the left. The left hemisphere processes information symbolically, logically, linearly, and is more able, in a top down way, to regulate or “override” processing from the bottom up. Helping clients integrate processing from all these neural networks helps them develop true relational-emotional intelligence, response flexibility, and authentic integration of self.

Therapists do all this by…

Attuning to the client’s experience in the moment, creating trust and acceptance as any good (re-) parent would do. The more emotional safety, the more plasticity in the brain to change.

Activating every neural network – implicit, explicit, bottom up (emotions) and top down (cognitive), right hemisphere and left hemisphere. The more integration of different neuromodalities, the higher the functioning of the individual.

Catalyzing: moving beyond support and guidance to pro-actively evoke change, asking clients to imagine, re-frame, re-write history in fantasy, re-work their “truths”, re-invent themselves.

Re-sourcing: installing new experiences of self as resources for further change.

Repetition: Neurons firing over and over in new patterns strengthens neural connections. The changes of self become real and lasting. Always vulnerable to falling into the earlier default patterns from stress or trauma, clients are able to “right” themselves more quickly and live, for the most part, at a consistently higher level of functioning.

Engaging a client’s curiosity about how their own brain functions de-pathologizes the acting out of old patterns and increases confidence in their own capacities to change and heal.


Linda Graham, MFT, is in full-time private practice in San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA, specializing in relationship counseling for individuals and couples. She offers consultation and trainings nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. She publishes a monthly e- newsletter on Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness, archived on www.lindagraham-mft.com, and is writing a book: Growing Up and Waking Up: The Dance of the Whole Self. Contact Linda through this website