Here’s what you really need to know about the brain and neuroscience
The brain is a complex organ, often described as the most complicated object in the universe, despite being a tiny three-pound collection of tissue in our skulls. But we’re also told we need to know about the brain in order to flourish in our lives, and be effective clinicians. How do we begin to square this paradox? How do we bring clarity to this complexity?
Put crudely, there are generally three main ways we typically respond to neuroscience when we’re not neuroscientists. The first is to ignore it; to see it as a different “frame” for human experience on the level of atoms in physics, and rely instead on our training and intuition. At its worst, this approach borders on the dismissal of genetic influence on any behaviour, valuing experience alone.
The second way is to draw sweeping and seemingly helpful metaphors from an already simplified literature in an attempt to grasp simplicity and order. You’ll be familiar with the notions of humans using only a small percentage of our brain capacity, or reptilian and mammalian brains sitting neatly under our primate pre-frontal cortices.
Ultimately, most of these metaphors are misleading, not based in empirical research, and offer too much comfort and certainty. For example, you have probably heard cortisol described as the “stress hormone”, but cortisol gives us a burst of energy whenever we need one: when we’re anxious or, more routinely, when we’re tired or need to concentrate. Similarly, although the amygdala is often called the “fear centre” of the brain, like all significant areas of the brain, it is involved in a range of emotions and behaviours. Emotions like fear are, instead, constructed by multiple brain networks working in tandem as and when required.
The third way is to bury ourselves in the complexity of all the different brain regions and neurotransmitters and how they interact, at the significant risk of losing ourselves in the woods and not seeing the trees.
Instead, we can glean what we need to know from the neuroscientific research in a way that is genuinely useful in clinical work and in our wider lives, but without requiring years of study. Which is why we’ve put together a concise training module to help guide you in what you need to know about the brain to affect change with your clients.
And let’s be clear: if you’re a practicing clinician, you need to know some brain basics. Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel said that "all mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain".
This approach doesn’t reduce psychology to genetics, as many clinicians fear. Kandel explained that experience – especially early experience - and environment, as well as genes, exert influence on our brains. It’s a complex interplay. This supports, rather than contradicts, what we find in the empirical research on attachment theory and the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
This should give us hope rather than scare us. The way to change our behaviour and personalities is to influence synaptic connections in the brain. That’s what effective psychotherapy seeks to do at a fundamental level. This understanding should also give our clients hope. We know that the brain is malleable throughout our lives, into old age; we can change what we focus our attention upon. This is especially true for the brain networks associated with what our clients mostly want our help with: emotional regulation. Hope is not just an optional extra, either: we know that clients’ belief that therapy will be helpful and transformative is one of the key factors in successful therapy outcomes.
Although we want to discard simplistic metaphors about the brain that aren’t grounded in the science, specific facts about the brain can be enormously helpful to know, especially links between specific stress hormones, amino acids, neurotransmitters and psychological distress.
It can be useful to know that anxiety is linked to chronic cortisol release that reduces the normal stress reduction response. Why? Because it provides evidence that anxiety is not just about cognitions, but also requires a focus on the body and nervous system before any problematic thoughts can be challenged and changed.
It can be useful to know that there are strong links between inflammation in the brain, levels of the amino acid tryptophan, and clinical depression. Why? So that you can ensure that your clients have sought medical advice in managing any allergies that might reduce or eliminate their depression.
It can be useful to know that the words and the music of language are neurologically separate functions and that we experience prosody as more authentic than whatever words being spoken. Why? Because it encourages us to pay more attention to the tone and volume of the words we say to our clients, and vice versa.
In many areas of our life, we left behind the body/mind dualism decades ago, and we need to do the same now in psychology.
So, we need to cast aside simple broad myths about the brain but at the same time recognise that there are specific principles within neuroscience that can help us guide our diagnosis and treatment plans. And that there are ideas from brain science that can guide our behaviour and help us flourish.
Take breaking everyday bad habits and learning new, better ones. We now know that the brain forms habits by repeating behaviours in the same way in the same context, and getting a reward. Changing habits is less about willpower or laziness, and more about re-structuring our environments to be conducive to good habits with positive rewards. Don’t run if you hate jogging; choose an exercise routine you genuinely enjoy. Go to a gym near your house or work if you want to get fit; research shows that you’ll go to the gym up to five times more often if it’s just a few miles less far away. While we at it, let’s drop another brain myth: it doesn’t take 21 days to make a new habit. It completely depends on the complexity of the habit.
So, in summary, what does neuroscience show us that you really need to know?
- The brain is malleable, meaning throughout our lives, we can change our behaviour – and, ultimately, our mood – through conscious, directed attention and practice.
- This fits with the aims of psychotherapy – ultimately, we’re aiming to influence synaptic connections in the brain, leading to behavioural and mood changes in our clients.
- The brain is complex, so simple metaphors that promise transformation – be it a “growth mindset” or “power posing” or “breaking a bad habit in 21 days” – are not likely to be useful in delivering change in our clients’ lives.
- The links between specific neurotransmitters, hormones, amino acids and specific psychological struggles can be useful in diagnosis and treatment plans in a range of cases.
- The brain conducts many of our actions below consciousness, supporting some of the core elements of therapy and the benefits of “making the unconscious conscious”.
- We know enough about habit formation to help our clients break bad habits and form new ones.
Join us for our training module on neuroscience to find out more about how the brain works, and what you need to know about what the science shows will be helpful for you and your clients.