By Robin Levick, MFT
Cameron Yarbrough’s post on Modern Therapy last week got me thinking about what is cutting edge in our field, and how it impacts the work we are doing with clients at the Well. What immediately came to mind is the impact that the relatively new field of affective neuroscience, the study of the body’s neural mechanisms of emotion, is having on psychotherapeutic theory and technique. Following are some of the insights from affective neuroscience that have proven influential:
Contemporary Attachment Theory:
Interdisciplinary research into attachment has been happening since the theory was first developed in the 1950’s by British Psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Over the past 15 years, affective neuroscience research into attachment has demonstrated the extent to which trauma is passed down through generations, how a primary caregiver’s way of responding to their baby affects how the baby learns to experience her own body and emotions, and how our early relationships continue to affect our adult relationships. Early attachment relationships actually shape the brain and nervous systems of infants – their ways of coping with stress, anxiety, and fear, as well as their capacity to experience joy and playfulness. Affective neuroscientists call this unconscious process affect regulation.
We now know that our body’s system for managing our emotions is for the most part unconscious. We can exert some conscious control over our feelings, but it is very limited, and requires tremendous effort. The majority of the work we do to regulate our emotions is as a result of internalized, unconscious early relationships. It turns out that infants and their primary caregiver’s nervous systems are so neuro-biologically linked together that the baby learns to regulate his emotions not only from how his parent responds, but from what is happening in the parent’s own nervous system. We continue to be profoundly affected by the states of other peoples’ nervous systems around us, especially those we have a romantic or attachment bond with. These unconscious regulatory functions are right brain lateralized.
Right vs Left Brain:
We continue to understand just how significant it is to the human experience that our skull houses two brains with very different ways of processing information, perceiving the world, storing memory, and regulating our bodily functioning. While the right and left brains do work in synchrony as a functional unit, a growing body of research shows that the right brain is dominant for unconscious memory storage, emotional processing, the felt sense of the body, subconscious processing of social cues and non-verbal communication, and subconscious regulation of the body’s stress and fear responses. Therapy can offers tools and insights, but it is the experiential, rather than cognitive, aspect of the treatment that holds its transformational potential. Transformational therapeutic change persists over time and is thought to result from increased neural connectivity, or integration, in the right brain. The more clear and convincing this picture has become, the more therapists have learned to tune into and work with the right hemispheric experience in the therapy session.
The bottom line is that modern therapy focuses on creating an authentic, meaningful, safe relationship between the therapist and client that helps the client feel through and integrate emotional experience that had previously been defended against. Allan Schore calls this model Affect Regulation Therapy. It makes sense that if wounds to the psyche are primarily from not getting what we needed in our early relationships, these wounds are best healed through relationship. This research underscores the necessity of medium and longer term therapy for lasting change to the unconscious, habitual ways we relate to ourselves and others. Increasingly, the research shows that an empathic, attuned, supportive relationship with a therapist is in fact the agent of change. Therapists offer tools and insights that help the process along and help the patient’s left brain make sense of what is happening, but it is the unconscious, empathic right brain to right brain bond that facilitates the healing people long for.