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the evolutionary necessity of psychotherapy

Written by Linde Rosenberg

In February I went to a workshop by Louis Cozolino entitled “The evolutionary necessity of psychotherapy”, part of the ‘Family Ties Conference’ at the Hyatt, Auckland. The title points to the fact that not only does new research suggest that the individual human brain is continually creating new neural pathways but that our brains’ genetic structures can also be changed. This means that new neural developments in the brain can also be passed on to the next generation. Cozolino called this ‘transaction genetics’ as opposed to template genetics (the genetic we are born with). He also pointed out how a huge area of the brain is dedicated to perceiving, predicting and analyzing the behaviors of others i.e. to trying to read others minds. In contrast, very little of the brain is dedicated to self awareness, which is a relatively new evolutionary development. Because psychotherapy helps develop these new pathways, it is on the leading edge of brain evolution!!!

I also learnt a few new and interesting things about trauma. Research reveals that: not only do we return to ‘primitive brain’ (amygdala) fight flight-functioning at times of fear, stress and trauma but the Broca’s area (in the left side of the brain, responsible for language), is suppressed. There is also a loss of right-left network integration. There are several reasons why this is might be helpful. For a start, being silenced may be a good survival strategy e.g. being quiet, still and hyper-vigilant would mean we are less likely to be seen and we can focus on the danger better. Also primitive unconscious processing is so much faster than cognitive conscious processing and this is what we need at times when instantaneous fight or flight may be the difference between life and death.

It is also an evolutionary strategy to remember fear, as this makes us avoid getting into dangerous situations again. However, fearful memories are particularly tenacious and because stress also inhibits new message processing, people living with ongoing or unresolved past experiences of stress (PTSD) may be continually inhibited from being able to see the world anew and be in the present moment. This makes evolutionary sense as it is faster to access old knowledge in times of stress than process new information. However is also a disadvantage in today’s world where stress levels are often high. The amagdala (primitive brain) also tends to make generalizations. Cozolino calls this “the primacy of projection”, in contrast to Merleau Ponty’s idea of ‘the primacy of perception’, which is more likely to predominate in times of low stress, when higher functioning cortex can predominate. The cortex tends towards discriminating and perceiving differences (and thinking) rather than generalizing.

Ongoing stress can also cause damage to the brain and inhibit the Broca's area (language) in a permanent way. This is especially true in sustained early stress because the fear brain (the amygdala) is very large at birth and frontal lobe is very undeveloped. Therefore babies can easily be very overwhelmed. It also seems that neglect is worse than abuse for the developing brain because a lack of modulation is worse than some emotional engagement, even if accompanied by other destructive aspects. Cozolino suggests that fear (of abandonment, humiliation, loss etc) always underlies rage and violence.

Working with trauma in therapy

Psychotherapists have always believed that memories must be brought back and re-lived in order to be healed and that talking helps - but brain research is now helping us understand why. Although we can not, and should not, change memories themselves, soothing memories (e.g. touch, sound of the therapist’s empathic voice and understanding etc) which provide affect regulation, may become mapped onto traumatic memories such that, next time the old memory is recalled, it is emotionally regulated by the associated new memory, thus making it less frightening.

Language is also needed to regulate the effects of trauma. (We actually need to speak; thinking does not have the same effect. Indeed, often we can only know what we think when we speak.). Language is important as it stimulates and integrates the left side of the brain (Broca's area - language and consciousness), which has been inhibited, with the emotional un-languaged trauma of the right side. Narratives are important as they create a past, present and future and bring meaning and perspective, which also contains and emotionally regulates traumatic memories. Interestingly the ‘sense of inner self’ appears to be located in the left linguistic side.

Because remembering traumatic memories can be re-traumatizing and because learning is inhibited while fear is still present, it is important to help alleviate a client’s fear and increase affect regulation (via empathy) before the thought process (meaning / narrative making ) can be properly engaged. Having said that, it seems we learn and remember best in the middle range of stimulation i.e. neither in extreme fear nor in very low arousal, i.e. some neurological arousal is important for the process of new learning (advertisers know this). Therefore, a useful sequence for therapeutic change is arousal (the stimulation of the old fear) and then relaxation (therapist empathy/ understanding), before restructuring the old memory.

Cozolino also touched on some new ideas about the nature of consciousness and the question of whether or not we have free will. Experiments suggest that, although we may believe we make conscious choices, our neural impulses have actually begun along time before we are conscious of making a decision. We then make up stories to explain our apparent decisions. Although this idea is very challenging to the idea that we have free will, it is confirming of the power of the unconscious. The research on consciousness is one of the most interesting frontiers in my view and thankfully it seems to be confirming what we as psychotherapists have intuitively deduced.

Louis Cozolino is Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and a psychotherapist in private practice. He argues that psychotherapy, regardless of the technique used—affects neural network integration and causes behavioral change. He believes that the unconscious is a part of the memory system and concurs with psychoanalytic notions that early life events significantly affect the trajectory of each human being, because social interaction stimulates neurotransmitters, neural growth hormone, and brain plasticity. He says: "every time you listen to a conversation or have an experience, if you remember any of it, and even perhaps if you don’t, your brain is changing in some way".

Linde Rosenberg is a psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland  » see Linde's website

Article posted on 2 April 2007