While I was taking my undergraduate and graduate classes many moons ago, my least favorite courses were the ‘biopsychology’ or ‘cognitive processes’ classes where my professors would lecture at great length about the structure and the function of the brain. As a student embarking on a new career in mental health, I knew I needed to know this important information, but I just could not get into it. So I skipped along in my career, content just to understand the basics of the brain but not really applying it in any useful manner.
A few years back, as I was researching ways to keep my counseling techniques fresh, I came across several articles that covered the most recent discoveries in neuroscience. That research is what ignited my current love affair with the most complex organ in the universe, the human brain, and helped me to understand how people really change their behaviors.
Let’s take a moment and ponder this question: What really causes an individual to change his or her behavior? You may answer this question many ways depending on your theoretical perspective and on your specific observations and experiences with dissecting human behavior. However you answer this question, though, one known fact is that change must first occur at the neurological level before we will see it at the behavioral level.
The understanding of the biology of the human brain can assist clinicians with understanding the questions of how and why people change. A clinician is successful at her craft when she can produce a physical change in her client’s brain. Obviously, she cannot get inside and rewire a brain, but she can set up conditions that favor this rewiring and create an environment that nurtures it (Zull, 2002). This article will explore how individuals change their behavior neurologically as well as examine some therapeutic techniques to stimulate this fascinating process.
The brain is made up of tiny nerve cells called neurons. These neurons have tiny branches that reach toward and connect with other neurons to form a neural network or a neural net. The brain is constructed of a vast amount of these neural nets that form every thought or experience people have in their lives. The human brain literally has millions of these neural nets because they begin to form in utero. So the experiences mental health professionals have in regards to their therapy techniques are based on the specific neural networks they have developed in this area. Neuroscientists have found that these networks are interconnected as an intricate web of memories, thoughts and experiences.
Hearing a special song can kickstart a flurry of recollections; a particular scent can toss an individual toward a memory of a particular person or place. This phenomenon can describe how the brain is circuited for memory. When the word ‘teacher’ is mentioned, each person has a specific neural net that was created based on their experience with the various teachers in their lives. Another way to look at this is as a type of associative memory. Thoughts, ideas and feelings are constructed and interconnected in a neural net that may also have a potential relationship with another network of neurons. So one individual may be picturing in their mind their lovely fifth grade teacher and another may be thinking about their difficult college math instructor.
Feelings and emotions also are entangled within neural networks. For example, the word ‘love’ is stored in a vast neural net that is based on an individual’s experience with that term. Subsequently, the concept of love is also created from many other ideas. For some people, love may be connected to the memory of disappointment, pain, and anger. Anger may be linked to hurt, which may be linked to a specific person, which then is connected back to love (Arntz et al., 2005). Therefore, when a person thinks of ‘love,’ she may remember that person who broke her heart and may still be angry about it. In essence, the enormous number of neural nets each person has colors all of their perceptions and interactions with other people.
Insights in the field of neuroscience reveal that many emotional and behavioral disorders previously believed to be the product of environment or experiences can be rooted in neurobiology. This is what synchronizes us to the idea of neurocounseling.
NeuroCounseling is the term I use to describe the set of therapeutic interventions that assist people in changing their maladaptive neural connections. When one thinks of his or her life experiences, what is being contemplated is really the experience of his or her neurons. The experience cannot be predicted because it comes from the complex and random events of one’s life and it cannot be programmed (Zull, 2002). Counselors strive for their clients to understand their maladaptive behaviors, and this is accomplished through the changing of the individual’s neural connections. Unless there is some change in these connections, no progress or understanding will occur.
One important note is that counselors cannot remove specific neural nets that have already been established in a person’s brain. They actually leave a physical imprint on the brain (Zull, 2002). The counselor must understand that the neural nets in clients’ brain are related to their own life experiences. The counselor must let the client use the neural nets they have already built and then use those as the foundation for motivating new neural nets to blossom. This is the only way a person learns new information and changes his or her behavior.
People have to be able to relate to something before they can understand it, which is why the set neural nets are so important. If there is no established net, the individual has no reference point to understand or change. Counselors may wish for their clients to have more positive connections in the specific neural networks that cradle their self-esteem or fewer connections when it comes to their addiction to gambling. But unless there is some change in these connections, no progress or behavioral change will occur.
Changing Neural Networks
The first step to facilitating change in neural nets is to identify them. One way to figure this out is to have the client simply talk about their previous life experiences. The therapist’s job would be to listen and pay attention to what clients say about themselves. Even in the first therapy session, as we build rapport and gather information about the client’s history, we can begin to identify their neural networks. By asking numerous questions, we generally get a feel for the individual’s overall issues, such as difficulty trusting others, low self-esteem, or poor anger control. As the counselor identifies their client’s established neural networks, he or she also can begin to work within the realm of the client’s experiences.
Identifying neural networks and inspiring a physical change in the brain definitely involves seeing counseling in a different light. Conceptualizing the field in a different manner also can encourage new techniques of counseling. As counselors remember how personal and individual a person’s nets can be, this allows them to experiment in different sensory avenues such as art therapy, music, or other forms of creative techniques such as therapeutic stories and psychodrama. All these avenues can help facilitate the process of engagement as well as provide interesting ways to stimulate the senses.
This type of sensory input will engage the networks to be active and open to learning new information. Neurons that are repeatedly used grow stronger, and the more they fire, the more they send out new branches looking for fresh and useful connections. Networks also are flexible — new experiences can be added to old ones and old ones can be blended with the new. As new and different networks fire, the brain will form new connections and will physically begin to change.
One of the best tricks that good clinicians have is to help the client feel he is in control. One way of doing this is to allow him to draw from his own experiences. Oftentimes clients come to therapy with some positive networks already established. Once those networks are understood, the clinician can build on them.
Engaging the client’s senses through creative therapeutic techniques can be helpful in stimulating interest in therapy and in generating new neural networks. Furthermore, several cognitive-behavioral techniques such as ‘thought stopping’ and ‘thought replacement’ also can be useful in creating the framework for new nets. When fresh neural nets bloom because of an insight gained into a situation or behavior, then the clinician can be assured that the client is on the path toward healing.
Teaming the fields of counseling and neuroscience demonstrates how these two disciplines can enhance each other. The human brain is a learning organ. By exploring the biology of the brain, mental health professionals and neuroscientists can discover new and innovative approaches for the advancement of both fields. Mental health professionals who understand the biology of how the brain works will find it to be a valuable asset to understanding how change occurs in human behavior.
As neuroscience continues to unlock the mysteries of the human brain, it is imperative that mental health professionals pay attention to these revelations so that a more thorough understanding of the secrets to human behavior can be discovered.
Arntz, W., et al. (2005). What The Bleep Do We Know? Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communication, Inc.
Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling Virginia: Stylus Publishing.
Leanza, N. (2012). NeuroCounseling: Simple Therapeutic Interventions for Rewiring the Maladaptive Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2012/neurocounseling-simple-therapeutic-interventions-for-rewiring-the-maladaptive-brain/
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.