I feel fortunate to be a psychotherapist in this day and age. Aside from the change we and our clients can report anecdotally, there is increasing evidence to support the potential for true change within the brain via the therapeutic relationship. I’m no expert in neuroscience and relationships – but am excited about the notion that people’s brains can be rewired within their intimate relationships and within the therapist-client relationship.
In the “Clinician’s Digest” section of the November/December 2009 issue of Psychotherapy Networker, Garry Cooper discusses a study led by psychiatrist Jakob Koch of Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany suggesting that “effective psychotherapy with depressed clients is associated with changes at the brain’s cellular level,” increasing the production of a key brain protein that assists in creating neural pathways. In this study they used Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) which looks through the lens of both cognitive and interpersonal issues. It would be interesting to know how other theoretical orientations would fare.
There is a lot known about the power of oxytocin (the hormone of love) to bond people together but oxytocin can also be an ally to encourage therapeutic change. According to Linda Graham, MFT and trainer on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience, it is “the neurochemical basis of the sense of safety and trust that allows clients to become open to therapeutic change.” It was a class I recently took with Linda, “The Neuroscience of Attachment,” that left me feeling so inspired about the implications of this in my practice. As a therapist, it’s nice to have something solid and research-based to hang my hat on.
Daniel Siegel, MD, one of the pioneers in this field has been saying for years that there is potential for the growth of new brain cells via relationships. I remember seeing him speak at a conference about five years ago but got derailed somehow and didn’t follow up on any further research on the matter. I’m glad to have made my way back to these concepts so I can further learn how to provide the most fertile soil possible for therapeutic change within the four walls of my own psychotherapy office.
The power of the “relationship” is not to be underestimated. Important relationships can do monumental damage – or they can facilitate profound healing. Many psychotherapists have known that the therapeutic relationship is one that can provide a “safe container” for emotional and psychological healing. Many of us believe that by providing a stable, nurturing model of something “different,” there is the potential for a corrective experience that the client can integrate into his life.
Now we know there is the potential for changes within the brain as well — which is only more encouragement for the lasting, deep shifts that we hope for our clients — and they hope for themselves. Perhaps the commonly held belief that “people can’t change” will finally, truly be a thing of the past.