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.