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.