#Psychotherapy changes the brain by re-transcription of past memories into explicit memories; understanding #neuroplasticity & #neurogenesis
The process of psychotherapy and re-transcribing past traumatic events invoke our procedural memory, making them explicit and conscious. This process allows for re-transcription of these implicit memories: synthesis realization and integration. A supple brain, elasticity in the brain and the possibilities and limitations of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, in the context of psychotherapy are examined.
How can clinicians implement neuroscience findings in a way that benefits clients? This brief overview highlights some aspects of neuroplasticity, illuminating the significance of working clinically with the plasticity potential of a brain.
Key neuroscientific discoveries
Our brains are capable of neurogenesis, growing new neurons, and neuroplasticity, creating new neural connections and pathways.
Learning is vital for the process of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. The hippocampus is a region of more neurogenesis than other regions, a significant departure from previous thought. Early traumatic experiences interfere with the normal growth and development of the hippocampus in the limbic region, an area important for memories and emotional regulation.
Psychotherapy is a mechanism used to examine past traumatic events and a process of learning about oneself. Neuroplasticity occurs when the nervous system responds to experiences, thus experience-dependent. Experiences create a stimulus that ignites neural firing patterns in the brain to imprint or re-transcribe an experience, or to reorganize the infrastructure of previous experiences via new neural pathways. This process can occur during psychotherapy.
Antidepressants have been discovered to increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus (Malberg, J., Eisch, A., Nestler, E., & Duman, R., 2000). This creates the possibility of healing a previously damaged area which affects behaviors. A combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants can profoundly improve a persons mental state.
Novel experiences and life-long learning facilitate both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Learning is more important than relying on already established skills and established neural pathways. Our brains grow new neurons and pathways from birth until death.
Neuroplasticity converges with psychology
Research about neuroplasticity brings scientific evidence to the foreground from a clinical use perspective. This collective research expands the field of neuroscience, of neural patterns and the process of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Understanding the principles of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity can positively impact clinical work with clients, on a neuron level. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
In his book titled The Brain That Changes Itself Doidge (2007) introduces readers to multi-disciplinary scientists, physicians, psychiatrists and neuroscientist, whose collective research demonstrate the plasticity of the brain and introduces the idea that the brain changes based on new information. Norman Doidge, M.D. (2007) conducted research and interviews with many “neuroplasticians” which firmly coined the phrase neuroplasticity.
These advancements in neuroscience inextricably link psychological science with neuroscience. Doidge (2007) cites the research of Eric Kandel, a physician, psychiatrist and 2000 Nobel Prize winner who stated: “there is no longer any doubt that psychotherapy can result in detectable changes in the brain”. Kandel continues to research the hippocampus and the plasticity of implicit and explicit memory. Other citations include that of neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neuroscientist Oliver Turnbull who state that “the aim of the talking cure…from the neurobiological point of view is to extend the functional sphere of influence of the prefrontal lobes”. These discoveries provide evidence of the significance of the intersubjective experience between a clinical practitioner and a client.
Giving scientific weight to the function of neuroplasticity in the context of personal exploration in therapy, e.g. a talking cure, psychotherapy, Doidge (2007) discusses the neurological process of analysis. The benefit of a client talking about past traumatic experiences facilitates the unconscious procedural memory to integrate past trauma with a better understanding. This can produce a calming effect from a neurological perspective. "In the process, they plastically re-transcribe these procedural memories, so that they can become conscious explicit memories...” This allows a person to remember without reliving the emotions of painful past experiences.
In their research Garland, E. & Howard, M. (2009) provide further support for the neuroplasticity growth in response to learning and therapy. “Investigations of neuroplasticity demonstrate that the adult brain can continue to form novel neural connections and grow new neurons in response to learning or training even into old age”. Novel experiences create these new neural connections throughout the lifespan.
Not all of the discoveries lead to enhanced psychological states. While neuroplasticity shows how thoughts and actions can change the brain to create new structures and functions, thus new ways of understanding, we are also introduced to the rigidity of well-established neural networks, also a product of neuroplasticity (Doidge, 2007). Doidge refers to this as the “plastic paradox” whereby the same neuroplasticity that allows our brains to change can also keep us constrained and “stuck” by well-established neural patterns.
Debunking previously held thoughts about Localization
Mainstream psychological science and medicine held the collective belief that the brain was hard-wired and that cells continued to die off. Localizationist’s we more popular and believed that the neuroanatomical structure of the brain was a machine-like device with specific areas for specific functions. Neuroscience has demonstrated that multiple areas of the brain are involved in similar functions and can also rewire to compensate for a damaged area. The research shows that many areas of the brain can be used for multiple functions. Localization of the brain has been re-defined.
Among the neuroscientists Doidge (2007) interviewed was Paul Bach-y-Rita. In 1969 Paul Bach-y-Rita published an article in a European science journal citing his research using a machine that sent signals to the damaged area of a brain that ultimately cured retinal damage in some cases. Bach-y-Rita’s research demonstrated that our brains were capable of neuroplasticity and using other area’s to restructure and create new neural growth. The research publication and its avant-garde nature caused isolation from some of his peers.
Bach-y-Rita had a multi-disciplinary background and approach and tended to follow ideas as they evolved. As a neuroscientist, he had expertise in medicine, psychopharmacology, ocular neurophysiology, visual neurophysiology, and bio-medical engineering. Doidge (2007) asserts that Paul Bach-y-Rita stated “we see with our brains” and that if one area is damaged, another area can take over. He referred to this process as “sensory substitution”.
Psychotherapy changes the brain
It was Eric Kandel who “was the first to show that as we learn, our individual neurons alter their structure and strengthen the synaptic connections between them…” Doidge explained that Kandel’s work demonstrated that learning produces new neurons in the brain that influence our genes and that psychotherapy changes people’s brain structure, “it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells”.
Further support of these brain changes, researchers Liggan & Kay (1999) discuss the neural mechanisms of memory in the context of psychotherapy and reveal that the brain does change, “…neural mechanisms of memory is based on discoveries that training or differential experience leads to significant changes in brain neurochemistry, anatomy, and electrophysiology. Consequently, it is generally accepted that psychotherapy is a powerful intervention that directly affects and changes the brain”.
Liggan & Kay (1999) also demonstrate how psychotherapy affects cerebral metabolic rates, serotonin metabolism, the thyroid axis, and stimulates processes akin to brain plasticity.
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