Neuroplasticity and Psychotherapy
I chose to write about “Neuroplasticity and Psychotherapy” because as an experienced Toronto psychotherapist and a witness of transformation in my professional practice the current research on neuroplasticity supports my experience of the brain’s ability to change.
My hope is to disseminate noteworthy information on the effectiveness of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, interpersonal psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy as evidenced by neuroplastic changes observed in neuroimaging techniques.
Let us first begin by understanding the term “neuroplasticity.” It means the brains capacity to continue to develop neural pathways throughout the lifespan. This permits genetics and the environment to continually interact in brain development. Human experience continues to change the structure of the brain regardless of age.
Think of the brain as a ball of plasticine or modeling clay. Past experience would be like fingerprints imprinted on the clay leaving their impressions. Some impressions would be advantageous and others would be problematic. Added to each experience there would be an accompanying interpretation or narrative of the experience. You must realize that the brain is an adaptive organ that can create new nerve cells under specialized conditions, such as psychotherapy, or in response to one’s environment. Your environment can promote mental health or mental ill-health.
It is important to understand that repetition increases the strength and the longevity of the neural networks. Neglected neural patterns will diminish and fade away1. I suppose as they say “Use it or lose it.” Once a pathway has been forged, the likelihood is that future interactions will follow the same pattern. These patterns are activated by unconscious expectation meaning that your reactions will be automatic and typically out of your conscious awareness. Donald Hebb, a Canadian Neuropsychologist coined the term “Neurons that fire together wire together”. What this suggests is that every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons, which form a neural network. When you repeat an experience over and over, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time creating a conditioned response.
Psychotherapy can have the most profound influence on a person’s belief system, emotional state decision-making, and behaviour, and it is perhaps therefore not surprising that it may also lead to significant structural and functional changes in brain2. Finding the right therapist is critical. An experienced psychotherapist like myself can help you gain insights into how your brain functions through the exploration of your adaptive and maladaptive behaviours, personality traits, belief systems, unconscious and conscious material, and understanding developmental influences (previous experiences) on your personhood and biology.
In my work with individuals I like to present neuroscientific and neurobiological concepts in an understandable and digestible format. I find that the synthesis of knowledge, emotions, and bodily sensations allows for integration and processing to occur in a safe and trusting environment which I provide.
The brain has both a right and left hemisphere. The right hemisphere of the brain is functional at birth and the left hemisphere develops gradually over months and years of life3. Your left brain communicates its conscious states to other left brains via linguistic behaviour, so your right brain communicates its unconscious state to other right brains that are tuned to received its communications3.
This is often seen in mother-infant interactions where a mother can feel and read her infant’s communications. My clinical sensitivity and experience permits me to attune to the array of conscious and unconscious communications during our sessions which are not always verbal or consciously available to the individual. It is this precise information that leads to greater understanding of the unconscious.
Psychotherapy and Neuroimaging
I will briefly discuss “psychotherapy and neuroimaging” because it makes evident the changes in the brain pre and post therapy. The clinical efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy has undergone extensive study and review. A variety of neuroimaging techniques were used to examine regional metabolic activity and synaptic neurotransmission before and after treatment.
The common finding was normalization of synaptic or metabolic activity in limbic, midbrain and prefrontal regions occurring in association with improved clinical outcomes. Psychodynamic therapy has demonstrable effects on brain function4.
It is for these reasons that I choose to work with these therapeutic modalities. As the brain changes its network system; the individual changes. These changes can lead to a greater quality of life. It is important to acknowledge that self-understanding and self-inquiry is key to mental health and happiness.
I hope you enjoyed this topic. I expect to write regularly so I invite you come back to review other topics. lease inform me of topics that would be of interest to you.
1. Wylie, M.S., & Simon, R. Discoveries from the Black Box: How the neuroscience revolution can change your practice. 1-15.
2. Kandel, E.R., 1998, A new intellectual framework for psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry. 155. 457-469.
3. A.N. Schore, 2007, Psychoanalytic research, progress and process: Developmental affective neuroscience and clinical practice. Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, 27, 6-15
4. Allan et al., 2014, Review of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Neuroimaging Studies, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 142-147