Can Therapy Change the Way Your Brain Works?
Understanding how our brains actually work can demystify how we feel and how the process of therapy works
Psychotherapist and scientist Dr Ana Mootoosamy explains the latest thinking in neuroscience, and what needs to happen in therapy to change your brain
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Of course, everyone know that our brains are important – but perhaps we under-estimate how much it shapes every aspect of our lives.
For example, imagine two people going through the exact same scenario: their partner has not replied to their messages. One person shrugs it off and thinks they’ll reply when they reply, it’s not a big deal. Another person might start panicking and check their partner’s social media to see if their partner active on there and is therefore deliberately ignoring them.
Why would the same situation create different reactions depending on who we are?
Neuroscientists believe that instead of using information from our senses (sight, sound, etc) to guide what we are perceiving, our brains actively predict experiences based on what we have been through in the past. This is what neuroscientists call the 'predictive brain'.
This means that two people are unlikely to experience things in the exact same way, because we all have different past experiences.
The theory that our brains predict what is going to happen has enormous connotations for human behaviour and also for what happens in the therapy room.
1. Why do I feel like this?
Regardless of what someone is suffering from, whether they have an eating disorder or feel unable to recover from a break up, people frequently come to therapy wanting to know why they can’t simply shrug their feelings off and carry on.
One of the most important factors that needs to be understood during therapy sessions is how your past experiences have shaped your current perceptions and feelings.
Neuroscientists believe that the brain uses our past experiences to create predictions and hypotheses about what is happening in the present. If the information that the brain is receiving in the present is quite vague, then the brain relies more heavily on what has happened in the past.
If you imagine that your partner is out and is not replying to your messages. There could be a simple explanation for this – perhaps their phone has run out of battery, or they are in the middle of driving somewhere or in an important meeting. Or perhaps they are ignoring you or in a worst-case scenario they are cheating on you or have been physically hurt in some way. There is no way of actually knowing, if someone is not responding. The information your brain has is too vague.
What we read into the 'silence' of not receiving a response will depend on what we ourselves have experienced in the past.
The brain makes inferences based on past information. If our relationships have a history of being stable, and we always feel looked after, or we feel we can rely on other people, then we might not get too worried if our partners do not reply or take their time to reply.
If, however, our past is littered with examples of unreliable partners, who have abandoned us or left us feeling uncared for, then the non-response from our partners might feel quite devastating. It might feel as though they have betrayed us or about to betray us, because this what the brain is hypothesising is happening based on what we have already been through.
One thing that people often say is that they feel irrational about 'over-reacting' to situations like this and don’t want to feel like this, but you are trying to fight your own brain, the most powerful organ in your body, and it is hard work.
2. Why do I always fall for the wrong person?
If the brain infers things based on what we have experienced in the past, then this is very relevant to the relationships that we form.
We will form relationships with very similar people – in essence, your brain is saying 'this what we know and therefore this is who we are supposed to be in relationships with'. Even if these people are wrong for us, they are familiar. Again, in the therapy this needs to be explored.
It might feel as though we are saying being with someone who is wrong for us is deliberate choice we are making. This is where we should clarify that we do not believe that this is an active choice the individual is deliberately doing to cause themselves pain; it is again to do with the power of the brain in predicting events and affecting perception.
3. Why is it so easy for some people to control their emotions, but I can’t?
As mentioned, none of us experience the same event in the same way, because we are all shaped by our past experiences.
So someone might find it easy to shrug off the fact that their partner hasn’t responded to their texts, if they have basic trust in the world given to them by reliable past experiences.
Another person might think, that it was time to move on anyway – not because they don’t care that their partner is not responding, but because they never let themselves get too attached to someone in case they get hurt – again this will be based on past experiences where trusting or relying on someone backfired and led to them getting hurt.
Someone else might feel horribly anxious and beg and plead for their partner to respond to them faster because they have a history of being abandoned.
No one can actually control their emotions, but they might not be overwhelmed by them if they have been fortunate enough to have very positive experiences in their past.
How can therapy help?
In psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we spend a lot of time exploring your current situation that you want to understand further while also analysing the past – we try to unravel the relationship between the past and the present – however, much we might think we are 'over' something, we might not be quite as 'over' it as we hope we are.
Neuroscientists hypothesise that the brain creates predictions based on assumptions it has made from experiences in our past. But that doesn’t mean that our brains can’t change.
Sometimes, there is a mismatch between the information the brain is receiving in the present and what has happened in the past.
In scientific language, this is called a 'prediction error' – the brain realises that what it is predicting, is not actually happening.
In essence, the brain then has to update its assumptions.
This is what we aim for in therapy. We try to understand the relationship between the past and present, and challenge our perceptions, and essentially update the assumptions the brain makes and the hypotheses that it generates.
Instead of experiencing the world as unreliable and untrustworthy, a safely boundaried therapy setting can provide a reliable and trusting setting that will hopefully enable a different type of experience in a relationship.
It is the experience of therapy that allows the brain to change. And with time, you can trust your brain to make kinder predictions about the nature of the world; and hopefully then, things will feel less painful.