The Nobel Prize winners in Medicine were announced this week, and I was thrilled to hear that one of the awardees is neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Sudhof! While at UTSW Medical Center (my doctoral alma mater!) Dr. Sudhof discovered synaptic transmission–how brain cells communicate via chemicals.
During my postdoctoral training in neuropsychology, one of the first things I learned is:
Neurons that fire together wire together.
To oversimplify: Our brain cells communicate with one another via synaptic transmission–one brain cell releases a chemical (neurotransmitter) that the next brain cell absorbs. This communication process is known as “neuronal firing.” When brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens. Messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over & over begin to transmit faster & faster. With enough repetition, they become automatic. That’s why we practice things like hitting a golf ball–with enough practice, we can go on automatic pilot.
Psychologists have long known that negative thought processes follow this same pattern–the more we think about, or “ruminate,” on a negative thought, the more entrenched the thought becomes. Negative and traumatic thoughts also tend to “loop”–they play themselves over and over until you do something consciously to stop them.
The more these negative thoughts loop, the stronger the neural pathways become, and the more difficult it becomes to stop them! This is why thoughts that cause depression, anxiety, panic, obsessions, and compulsions can become so difficult to combat. And along the way, these thoughts stir up emotional as well as physiological reactions.
Psychotherapy, regardless of the orientation, attempts to stop this process.
For example, psychodynamic therapy “processes” the thoughts, or attempts to digest the thoughts in a manner such that such the useful parts are kept and the harmful parts are discarded. Cognitive behavioral and rational emotive therapies attempt to interrupt this loop with techniques such as cognitive restructuring and thought stopping.
As we advance our understanding of neurobiology, we better understand the physiological underpinnings of negative thoughts, why they are so hard to get rid of, and why various therapies work–they effectively change the brain. A fairly new form of therapy (researched for 25 years now) is a type “reprocessing” therapy called EMDR.
EMDR involves bihemispheric processing of disturbing thoughts–in other words, EMDR stimulates both left brain & right brain processing of thoughts, memories, and behaviors that cause distress. I’ve studied EMDR since its inception, and scientific studies consistently show that this therapy is effective, and in certain situations, can provide quicker symptom relief than other forms of therapy.
With modern technology (SPECT scans & fMRI’s), along with advanced understanding of neurotransmission, we’re able to see the changes in the brain brought about by EMDR and other types of therapy–it really works!
The speed of symptom relief with EMDR does not negate the usefulness of other types of psychotherapy–traditional therapies build coping skills, enhance self-understanding, and can identify and repair any “missing parts” of personality organization such as the ability to connect with others. What EMDR provides is more immediate symptom relief and a mental release from negative “loops” in the brain.
In light of all the solid research underscoring the importance of neurobiology’s role in psychotherapy, I owe it to my clients to formally train in EMDR. Later this month, I’ll travel to Chicago to begin my training.
Congrats to Dr. Sudhof and all the other Nobel Prize winners!
An aside–the picture with this post is one I took of a redbud tree in winter–notice how the branches of the tree mimic the the shape of nerve cells in the brain. If you find this repetition of pattern in nature as fascinating as I do, you may want to learn more about fractal geometry! Here’s a very easy read on the subject–Introducing Fractals: A Graphic Guide.