Neurobiological approaches


Brain developmentResearch in neurobiology is showing that our biological make-up has a big influence on our personality through the development of our bodies and brains. While working with young men in prison I saw the effects of pre-natal deprivation and early environmental disruption. Many of these young men were raised in conditions of nutritional and emotional deprivation, neglect or abuse. At crucial points in their development their brains had been unable to make the changes that would lead to an ability to self-regulate.

Human brains lay down neural pathways. The more a pathway is used, the more it is available for quick firing. Synaptic plasticity refers to the ability of neurons to strengthen or weaken the connections between them. Hence the saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” When we want to change, we need to set up new pathways and keep using them so that they become more and more available.

Fight/flight/freeze

Brain developmentThere are critical milestones in brain development during infancy, adolescence and later life. Where conditions are favourable, the brain makes delicate transitions at crucial times. For example, the fight/flight/freeze response is a quick-triggering mechanism which can respond to danger before our relatively slow thoughts have had time to compute what is going on. We have little control over the mechanism because it kicks in automatically. The mechanism is the responsibility of a part of the brain called the amygdala: each person has two amygdalae. We share this brain structure with other animals and it develops early in our infancy. If a child has an environment in which they are protected, nurtured and cared for, the dominance of this part of the brain can gradually lessen. This enables the long process of developing emotional regulation to begin. Regulation is the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex, which develops its neural pathways later – in adolescence and early adulthood. Neural pathways involved in mediation, moral choice, prediction of the future and social control need prolonged experimentation and practice before they become readily available.

If the amygdala has to be in a constant state of high alert in childhood, such development cannot take place and key stages are missed or compromised. Adults who emerge from such a path of development are likely to find it hard to relax because they never feel safe. Since the anygdala has a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reaction, if a person cannot regulate their “gut reactions” they will continually struggle with over-charged responses from their body and emotions. In cases where a person suffered trauma or abuse, the adult’s experience of who they are can be unstable and unpredictable. In other words, trauma can divert a person’s brain development. This shows up in an individual’s functioning and in their experience of themselves and the world.

Training the brain

Brain developmentAll this has implications for therapy. Since the human brain is “plastic” the good news is that we can learn and change. Therapy will involve training clear pathways for any learning stages that have been missed. This can only be done by giving a client direct experiences of being co-regulated, so that their body can learn the sensation and begin to find ways of regulating themselves. Since counselling does not involve touching clients, this is done through guided experiences of mindfulness. The counsellor’s voice is gentle so that the client can let go of their protective tensions and let themselves explore their own experience of relaxed physical and mental states. Such skills are taught by a process of guided tutoring so there is no mystique about it. The direct experience of being repeatedly co-regulated in the therapy room will lead to the person building the internal skills to self-regulate.

Past explanations of psychotherapy and counselling have emphasised the dominance of the spoken word. We now know that a parallel therapy was happening, all along, at the level of neurobiology. The new understandings in brain development have made it clear that mindfulness, and other techniques which allow direct transmission of calm body states, are an essential part of helping people to overcome their difficulties. Clients have known this all along!

My experience with neurobiological approaches

The young men I worked with in prison had never learned to converse. Their experiences of exchanging words had been hurtful or traumatic. Whatever I asked, the question was experienced as a threat. I had to find alternative ways of working with them. Such ways included attuning to their emotional state and then gradually de-escalating its intensity in a process called co-regulation. Since physical touch was out of the question, this had to be done through mirroring body posture, using the voice, awareness of the breath, and through coached relaxation.

Recommended reading

The Compassionate Mind (Compassion Focused Therapy) Paul Gilbert. 2009.
Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder. Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen. 2013.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher. 2015. Norton.
Your Resonant Self. Guided meditations and exercises to engage your brain’s capacity for healing. Sarah Peyton. 2017. Norton.