This is Your Brain on Therapy, Part Deux

Note: If you have not read Part One, please do so before embarking on this article. Thanks!

In Part One, we looked at how therapy can change our brains regarding relationships. Now, let’s look at how therapy can change our brain in another way.

Let’s imagine our brain is a large (very large) collection of roads, ranging from dirt roads to superhighways (or freeways, depending on where you’re from). These roads get built according to what we learn as we go through life. They allow the mind that emanates from our brain to locate information that the brain collects. In childhood, these roads get built and information gets collected at a frantic pace. Then things start to taper off in our late teens and early twenties. After that, our brains continue to collect and connect information, but more slowly.

Along the way, new roads get constructed. Old, unused roads get destroyed. Some small roads become larger. Some large roads become smaller. Highways acquire entrances and exits. All this happens in the service of more effective access to collected information.

Now, imagine a child whose brain is building roads like crazy connecting all the various things he (for sake of pronoun ease) learns. Some of what he learns comes from his father, say, in the form of insults, criticism, and outright neglect. The more the boy learns these negative “facts,” as the boy’s brain comes to treat them, the more roads his brain builds heading toward them and the larger those roads become. In the parlance of brain science, “the brain cells that fire together, wire together,” meaning the more a road gets used, the more substantial it becomes.

Sooner or later, the boy grows up to become a (chronological) adult. For better or worse, this man carries with him into adulthood all the facts his brain collected and all the roads his brain built between those facts while he was growing up.

Can you see where this story is headed?

Let’s say that within our hero’s brain lies a pile of information with the basic message, “I am worthless.”  This information has formed into a “fact” as far as his brain knows. Along with the pile, there is a superhighway, with lots (billions?) of entrances, heading right into “Worthless Town.” Our hero’s sense of worthlessness gets “triggered” or “activated” constantly, as a result. You get the picture?

If our hero enters into therapy, the therapist helps our hero become aware of his “fact” of worthlessness and helps him change the roadway system. This might involve building exits off the highway. Some of the highway entrances (e.g., negative self-talk) might get identified and demolished. Maybe our hero will spend more time visiting Worthless Town and either start to feel more accepting of life there or develop the ability to leave whenever he wants to. This all happens due to the plasticity of our hero’s brain, its ability to change, re-wire itself, create and undo connections within it.

At some point, our hero either spends less time in Worthless Town, feels OK with being there, or never gets there in the first place. This feels wonderful to our intrepid hero and he gets to experience his brain after therapy.

Copyright 2013 Daniel J. Metevier

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