How talk therapy changes our brains
November 18, 2015
I teach a great professional development and clinical consultation class at Loyola University Maryland. Yesterday morning my doctoral students and I had a great discussion about what makes psychotherapy work (among some other very stimulating discussions). This morning I received an email with a link to an article entitled, Revival of psychotherapy? How “talk” therapy changes our brains and genes. This short piece reviews some of the recent literature about the effectiveness of psychotherapy, including referencing statements from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. But the article gets even better when it approaches some newer thinking including the possibility that psychotherapy may actually make structural changes in our brains. Scientists have long known that repeated exposures to stimuli (aka, learning) can create new and more efficient neural pathways in the brain. We are now more confidently hypothesizing that the same thing occurs when patients “vent” in therapy… but instead of just venting, what may be happening is that the patient is packaging her thoughts into a narrative that the psychologist can understand, and that in the process of this processing she is starting to think her thoughts differently, to appreciate new facets of her history and to consider alternate perspectives about all this. In other words, she is being exposed to new “stimuli.” And in doing this multiple times (patients often tell the same or similar stories many times over the course of psychotherapy – – and this is a good thing), she may actually be forming new “connections” in her brain and this might be part of why talk therapy does, in fact, work for so many people.