Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Getting out of our rut: psychotherapy rewires the brain

“Psychotherapy works by rewiring the brain. Every time you become aware of something new in a psychotherapeutic session, you activate an existing rigid neural network, you make it more malleable and you can alter it with the help of awareness.” – Dr. Norman Doidge

In psychotherapy, clients are guided to be more aware of thoughts, challenge them and ultimately change their brains at a cellular level. Ironically, plasticity can lead to flexible behaviors and positive change, as well as to rigid behaviors and habits, both good and bad. Doidge calls this the “plastic paradox” and offers the metaphor of fresh-fallen snow on a ski hill. On your first pass down the hill, you create a new path in the pliable or plastic snow. If it was a good run, you’ll likely stick close to that path on subsequent passes down the hill. But well-worn tracks can eventually become ruts in which you can get stuck, he explains, likening these ruts to the rigid, destructive behaviors patients want to change.

In therapy, patients are, among other things, guided to set up road blocks on those tracks and to discover new pathways through the snow. Sometimes that roadblock can be as simple as learning to recognize and inhibit what had been an unconscious response.

“The fact is...we are all on a continuum and all of us have these areas that are not functioning okay and others that are functioning okay,” Doidge says. “Anyone can benefit because neuroplasticity is the modus operandi of the brain. It’s the way it works.” - Theresa Boyle

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