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The science behind our programme

We have included below some notes on the theoretical underpinning of the work that we do based on neuroscience research.

Psychological disciplines such as psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, counselling, and coaching started to develop long before there was significant scientific understanding of the brain, based on techniques such as trial and error, introspection and analogy. Ideas from diverse sources such as classical Greek myths, literature, theology, and mysticism were all incorporated, giving rise to some strange terminology (eg. “ego”, “id” and “Oedipus Complex”).

Since the “Decade of the Brain” and the development of imaging techniques that allow the brain to be scanned in increasing detail, the field of Neuroscience has grown exponentially, allowing brain functions to be mapped to specific regions and chemical pathways. Although much of this material is impenetrable to the non-specialist, some of the discoveries of neuroscience are filtering down to the therapeutic fields, allowing therapy to be put onto a scientific footing. Neuroscience can now identify systems in the brain responsible for cognition (eg. memory, recognition of faces), emotions (eg. fear, anger), and certain disorders (eg. tics, dementia, schizophrenia).

Although the brain is extremely complex and many of its secrets remain to be unravelled, it is possible to make some general observations about its major systems.

Anatomical regions of the brain

 

Cerebral Cortex

“Database” – long-term storage of information, combined with processing of that information to analyse patterns, create associations, and structure knowledge in hierarchical ways.

Thalamus

“Browser” – directs attention to the specific areas of cerebral cortex for dealing with the task in hand.

Hippocampus

“Search Engine” – consolidates and indexes the information in the cerebral cortex, informs the thalamus where to look for particular data

Amygdala

“Alarm System” – responds rapidly to sensory input looking for threats and other high-priority information. Triggers emotions such as fear and anger via the hypothalamus.

Hypothalamus

“Hormone Factory” – converts neural signals into hormonal signals for onward transmission to the rest of the body, thereby regulating much of the body’s sytems (eg thirst, hunger, sleep, breathing, reproduction).

Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that transmit nerve signals in the brain and the body. The first one discovered was acetylcholine, in 1921. Since then many more have been identified – it is thought that there may be at least 100. Some of the key neurotransmitters that have significance for brain function are listed below:  

Glutamate

GABA

Fundamental excitatory / inhibitory (on/off) signals used in all neural pathways

Acetylcholine

Drives muscles and deals with arousal and alertness mechanisms

Adrenaline

Noradrenaline

Cortisol

Mediate the fight/flight reflex (fear and anger), preparing the body to respond to danger. The symptoms of panic (eg. fast breathing, heart pounding) are caused by these hormones.

Dopamine

Reward system, generating pleasurable feelings to reinforce behaviours that are positive for survival such as hunting prey and sex.

Opiates (Endorphins

Enkephalins

Dynorphins)

Natural pain killers that also generate pleasurable feelings. Can be addictive (eg Heroin)

Serotonin

Has a wide variety of functions in many body systems, including stabilising mood. A shortage of serotonin can cause the symptoms of depression. Rather than directly making you happy, an interesting possibility is that serotonin facilitates making new connections in the brain (new synapses and possibly new neurons).

Testosterone

Dominance, assertiveness, violence in excess.

Galanin

Neuropeptide Y

Reduces stress, fear and anxiety

Oxytocin

Vasopressin

Love, attachment, bonding, nurturing

Receptors

Neurotransmitters have their effect on cells via receptors on the cell surface. The presence of these were predicted as early as 1901 (Bennett,2000) , although it was not until the 1960s that they could be seen in electron micrographs (Pert, 1999). The chemical structures of receptors are still being decoded.

As Candace Pert describes in her book “Molecules of Emotion” (Pert, 1999), receptors to neurotransmitters are found not only in neurons but also in all cells of the body. This leads to the striking conclusion that mental processes (thoughts, whether positive or negative) have an impact on every cell in our bodies. If we feel happy (increased level of opiates) or fearful (adrenalin, cortisol) every cell is aware of this through its receptors and responds accordingly.

Connections with Therapy and Coaching

The above very brief summary of neuroscientific ideas demonstrates the link between thoughts and memories(cortex, thalamus, hippocampus), emotions (amygdala, hypothalamus) and the body through the mechanism of neurotransmitters and receptors. For a more technical explanation of these ideas see Charney (2004) and Panksepp (1998).

Whereas pharmacology attempts to manipulate the neurotransmitters to achieve its effects, psychological therapists say that in many cases it is possible to achieve the same results by working on the thoughts, feelings and memories. The table below spells out some of these connections. Not every problem can be treated in this way, and where the cause is more biological than psychological (eg dementia, schizophrenia) medication will still be the better form of treatment.

Psychological domain 

  Correlate in neuroscience

Negative thinking

Negative thoughts can trigger the release of fight/flight hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol via the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Positive thinking

Thinking positive thoughts can increase levels of dopamine, serotonin and opiates.

Relaxation

Stimualtes the body’s production of opiates.

Motivation

Dopamine system provides motivation and rewards active goal-focussed activity with pleasurable feelings.

Positive relationships

Oxytocin and Vasopressin create positive feelings towards partners and friends, and reduce the effects of stress hormones.

Self Awareness

This is a higher level function involving the orbitofrontal cortex (part of the cerebral cortex in the forehead region). The more self awareness you have the more control your higher cortical regions (thinking brain) have over the more basic regions (emotional and automatic brains)

Problem solving

The greater the number of alternative pathways in the cortex, the easier it is to solve problems. As mentioned above, serotonin facilitates new connections.

References

  • Bennett (2000) , The concept of transmitter receptors: 100 years on.
  • Charney (2004) Psychobiological Mechanisms of Resilience and Vulnerability.
  • Panksepp (1998) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.
  • Pert (1999) Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Between Mind-Body Medicine.

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