Archive for the counselling Category

Neuroimaging, psychotherapy & emotional change

Posted in counselling, emotions, neuroscience on April 28, 2010 by Steve

Having trained in counselling, I have learnt about the powerful role that emotion plays in the rehabilitation of people who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect in their lives. The recall, expressing, re-experiencing and subsequent processing of positive and negative affective states in the context of a warm, empathic, trusting relationship is often seen as the primary means for change by those trapped by negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Once established, however, emotional states, are deeply-rooted and extremely resistant to change:

“Affect is a prime mover in psychic activity, and affective patterns of experiencing and of response are more resistant to change than cognitive ones.”

– Quoted in Blanck & Blanck, 1979; as quoted in Greenberg & Safran, 1987

The success of interpersonal therapies, therefore, depends on the availability and accessibility of the person’s emotional content. Such access and accessibility can by no means be taken for granted, given that neuroimaging studies have shown that only up to 5% of the neural activity of our brains is available to awareness at any given time (Zhang & Raichle, 2010), meaning that over 95% of our emotional states, fears, anxieties and beliefs could potentially be unconsciously held. Perhaps this calls for despair; maybe the brain is an unknowable “black box” after all!?

Indeed, we may still have a long way to go, but neuroimaging is now being used to reveal the neural bases of both conscious and unconscious affective processing. This technology potentially promises to shed light on some the mysteries of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour. As a mere novice in the area of understanding neuropsychological research, I eagerly anticipate knowing what the neuronal bases are for common experiences such as:

  • being in a bad mood
  • having a “gut  feeling” about someone
  • the sense of relief from getting something off your chest
  • falling in love, or out of love
  • the influences of repressed emotions
  • uncontrollable urges & angry outbursts
  • neurotic impulses

In their article on the cognitive control of emotions, Ochsner & Gross (2005) consider the powerful influence that top-down (cognitive) processing can have on the conscious experience of emotions. Reviewing numerous neuroimaging studies, they outline, for example, how reappraisal techniques prior to viewing aversive images, seeing a sad film or anticipating physical pain can reduce the negative experience of these stimuli as a function of the reduced activation of the amygdala, which is involved in spontaneous, basic emotional reactions, such as fear.

Another article (Liebermanž, 2007) summarises how reduced activation of the amygdala is associated with simply putting one’s emotional experiences into words. This affect labelling is akin to what happens in psychotherapy, or what was coined the “talking cure” in reference to Freud’s patient Anna O.

One last application of neuroimaging in the process of emotional change is outlined by Lutz & Thompson (2003) in their article on neurophenomenology. They describe how “first-person methods” can be used in combination with neuroimaging techniques to help people increase their sensitivity to their own experience. According to this concept of ‘reciprocal restraints’, the reported experience of a participant guides and interprets the corresponding neurological data, while this data is then used to help the participant to revise and refine what they are experiencing. This quote (from page 33) clarifies this application of biofeedback:

“Using [phenomenology, psychotherapy and contemplative meditative traditions], subjects may be able to gain access to aspects of their experience (such as transient affective state or quality of attention) that otherwise would remain unnoticed and unavailable for verbal report.”

So, it seems that some of the mysteries of the brain can be made more accessible with the help of neuroimaging. The applications of this technology to counselling could be powerful and exciting.


Greenberg, L. & Safran, J., D.(1987). Emotion in Psychotherapy.  Guildford Publications: USA.

žLieberman, M. D. (2007). Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 18.1–18.31.

žLutz, A. & Thompson, E. (2003). Neurophenomenology: Integrating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 31–52.

žOchsner K., N., & Gross J., J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 242–249.

Zhang, D & Raichle, M. E. (2010). Disease and the brain’s dark energy. Neurology, 6, 1.