Neuroscience & Counseling: Nascent Thoughts


The evolution of a field of endeavor takes many sinuous twists and turns as thought within the field develops, builds on, and moves beyond all the thought that preceded it. Witness the history of science and technology. Just decades ago we would not have imagined where the fields of biology, genetics, and medicine would have taken us as they have in fact done. We have witnessed the the rise of technologies that would have boggled the mind just three or four decades ago. Technology has outpaced our wildest expectations. Witness the history of the computer revolution. We have traveled at almost light speed pace from CPU units, to personal computers, to the global Internet. Information and our ability to access it at the click of a mouse has exponentially exploded over the last couple of decades. The end is nowhere near in sight as we surge forward where the various fields of medical research and practice and technological innovation will take us. The field of counseling is not immune to these developments. We have already experienced how ethics in the counseling field has had to be reshaped due to the use of technologies, online interactions, text messaging, and communication via Skype. Beyond personal communication, the fields of genetics and neuroscience are reshaping how we think about working with our clients. Several in the fields of psychology and counseling have already proposed that psychotherapists need to rethink the way they conceptualize their work. The notion now exists that we need to move beyond the schools of psychotherapy because of the findings in the field of neuroscience. In respect to our understanding of mind/body interaction, I agree that our conceptualization of being human is drastically changing. Over the last couple of decades there have already been major shifts away from the idea of being a purist in theory as seen in the eclectic and integrationist movements. The schools of psychotherapy may indeed have outlived their usefulness.

Seeking to understand how mind and body interact has led to major debates and positions over many decades in the fields of philosophy, psychology, physiology, genetics, and neurology. Presently, neuroscience is at the cutting edge of this shift in our understanding of human nature. For much too long we have engaged the mind in psychotherapy at the expense of the body. Movement therapies, mindfulness approaches, and other experiential therapies have sought to fill this gap and bring body back in touch with mind. The technological abilities we have now to know in real time what neurons are doing as we think, act, and emote have opened all sorts of vistas to us. Personally, I believe the field of neuroscience is an exciting, cutting-edge field that will bring about a major revolution in how we understand human beings and human nature in general. Like all revolutions, we need to take caution before we go head-long into something unaware of any pitfalls. Nonetheless, there is no reason to hold back from the explorations into the world of neurology. There will be a clash between what we are uncovering now through new technologies and previous conceptualizations about how to work with people in the field of counseling. This clash of information emerging from neuroscience will most definitely rock the Casbah as it was sung some time back. What are some preliminary questions we may want to consider?

Whose Field Are We Playing On?

Psychotherapists should welcome the findings of neuroscience as they should any findings from fields that deal with human nature and human interaction. We should not fear that what we do will be taken over by another field of endeavor. Such fear will only lead us to remain closed off to what various other endeavors discover that can be useful. One thing we do not want to do is practice in a way that has become outmoded. Although I think neuroscience will radically alter our view of human nature, I don’t think it will substantially alter the way we sit with clients to work with them. In some areas, however, it may do just that. Working and counseling with brain-injured clients, for example, will definitely undergo a major shift. Certain neurological findings will also alter the way we understand the effects of trauma on human beings, both immediate and long-term trauma. Methodologies such as EMDR and mindfulness are already making an impact on psychotherapy. Correlations between brain activity and mindfulness exercises are showing the positive effects that mindfulness can have for people experiencing depression and anxiety. We need to be aware, however, that the fear that neuroscience will replace the field of counseling is simply the fear of the unknown. Neuroscientists will not replace counselors. But the knowledge they bring to human nature will rock the world, and there’s no turning back the impact of discovery. The animosity that goes on between what are called the hard and soft sciences, unfortunately, has a long history, going back to the time that the first analysts were medical doctors.

There is a change that must occur that therapists will have to be willing to embrace. We will need to learn to communicate with neuroscientists as we look into different conceptualizations of our clients and how we work with them. This means, furthermore, we will need to do some reading and studying in the field of neuroscience to get up to snuff on some things. Likewise, we’ll need to radically understand, and take a stand, on the boundary between fields of endeavor. More holistic understandings of human nature will require that we look at fields outside of psychology and psychotherapy to see what they offer. This is simply the logical conclusion of expanding our knowledge of  mind/body interaction. Rather than being reactionary, we need to welcome what the integration of various domains of knowledge can mean, both for therapists and clients.

Correlation Versus Cause-Effect

I don’t want to overstate my case, but many neuroscientists are materialistic reductionists. Hence, mind reduces to body. The human being is now his neurons. There are several supposedly bases to which human beings have been reduced over the decades, including genetics and environment. Next up are the neurons. Many of the findings we see coming out of the field of neuroscience show us in real time the activity of our neurons as people perform certain activities – e.g. exercise, problem-solving, meditation, and experiencing various emotions. Biofeedback practices have been tapping into this knowledge for sometime, helping people associate certain states of mind with bodily activities, such as breathing and finding ways to calm in certain situations. These findings show an interaction between human endeavors and neurons for sure. Logically, however, it’s a jump to reduce the human being to his neurons. This is a confusion of correlation with cause-effect. With such reductionism, there is a logical tendency toward strict determinism. But with many such reductionistic positions, one wonders how anyone can know that we are strictly determined by our neurons. Anything that a person knows or concludes must too be strictly determined by his neurons. No doubt there will be a tendency of some to reduce the field of therapy to biology. Such reductionist thinking has long been a premise of the hard sciences. Again, we as therapists need not overreact to this reductionism to the point that we discount or minimize findings from these fields that can, no doubt, be helpful in our work. But we must also ask whether or not we agree with such a reductionist and deterministic view of human nature. No doubt there are some in the field of counseling that will have no problems with such conceptualizations. Others will not find such thinking palpable.

Conclusion: Into the Unknown

Regardless of some of the frictions that may occur between neuroscientists and therapists regarding the boundaries of their fields, I believe we can and should embrace the field of neuroscience with all the excitement and cutting-edge knowledge it brings. To embrace new knowledge, we do not have to relinquish the important themes that emerge from human engagement, such as passion, creativity, trusts, pain and joy, and love and hate. But reconceptualization we may in fact have to do. Likewise, we have to listen, engage, and study with a critical eye what neuroscience brings to the field of psychotherapy. We may indeed need to rethink the entire way in which counseling theories are approached and studied. The schools of psychotherapy may indeed have run their course. I personally think we do need some major revision in thinking about the way we conceptualize in the field of counseling. Theory is about how we conceptualized human nature. Our practices as therapists draw on our understanding of human beings. There are major shifts in our understanding of human experience going on at the moment. One of my favorite TV series back in the late 1960’s was Star Trek. The ominous theme of searching the unknown where no one has ever gone before is still a strong pull on human beings. People simply must move beyond present understanding of things to expand and build upon knowledge in new and different ways. Neuroscience is here with a robust impact. It’s going to shake things up. So with a critical eye and open mind, let’s continue to move forward, not fearing what we learn. Along with The Clash, let’s Rock the Casbah.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14th, 2017