Excerpt from an essay on The Chemistry of Change - a scientific angle on what counselling is all about. I wrote this to go with my first year presentation on the neuroscience of counselling. The full essay, with references, can be found here.
The neurology behind our thoughts
Every time we think about something or see something our brain is sending electrical messages through our brain cells, or neurons. Depending on what we are seeing/thinking, different neurons are activated. For example, thinking about your best friend will fire off the neural network (group of neurons) associated with your best friend and your brain will remember how she looks, sounds, smells even! But also all the other associated sensory information including the feel of the bond you may share, the laughs you have had, the tragedies you may have shared....all these experiences of “your best friend” are joined together as a neural network.
There is an accepted rule in modern neuroscience, known as Hebbian Learning that “neurons that fire together wire together” (Joe Dispenza, 2007) so at a basic level, we can say that if we have repeatedly good experiences with somebody or something then we will associate that person or thing with those positive feelings. Of course the flipside is that this works with negative emotions too. A metaphorical example of this would be of going through a jungle for the first time, you have to cut a path through it; the next time you go through the jungle, it will be easier to go down the same path that has already been made than to cut a new one. This is what brains do – once a neuronal pathway has been made in response to stimulus in the environment, when that stimulus occurs again, the same neuronal pathway is activated.
Damasio states that “even when we merely think about an object, we tend to construct memories not just of shape or colour but also of the perceptual engagement the object required and of the accompanying emotional reactions, regardless of how slight.” (2000)
Joe Dispenza, backed up by Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers, states that there is always an emotional component to memory. Furthermore, Damasio states that “the recall of new facts is enhanced by the presence of certain degrees of emotion during learning” (2000). Memories always have emotions attached and the stronger the emotion the more potentially powerful the recall.
The chemistry of thinking
As well as the firing of neurons there is a biochemical element to our thoughts. Candace Pert refers to the chemical brain as a second nervous system (Joe Dispenza, 2007). Every time a thought is fired in our brain we make chemicals; each thought has its own chemical signature and for each emotion there is a unique cocktail of chemicals, known as peptides. These chemicals bathe the cells of different tissues and organs of our bodies and each cell has receptor sites for the chemicals. If we manufacture a certain chemical repeatedly then our cells create more receptor sites. According to Joe Dispenza, the cells, after repeated exposure to certain peptides, make more receptors for those peptides when they regenerate.
Addicted to emotions
The more receptors a cell has for a certain emotion, the more it will crave the same message it has been receiving. For example, if we have been expressing guilt and anger for most of our lives, the chemicals associated with guilt and anger have been present in our body for most of our lives. Our cells communicate with our brain to maintain homeostatis and in this way our body takes control of the mind. It is much like trying to diet or give up smoking. Our mind plays tricks on us because our bodies want that fix! (Joe Dispenza, 2007).
This theory makes sense of the seemingly paradoxical situation of the woman continuing to live with an abusive partner, or the man who can’t control his temper, or the woman with low self-esteem who cognitively knows that her attitude isn’t helping her yet can’t shake it off once and for all.