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|“This trembling web”: The brain and beyond|
Joe Griffin talks with Professor Ian Robertson about the role of experience in the sculpting of our brains, and why certain types of counselling may do harm.
Griffin: One of the things that really attracted me to your book is that, unlike most academic textbooks, it has a beautiful, almost poetic literary style to it while communicating clearly hard-nosed ideas about the connections between neurophysiology, psychology and human behaviour. I was particularly struck by the adroit use of metaphor throughout, which is a talent one rarely sees in psychology textbooks!
Robertson: Well, I think a lot of scientific thinking, either explicitly or implicitly is, at least at the creative stage, guided by metaphor. I find that the best way to understand is to try and explain, and for me personally the best way to explain is to use metaphor. I also believe that scientific writing can be precise and elegant at the same time and think it's a real pity, particularly in psychology, that people have felt that they must write in an arid and often unnecessarily jargonised style, in order to try and assume the mantle of chemistry or physics — the kind of physics-envy philosophy.
Griffin: The book's title, Mind Sculpture, is itself, of course, a metaphor. It makes the hugely important point that we have the capacity to sculpt our own brains, and you describe the brain in a wonderful phrase: "this trembling web". Could you talk about what you mean by brain sculpting?
Robertson: The notion is that one can now see marvellous things happening in the two-way interchange between the trembling web of neurones in the brain, and our thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories. Debates about whether such and such is psychologically caused or organically caused are entirely sterile. It should surprise no psychologist that an antidepressant can change mood and it should surprise no psychiatrist that a particular psychotherapeutic intervention can change the biochemistry of the neurotransmitter system and alter the physical structure of the brain, if a mood is prolonged. But it does surprise both of these camps! A lot of people still don't appreciate that every thought has its physiological substrate and vice versa.
Griffin: You suggest that, through the mechanism of attention, we can influence the way we perceive and experience reality — you describe this as nature's gift to the human race. You make the point quite forcefully in the book that it is quality of attention that is important in sculpting the neural web; that passive attention isn't as effective as active attention in sculpting and shaping our models of reality in the brain. Do you have any ideas as to why active attention is so influential?
Robertson: If I hadn't been listening to what you were saying there, actively attending to it, then there would have been all sorts of processing going on in my brain, of memories, of plans, of thoughts. Your actual words, that were being decoded in my auditory cortex and passed into what is called Wernicke's area in my left hemisphere, wouldn't have progressed sufficiently beyond a certain level of analysis to enable them to pass into the episodic memory system that enables us to recall our personal pasts, which is partly based in the hippocampus. The words would have left their imprint in my brain in the sense that, were you to say similar words tomorrow, I'd probably respond faster to them or have a sense of recognition, but I wouldn't be able to recall them for myself. So both for our conscious memory systems (remembering what you did where and when) and for learning and skill learning, it seems that the input of frontal lobe systems, of attentional systems, is required to provide that extra bit of input to the sensory systems decoding that information.
Griffin: Would this be the difference between hearing a joke and recognising it if somebody else tells it, as opposed to being able to tell the joke yourself as and when appropriate?
Robertson: Yes. There are two things there. You would recognise that joke if you heard it again, but you probably wouldn't be able to tell that joke unless you had made efforts to rehearse it. So the difference between retelling a joke and recognising a joke has a lot to do with rehearsal. But it also has to do with the degree of attention one pays. Very little attention is passive. The nearest thing I can think of is attention being suddenly caught by something, such as an advert, a colour or a sudden sound, where temporarily your attention is externally switched on. That's different from attention generated internally in the brain, by you. Without attention you don't get learning of any significant degree except implicit, or unconscious, learning. Without attention, skill learning is much more difficult. And without attention we can lose whole chunks of our day. If you go into headless chicken mode when you've had too much to do, you can end up with a whole day as a blank in your mind. You look back and say, where did that day go? It happens because you were not deploying these particular attention systems to encode and monitor what you were doing. You were letting the brain's automatic processing systems operate the whole time.
Griffin: So learning requires this more concentrated, focused attention, plus maybe some degree of rehearsal to enable the person to digest what they have heard, in a deeper sense.
Robertson: Yes, that's right. We remember things to the extent that we rehearse them and we also remember things to the extent that we process them and relate them to things we already know. So, if you go to a lecture, or watch a television programme, and you let it wash over you, you will remember far less than if you go to a lecture thinking, "I know X about this subject. I wonder whether what is said today will confirm or disconfirm it?" Then you are dredging from long term memory what you know about your subject and you are actively comparing that with what's being said. That is called deep encoding: you are encoding the memory into existing structures in your brain and therefore you are learning it more. I guess that, in therapy for instance, therapies that get people to do things are more likely to cause an actual change in behaviour and feelings than therapies where people just talk or respond.
Griffin: And of course the reason most people come into therapy is that they want change. They perceive their lives as being problematical and so some new learnings need to take place.
Robertson: Well, that's right. And that's the problem with insight. Insight is necessary, but it's not sufficient for creating change, I believe. You can understand what has been driving your behaviour, but that doesn't mean you can change it. What we know from rehabilitation in brain damage and from learning in general is that it takes thousands of repetitive trials before you can change an habitual pattern of behaviour and create a new default habitual activity. You can't just say, "Oh, I respond in such and such a way to such and such a situation. I had better not do that any more." Rehearsal or practice, from what we understand about how the brain learns, is a pretty necessary adjunct to self awareness and insight.
Griffin: In this respect, something that you make wonderfully clear in your book concerns imagination. When we misuse our imaginations by rehearsing past failures and past mistakes and past pains, we are sculpting our brains badly, but you also make very clear that imagination is an incredibly powerful tool, if we use it positively, for aiding the development of skills. For example, we can reap many of the benefits of real life practice by just imagining certain activities in our minds. Sports psychologists are making more and more use of this. You describe too how it is possible to become physically stronger from the comfort of one's own armchair, simply by doing exercises in the imagination. This can be enormously beneficial for people recovering from illnesses. Equally, of course, counsellors could make more use of this effect by helping their clients to use their imagination more actively.
Robertson: There is no reason in principle why, of the thousands of practice trials that may be necessary for changing habitual brain patterns, one could not get 90 per cent of them in one's mind and 10 per cent of them in reality. Sometimes it's difficult to get the practice in reality. What you have to be careful of, though, if people are using their imaginations to deal with social phobia or social anxiety, for instance, is that they are successfully imaging successful outcomes.
We know that mental rehearsal requires the real thing as well for it to be optimally effective. So you would have to make sure you planned the experience so that someone doesn't become over confident in their mind and then come a complete cropper in reality. A public speaking phobia would be a classic example of that, where you could get someone rehearsing a successful speech in their imagination and then anxiety takes over on the day. So you have to make sure that the contents of what you're saying don't require a lot of working memory capacity. You have to have rehearsed the speech in your own mind or verbally 20 or 30 times so that it's completely off pat. Then, if you are seized with anxiety, it can still be accessed because it is so well learned.
Griffin: So it's not just positive thinking that does the trick. It is also the actual learning itself that has to be well rehearsed and well produced. You raised a really interesting point there, something that has been made a bit of a fetish in counselling for quite some years. You said that it's important that someone doesn't have too much of a self expectation without having checked out the reality. The idea of high self expectation — high self esteem — is taken universally to be a good thing, but it seems to me that sometimes people can have too much self esteem and it is not connected up to a realistic appraisal of what they are actually doing.
Robertson: Oh yes, we all know people who are perhaps unpopular or difficult because they overestimate some facility that they have!
Griffin: I would like to go back for a moment to what you said before about the need for thousands of repetitions before an habitual behaviour can be changed. While accepting the validity of what you say, it also strikes me from clinical experience that there is a form of rapid learning which isn't based upon prolonged repetition of particular patterns. For example, with hypnosis, people can go into a very relaxed state of mind and rapidly change mindsets. They can rapidly be influenced, for example, to let go of certain traumatic reactions that might take a long time to decondition using just cognitive behavioural methods. One of the papers that we have published recently on hypnosis suggests that all methods of inducing hypnosis replicate part of the way that the brain goes into REM sleep at night. Research shows that REM sleep is the time when instinctive knowledge is programmed into the foetus. If you like, REM sleep is the learning programme for the brain and if, through hypnosis, we can recreate that mindset where the brain is open to new learning, then the brain can perhaps be reprogrammed more quickly than by going at it through the conscious mind, step by step.
Robertson: That's very interesting. I'd like to see the research on that. It certainly seems to be the case that patterns of brain activity under hypnosis differ from normal waking states. What you are saying sounds plausible, and it becomes an empirical question of what works and what doesn't.
Griffin: That's the bottom line test that counselling and psychotherapy need to adopt. Does it actually work? Does this change people's lives for the better? And that raises the question of what sorts of therapy ought to be practised and what forms of counselling are actually effective. It is becoming clear from efficacy studies and meta-reviews of efficacy studies that certain forms of counselling are quite ineffective in lifting, for instance, clinical depression. When dealing with anxiety and panic attacks and agoraphobia, some of the most widely practised forms of counselling may not only be ineffective but may actually be harmful. I think your book gives a good theoretical basis for understanding why certain forms of counselling might be harmful. For example, if we are focusing our attention on all the bad stuff that has happened in our lives, and if our counselling is encouraging us to do that, then according to your synthesis we would be resculpting our brain to perceive those negative patterns more easily. We would be raising the profile of those patterns in our brains, patterns which are influencing our perception of reality. We would be biasing our brains to see the patterns that went wrong, to look for the negative life experiences, and to have as our model of reality that life is excessively painful. And that would suggest that psychodynamic counselling, where you rehearse past failures, is actually resculpting the brain in a less than helpful way.
Robertson: Yes, I think that's a real danger. We know as a fact that some people are harmed by psychotherapies. Certainly from memory research we
© Human Givens Publishing Limited, Joe Griffin and Ian Robertson (2000)
This article first appeared in Volume 7, No, 3 (2000) of the Human Givens journal.
PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON is professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, director of Trrinity College Institute of Neuroscience, and is visiting professor at University College London, with a further appointment in Toronto. He was formerly a scientist at the medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge and is one of the world's leading researchers on brain rehabilitation, on which subject he has published numerous scholarly books and scientific papers, including Mind Sculpture.
> More information on the human givens approach can be found in the following book by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell
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