Applying Interpersonal Neurobiology to Counselling & Therapy

One of the greatest discoveries of our era is that the brain does not stop growing. For many decades, scientists believed that we were born with all of the brain cells that we would ever have with in life. More recently, the process of neurogenesis or brain growth has become more widely studied, and it’s been found that brain cells can in fact be formed in layers.

The process of neurogenesis and brain cell growth forms an integral part of the theory behind interpersonal neurobiology, or IPNB.

Interpersonal Neurobiology – the basics

Interpersonal neurobiology is primarily a theory and practical working model which describes human development and functioning as being a product of the relationship between the body, mind and relationships. Another term for it is relational neuroscience.

Interpersonal neurobiology describes how the brain and mind are shaped, or developed, and how they function based on the interplay of genes in the context of relationships. IPNB is heavily rooted in attachment theory.

At its core the interpersonal neurobiology approach seeks to help clients and patients (and therapists!) develop a healthy mind, an integrated brain, and compassionate, empathic relationships.

Interpersonal neurobiology takes the view, supported increasingly by clinical evidence, that the human brain continues to grow throughout life, rather than stopping in early adulthood as we have long believed.

This discovery has paved the way for opportunities to heal trauma by stimulating the brain with powerful and positive persuasion, and has shown that conditions once thought irreversible can be transformed in a healthy way.

brain Interpersonal neurobiology ipnb

Until recently, it was believed that the brain was developed to its full capacity before birth. Now, we have understandings from the field of neuroplasticity.

Applying interpersonal neurobiology

Interpersonal neurobiology is an interdisciplinary field that has profound personal and professional applications as it:

  • Explores the nature of the “mind” as embodied and relational
  • Describes what neuroscience and relating reveal about how we learn, resolve trauma and conflict, and improve relationships

IPNB combines neuroscience, psychology, complexity theory, environmental influences, and relationship studies. Developed by Dr Dan Siegel, Dr Allan Schore and Dr Lou Cozolino in the late 1990s, Interpersonal Neurobiology seeks the similar patterns that arise from separate science fields and approaches to knowledge.

Because the brain grows continuously throughout our lives, the implications for healing are unending. This IPNB model is being used across a broad sector of the population, including with those who work in the field of mental health, education, parenting, business, industry, and others.

The Theory Behind Interpersonal Neurobiology

Interpersonal Neurobiology explores the effect that therapy has on the brain and how the brain mechanism is directly impacted by life experiences.

The growing evidence in neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to alter its neural networks) demonstrates that the formation of new neurons and neurological links (also called neurogenesis) continue throughout people’s entire lives. This relatively new information supports the theory of interpersonal neurobiology and offers evidence of its validity and efficacy.

By understanding how these neurological links are affected, and similarly, how they affect the body, mind, and spirit as a whole, therapists can better assist clients to rebuild and reconnect these links to achieve a healthier emotional and psychological balance.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Trauma

Emotional and psychological trauma is commonly caused by extraordinarily stressful life events, circumstances that shatter our sense of security and make us feel helpless and vulnerable.

When we experience emotionally traumatic events, especially if these experiences occur during childhood, the trauma can wreak havoc on our relationships and our lives, including leading to long-standing anxiety and stress, feelings of rejection and abandonment, and continual dissatisfaction and distrust of close, intimate relationships.

The basis of much neurosis is the emotional disconnect that occurs when a child feels the need to isolate him or herself from painful experiences.

When children’s emotions are ignored, discounted, humiliated, or punished, children learn at an early age that displaying their emotions isn’t acceptable. This experience can be considered traumatic, as many children not only isolate their emotions from external reality but also cut themselves off from their emotions internally as a result.

While these defensive mechanisms may work for a child who’s trying to protect himself or herself from external threats or internal pain, these coping mechanisms also set a child up for a lifetime of emptiness, loneliness, and emotional isolation.

The Importance of Our Relationships

Although some of us may be less socially inclined than others, as human beings we are all social creatures. We are “hardwired” to connect with one another, and one way we connect is through our emotions.

Recent studies have shown that our brains and bodies are inseparable from the emotions that animate us. When we fail to develop healthy connections with other people, we experience emotional distress in a variety of forms.

From this it follows that our emotional and psychological health and well-being rely on the cultivation of relationships with other people in order for our emotions to enrich our lives rather than us becoming slaves to our emotions.

Meditation plays a Role

Clinical and medical tests have shown that meditation can be incredibly healing. Meditation gently persuades people to quiet their mind and go within their bodies in order to gain a sense of awareness. As a result, people become enlightened to thoughts, ideas, and behaviours that were previously hidden.

These new discoveries can be integrated into people’s minds and inner wisdom. Interpersonal neurobiology states that these new patterns will have a physical, physiological, and emotional effect regardless of what age at which they are discovered. With every new idea, attitude, behaviour, or piece of knowledge people obtain, they are physically changing and influencing the construct of their brains.

meditation Interpersonal neurobiology

Studies, PET scans and MRIs have shown that meditation can influence neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

PET scans and MRIs have since verified that meditation, mindfulness practices, and experiences of emotional attachment significantly influence the creation of new neuronal pathways in the human brain.

So, it appears that experiences alter our brains – not just in childhood but throughout the course of our lives. Whenever we learn something new – and this includes new perspectives, attitudes, or behaviours – we actually change the structure of our brains!

Interpersonal Neurobiology and Effective Psychotherapy

A great deal of time and energy has been spent exploring the implications of IPNB for the healing of trauma and the restoration of the internal emotional awareness most people discard during childhood.

It has been discovered recently that traumatic events can actually alter the genes of infants. If traumatic experiences can change our genetic code as well as the neurons and neuronal pathways in our brains, then it follows that “positive” experiences have the potential to restore our brains and bodies to emotional and physical health.

Since experiencing truly healthy relationships is such a powerful catalyst for the transformations at the heart of the healing process, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals involved in the IPNB field have been focusing their efforts on healing trauma by creating positive and secure relationship influences that create physical brain change as well as psychological healing.

A therapist familiar with the underlying principles of interpersonal neurobiology attempts to create emotional safety for his or her clients, demonstrate vulnerability through the transparent revelation of information, as well as help clients move beyond simply talking about experiences to taking part in an emotional exchange in the here and now.

From this perspective, the purpose of psychotherapy is to create the emotional safety necessary for an individual’s defence mechanisms (assuming they are unhelpful) to become unnecessary. When this occurs, an individual can feel safe enough to reveal to the therapist and to themselves the inner emotions and feelings that have been locked away since childhood.

As therapy progresses, further safety, trust, intimacy, and enjoyable interactions lead clients to change their expectations for interpersonal interactions from failure, disappointment, and fear to closeness, confidence, joy, and personal satisfaction.

By recreating individuals’ concepts of relationships, both with others and with themselves, trauma counselling and psychotherapy that incorporates IPNB techniques can provide individuals new emotional experiences that can lead to substantial, positive, and lasting healing and change.

Find out more about interpersonal neurobiology

For more info on interpersonal neurobiology, read our interview with Dr Dagmar Edwards, who is also the host of our upcoming workshop on applying interpersonal neurobiology to counselling and psychotherapy. We hope to see you there!

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