I find the recent developments in neuroscience enlivening. It seems there is now evidence of how relationships affect our neural networks. I will outline my growing understanding of neuroscientific theory regarding Relational Trauma, its effect on brain development / functioning and how I relate this to psychological defences. I will then go on to describe how I think Relational TA can be a useful tool in addressing the issues raised by these neuroscientific findings.
As I’ve read around the subject of neuroscience I’ve noticed some of the writers, while filling their articles with information, write in a very dry way referencing someone else’s work almost every sentence. Schore’s article (2001) has twenty-three pages of references!
I’m not sure what to make of this. It feels cerebral and not relational; perhaps too much Explicit and not enough Implicit mind (Gildebrand 2003).
In a parallel process with Schore’s article as I started to write this essay I began adding many quotes. I stopped myself when I realised half the word count would be taken up with quotes. It is not my intention to write that kind of scientific paper, (I recommend Schore’s articles for that. I find Allen (1999, 2000, 2003) and (Gildebrand 2003) more accessible.), instead I will sketch my understanding of the neuroscience and relate it to my TA thinking and practice.
Relationship affects how the neural networks form.
Neuroscience now suggests that babies are born with lots of potential neural networks. Repeated stimulation, especially in the form of attuned interactions with (m)other determine how these networks are laid down. (Gildebrand 2003)
‘in this dance, right brain to right brain, in interaction with another that neural pathways are laid down.’ (Schore 2000)
Three structures in the brain (adapted from Gildebrand 2003)
The first two are part of the limbic system or emotional brain:
Amygdala – first to develop, mediates unconscious or implicit memory.(no words) ‘crude and over generalizing, and cannot distinguish between past and present.’ (p. 6)
Hippocampus – mediates conscious or explicit memory. (can be put into words, from three years old on)
The last one is part of the cerebral cortex – responsible for rational thought.
Orbitofrontal region – ‘senior executive of social interactions, involved in managing behaviour, in particular in relation to emotion’ (p. 9)
Relational Trauma and Psychological Defences
It would seem the memories of relational trauma can be held in different structures of the brain. If they are held in the Hippocampus, they are Explicit memories, conscious and so available to be spoken about in words. However memories of relational trauma that are held in the Amygdala are Implicit memories, unconscious and so there are no words to them. Coupled with that is the fact that the Amygdala ‘cannot distinguish between past and present’ (ibid.).
While our responses to the world and relational trauma involve various structures in the brain I’m particularly interested in the part the Amygdala has to play. I postulate that a lot of the unconscious life limiting defences i.e. Script (Berne 1961), Racket (English 1971), P1 (Hargaden & Sills 2002, Fowlie 2005), Injunctions (Goulding & Goulding 1976) etc. must in part, or wholly stem from the Amygdala. The way the past can influence our here and now thinking and feeling as if the past were also happening right now would seem to support that.
Indeed, Allen (2000 p. 264) says ‘injunctions are internalized in implicit memory’ and Gildebrand (2003 p. 12) the amygdala, ‘is likely to be the mechanism producing racket feelings.’
This raises two questions:
1. How can we as therapists facilitate change when neural networks have been laid down?
2. How can we communicate with a structure that has no words and is unconscious?
This second question highlights the unease I feel with my understanding of purely Classical TA. I cannot see how you can talk and Re-decide (Goulding & Goulding 1979) your way to change patterns of thinking and feeling that are held in the part of the brain that has no words.
The answer to the first question seems to be that the brain can continue to change throughout life.
‘the brain is a dynamic structure capable of being modified by experience. This idea fits with the psychotherapeutic view that a person’s view of self and others can be modified through psychotherapy and the ego states can be updated and scripts redecided.’ (Allen 1999 p. 251)
What seems to be important in facilitating these changes are relationships.
‘Later interpersonal relationships are important for the repair of attachment dysfunction, that is… possible, even common, because of brain plasticity.’ (Allen 2000 p. 264)
While the relationship that helps someone change their unhelpful unconscious patterns might be a loving partnership it could also be the therapeutic relationship.
‘the interactive regulations embedded in the therapeutic relationship functions as a ‘growth facilitating environment,’ specifically for the experience dependent maturation of right orbitofrontal systems.’ (Schore 2001 p.245)
In answer to the second question, I think Relational TA with its emphasis on paying close attention to the unconscious processes, use of Empathic Transactions (Clark 1991, Hargaden & Sills 2002) and close monitoring of what is enacted in the relationship can be used to contact that wordless part of the brain.
‘it is the right side of the brain we use when we ‘tune in’ to the underlying affect state of the other’ (Gildebrand 2003 p. 13)
I believe this Attunement (Erskine Trautmann 1997), which I see as an integral part of working in a Relational TA way, is the way in to contact this non-verbal part of the self.
One advantage is it offers a space were unconscious processes (Implicit, amygdala based) can emerge and be made conscious (Explicit, hippocampus, based) with the hope of engaging the Orbitofrontal region in order to allow for new ways of being in the world.
‘narrative of the trauma may emerge in a relational context which promotes a causal transfer of affect information from the right to left orbitofrontal regions’ (Schore 2001 p.245)
In conclusion, Neuroscience now seems to be offering tangible proof for many of the theories proposed by TA and other psychotherapeutic schools of thought. It gives us an insight into how Relational Trauma can have lasting effects on a person’s ability to be in the world in a way that is fulfilling. It also offers hope, as evidence shows that the brain can continue to adapt throughout life. Finally, perhaps stating something we all instinctively knew, Neuroscience suggests that attuned relationship is key to healthy development and vital in facilitating repair for those that have been damaged.