Newsletter #537 – Bringing Change: Does Neuroscience Help?

Brain imagery 3I have mixed feelings about neuroscience. For decades therapists, coaches, educators, ministry leaders and others (like me) have assumed that change in any field comes from empathic listening, vision casting, goal setting, effective communication, the eradication of painful memories, and maybe thousands of other methods for behavior change. We’ve known that all of this depends on the workings of our brains and neurological systems but we’ve rarely given much serious attention to those biological/neurological issues.

Until now! Emerging developments in neurophysiology have captivated our attention, suggests an article in Psychotherapy Networker (July/August, 2013). “Therapists have become enamored with brain science,” This fascination extends to other areas as well, including ways in which neurological functioning impacts leadership, coaching, music, creativity, education, and even spirituality. The Networker analyzes this “brain craze” and acknowledges the recent strides in neuroscience. But understanding how the brain works does not always translate into the practical side of bringing change.

One Networker article argues that “current neuroscience has yet to translate its findings into effective or practical recipes for therapists.” Findings from the brain-imagery lab haven’t demonstrated any “persuasive direct application of neuroscience to the practice of therapy” or to other means for bringing change.

This may be a debatable conclusion. Other Networker articles describe a few  practical change strategies that have emerged from neuroscientific discoveries. But scientific discoveries rarely have practical applications at least in the beginning.  At some time in the future neuroscience may help us understand how and why some of our change strategies work. We’ll know why some are ineffective. We will discover new practical strategies for making us more effective therapists, coaches, leaders, spiritual directors and other change agents.

Meanwhile, how do change-makers respond to neuroscience when we lack expertise in this field? As much as possible we keep abreast of what neuroscience is discovering. We encourage younger colleagues to enter one of the neuroscience/neuropsychology fields. We keep refining our skills and knowledge about methods that are proven to work. We stay cautious about using methods that have limited or no evidence-based support. We use the same caution when looking at another fad: the often-unsupported idea that if some method lacks so-called empirical evidence it is of no validity.

These are heavy issues. Please comment.

12 Comments

  1. When all the research is in, and all the testings and models are completed. When all is applied as tools for making us more effective therapists, coaches, leaders, spiritual directors and other change agents, and then applied to those we are working with …….. how does it fit with Jeremiah 17:9-10 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.”

    Or am I off the track on the purpose of this article ?

    Reply

    1. I don’t think you are off target. You raise an age-old question about how Christians bring together the divine Word of God with the divinely permitted understanding about how his creations (including the brain) work. I think about this all the time, it seems.

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  2. I don’t have a background or knowledge in neuroscience, but have been working with people for over 40 years. I’ve seen Jesus Christ change people radically–in ways beyond what science can explain at times. We also know the powerful impact that relationships, coaching, and counseling can have on people’s lives. What I’m saying is, for now, let’s keeping doing what we know works!

    Reply

    1. But keep open to what God is teaching us (allowing us to discover) through neuroscience. BTW I am sure you agree that just because we are over 40 is no reason to turn away from more recent scientific developments. There are a lot of places where I do not want to stick with what worked in the past but maybe works better now.

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  3. I find this fascinating! I Supervise a youth addiction detox facility. Most literature includes brain research but seems to point to the brains’ physical structures & mechanisms. If anything, the findings provide evidence… But little else. An interesting read I have found by Lance Dodes, The Heart of Addiction. He discusses how brain scienc has led us down the wrong path, addiction is not because of a changed brain, as neuroscience would report. It is caused by the psychological factors, unique meanings and struggles and ill-met need. Neuroscience cannot explain why a person chooses their addictive behavior today, but is able to avoid it the next time. These small changes point to personal meaning! Great post. Sean Swaby, Edmonton Alberta

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  4. A real danger in the publications about this fascinating science is – who publishes them? The risk of bias is very high; we have to continually hear the Holy Spirit, rather than take the word of the experts as the final word. IMO, the human brain is the most marvelous of all things God has created, yet it is our free will that determines our actions and decisions.

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  5. I just finished a great course with Jane Creswell on Brain-based coaching. Great content, and Jane’s a great teacher. Her integration of her faith and her understanding of neuroscience was great. I came away from the course thinking of the Robert Jastrow quote on intelligent desing: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
    –Robert Jastrow
    Before a single word is on my lips, he knows them all. He knew all my days, before one of them came to be. And for a certainty, he understands my thoughts, from afar, neurons not withstanding. If the findings of neuroscience are valid, He’s not surprised. If the conclusions of neuroscience are incorrect, and later change? No surprise to Him. God has never ‘misplaced’ anything man and his science has ‘found.’ We are fearfully and wonderfully ‘wired.’ And certainly, I believe, addressing what may be ‘bad wiring’ in an individual can be effective. Stinkin’ thinkin’ comes from somewhere. However, sustained and transformative change finds its source in God’s power.

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  6. Gary, you remind me with one course that I joined at Fuller a couple years ago–integration between neuroscience and theology. It was a powerful resource to encourage me to understand how one changes. Yes, learn more from the contribution of neuroscience is helpful.
    I wish that there is conference or particular event about neuroscience so that coaches, counselors, and whatever profession that relates to help people will be blessed.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Sharen. There are courses available (check Psychotherapy Networker) but books may be better. Look at Rock and Page, Coaching with the Brain in Mind but it tends to wander way off topic. Check Amazon for books on the brain and behavior. Authors Daniel Siegel and Daniel Amen may be good starters although these can be hard to follow unless you have at least basic familiarity with neurophysiology.

      Reply

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