Changing Habits of Mind: A Brain-based Theory of Psychotherapy

Excerpt

Introduction

Changing Habits of Mind describes a personality theory based on the interactions of well-known and thoroughly researched information-processing brain systems.  It is a radically different way of thinking about human nature.  My theory is paradigmatically different from conventional theories based on prejudiced, behavioral observations, which in turn are based on culturally biased metatheories about human personality. 

The first half of the book describes the relationship of the brain to personality.  Given that the theory was inspired by my practice as a relational psychotherapist, the second half of the book describes relational psychotherapy.  Most specifically, I stress the importance of the therapist’s personality in therapeutic success – an aspect that has been neglected in theories about the therapeutic relationship.  I introduce a theory of psychotherapy practice which provides the first theoretical guide to psychotherapeutic practice, by describing the brain’s relationship to personality processes and by also presenting a theory of dyadic interaction that encourages therapists to be aware of the importance of the need for them to be emotionally intelligent. 

Too frequently, one or more age-inappropriate personalities keep the brain outside of its steady-state (homeostatic) condition.  When this happens, the individual’s ability to live a self-fulfilling life can be seriously impaired.  It takes a brain-based theory of personality to explain how to undo the automaticity of age-inappropriate personality structures that keep the brain and, therefore its personality, in turmoil.  My theory explains this human dilemma. 

The brain’s homeostatic process is governed by three information-processing systems:  orientation, simplification, and display.  The brain has a genetically structured orientation system to deal with information it is unable to process automatically.  This system is responsive to both sensory information from the external environment and to information about the body, including the brain itself, that are not processed by sensory systems.  I call the latter “nonsensory information.” 

My theory of the mind explains (1) orientation as the biological function of self-process which includes emotionality, (2) simplification as a cortical process that classifies complexity into simpler categories, and (3) display, which is classified as consciousness that displays both information in focal awareness and the background setting to which information is related.  Display holds information steady in awareness, giving the cortex time to simplify it into categories that can automatically process it. When the orientation process interacts with the cortex and neurological systems comprising consciousness, humans have a mind. 

 The nerves of the brain have survival properties similar to muscles:  practice makes permanent, not perfect; use it or lose it; and grow or die. The phenomenal evolutionary growth of the human brain (which I describe in the following pages) includes the growth of the prefrontal cortex, the home of the mind and personality.  The prefrontal cortex can be thought of as an evolutionary regulator: it stabilizes the brain, enabling us to live longer, more creative lives. Because it is so complex it is also a major destabilizer of the Neurological Self.   Neurological systems are self-perpetuating and with repeated use become functionally autonomous.  Repetitive practice over years of maturation makes neurological systems permanent – not perfect. 

Personality structures, as neurological systems, follow the same rules listed above.  As such, they are change-resistant.  Like physical habits they are relatively unaffected by explanation, persuasion, and (especially) intention.  However, interrupting the automaticity of the operations of habits causes them to lose their habit strength.  The interruption of automaticity underlies most successful habit-breaking systems, which most psychotherapies do: addiction breaking systems, coaching of various kinds, mindfulness exercises, and group process systems.  But, the interruption of neurological systems from which personality habits emerge in all of these efforts is largely incidental and/or accidental.  This is particularly true of deeply embedded personality habit systems which are nonsensory experiences of neurological structures. 

Habits which are not too emotionally painful can be escaped by a person on his/her own, by repeatedly interrupting the brain’s automaticity; but changing intense emotional systems which endure within the person from childhood is best facilitated with the help of another person with intimate knowledge of the help-seeking person’s emotional history.  Ideally, the professional helper is an emotionally skilled therapist.

My theory is an introduction to a way of thinking about personality.  It is not a final solution, but it has two features that make it unlike other theories of personality.  First, it declares that personality is the brain’s major autoregulatory process.  Unlike other theories which attempt to describe it singularly (the search for meaning, power, or love) or dualistically (good/bad, pleasure/pain) it uses the interactions of three variables, making them able to describe the brain’s operating dynamics and the nature of the mind.  Adding another variable enables the theory to describe the complexity of personality dynamics in a much richer way than we have in the past.  Best of all, brain-based definitions of psychological variables enable my theory to provide concrete descriptions of interactions between these variables, rather than the vague definitions about which most theorists complain.

Finally, adding the brain to personality theory is attractive to different populations of readers: a neurologist has found it meaningful in his clinical practice and pain research; relational psychotherapists have found my description of dyadic engagement helpful in their practices; analytic therapists have found utility in my integration of emotionality with self theory; and therapists of other persuasions have worked with my theory to increase their own emotional intelligence.  My theory also contributes to personality, emotion theory, and self theory so that psychologists in general will find it meaningful, and lay people have found the theory gives them new tools for self-analysis.

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