Looking into the mind

A recent article in BACP’s[1] publication Therapy Today rightly challenges a tendency to attribute psychological difficulties exclusively to biological factors (known as ‘the biomedical model’). Kenneth Gergen[2] is concerned about new developments in brain-scanning technology and he suggests that the results are being used to provide backing for a short-sighted biomedical approach.

In summary, the biomedical model takes no account of the impact of psychological, environmental, and social influences. Its premise is that our physical and psychological health is determined ultimately by our chemistry.

In common with the counselling and psychotherapy profession generally, I seriously question this analysis of what influences our minds. It seems far too narrow. Certainly we can attribute our state of mind to our chemistry, but if we stop there it leaves unexplored the question of what affects our chemistry in the first place.

I have made other references to this issue in previous posts, but I’m prompted to do so again by the recent and unfortunate demise of Kids Company, the children’s charity. Leaving aside the political arguments about why the charity had to close, it undoubtedly did excellent work from its centres in London, Bristol and Liverpool. Why is this relevant to the brain-scanning issue?

During the last decade the charity worked in partnership with the Institute of Psychiatry on research into young people exposed to chronic violence and neglect. This project was called ‘The Kids Company Brainwave’. The first evaluation was published in 2008. It was one of the clearest analyses I had seen of how our brains and our psychological development are affected by our early environment. The physical differences between scans of the brains of children who had suffered extreme neglect and of those who hadn’t were obvious and astonishing.

So whilst Kenneth Gergen’s concerns about the latest developments in brain-scanning strike a cautionary note, the knowledge we have gained from these investigations has been invaluable. The Kids Company study is just one example. Coincidentally also in 2008, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time[3] radio programme considered the topic of neuroscience. Among those taking part was the professor of applied neuroimaging at the University of Warwick, Gemma Calvert.

Gemma Calvert’s key message was that it is more appropriate to focus on ‘networks’ of parts of the brain than it is to try to identify one single area as exclusively responsible for this or that function (memory, for example). Even more remarkable is the ability of the brain to ‘rewire’ itself (known as ‘neuroplasticity’) following physical or psychological damage and, crucially, in response to therapy.

This all goes to show what a flexible organ the brain is. It also offers a strong message of hope to those who consider their own psychological injury to be beyond repair.


[1] The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy [2] Senior Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA [3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fbd26