Interpersonal Neurobiology, a.k.a. IPNB is a term coined in 1999 by psychologist Dr. Daniel Siegel to describe the interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand the mind and mental health. A dimension of IPNB is the study of human nervous systems in relation to one another – the interpersonal aspect of neurobiology. I’m lucky that my supervisor Juliane Taylor-Shore LPC-S, LMFT-S has studied under both Dr. Daniel Siegel and Bonnie Badenoch, a therapist and author at the forefront of the application of IPNB to psychotherapy. Jules’ specialty is IPNB and she encourages us to utilize Badenoch’s ‘The Brain-Savvy Therapist’s Workbook.’ The workbook artfully integrates neuroscience with psychotherapy. Badenoch’s advocacy regarding mindfulness caught my attention:
…mindful attention is one key agent of change. From the moment we hear our patients’ voices for the first time, our minds may begin to reach toward understanding, forming pictures of the many layers being shared. This kind of deep listening is the beginning of mindful awareness in the interpersonal realm, a tender, curious openness to another person’s body, nervous system, and inner world. In this caring observer state of mind, our more integrated activation can begin to weave our patients’ brains into similar patterns, bit by unseen bit. In this way, our ongoing attentiveness also teaches our patients’ minds the pathways of mindful awareness and we will see their capacity for greater mindsight gradually emerge. As time passes, we may sense that our two attending minds are creating an environment in which neural nets holding old wounds may open to the safety and comfort being offered. In this way, we develop a foundation that can support whatever else may need to happen in therapy.
In the above passage we come to understand the power of awareness and the ability of a mindful listener to help another through difficulty. If we think of depression and anxiety and other mental heath conditions as dis-regulation of the brain and nervous system then mental health may be the ability of the mind to handle the inherent stress of life without becoming de-stabilized. Depending on our temperament, we may soothe ourselves during times of difficulty, but we all need help sometimes. If we’re lucky, we talk with a close friend or family member that deeply listens to us. Oftentimes, just having another closely listen helps us feel better. Using Bonnie’s IPNB language to understand what is happening when we share our difficulties, a well-integrated individual helps bring a disintegrated individual back to stability and greater mindsight (more on this later). If we’ve spent time with children we may have seen this phenomena of co-regulation. When a young child is hurt or upset they usually seek comfort from their caregivers. Perhaps the adult says something like ‘I see you’re upset, tell me what happened,” - this is attunement. After receiving re-assurance the child feels ready to separate and return to interacting with the world. In this way, parents are teaching their children that other humans will help when they’re overwhelmed. However, many of us with complex childhoods may have received conflicting messages about care when we were upset. Our caregivers may have amplified our difficulties and caused us to feel shame or to turn our emotions inwards. Using IPNB language, parts of us may have become disintegrated. As adults, these difficulties may manifest as depression, anxiety, rage, or a lack of close relationships. Engaging with a attentive and caring therapist helps us to heal these old wounds and re-integrate parts.
As our sense of safety and comfort grows with a therapist we develop greater mindsight. Another of Dr. Siegel’s terms, mindsight is the ability to perceive the mind of the self and of others. Buddhists might recognize this same idea as mindfulness. Mindsight puts separation between our feelings/thoughts and our overall experience. It allows us to choose how we respond to our emotions. Instead of ‘I am depressed’ we think ‘I notice I’m feeling depression’. This small difference, allows us to not be defined by our feelings and thoughts and remain stuck in self-reinforcing loops. We accept our feelings and, eventually, move through them. Mindsight also allows us to help others who are disintegrated by staying stable and available when they are overwhelmed.
Bonnie concludes her passage on mindfulness with a call for formal mindful practice such as meditation or yoga:
As we will see, the addition of formal mindfulness practices can also deepen and speed our integrated process at times. However we approach the inclusion of mindfulness, the accumulating body of research tells us that sustained practice produces not only momentary functional changes and neural connections, but enduring structural changes as well. That is, states of mind that originally require effort can become effortless traits of being with practice.
Bonnie highlights the new scientific insights regarding the physiological brain changes produced by mindfulness practice. Interestingly, these findings integrate well with Buddhist spiritual concepts. Based on functional MRIs, scientists have learned that long-term meditators have a well-developed orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) with strong connections to the amygdala - a deeper area of the brain responsible for emotional reaction. It is thought that stronger linkages between these areas allows for greater control of emotions. By consistently meditating, practitioners are able to strengthen the synapses between the OFC and the amygdala actually changing the structure of the brain. Interestingly, the OFC is located in the skull behind the brow, the same area where Buddhists believe the third eye chakra to be located. A Buddhist spiritual concept, the third eye chakra represents humans’ ability to develop higher consciousness and enlightenment. The third eye perceives extra-sensory information that is only available through dedicated and long-term meditation practice and adherence to Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists intuitively knew that developing the OFC led to higher consciousness.
As brain science continues to advance there will be exciting cross-pollination between psychology, spirituality, and religion. We will continue to learn the specific characteristics of a healthy brain and how we can improve our own minds. We know now that being consistently attentive to our own minds and as well as to the minds of others is of great benefit and produces long-term changes.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.