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VI How the Brain(s) Work

We are concerned here with cognitive behavior management protocols, techniques and procedures. These interventions have one thing in common; they rely on thought as the agent of change to influence emotions and behaviors. However, thought is not necessarily just the words we say to ourselves; much of what might be vitally distressing quirks may be unsayable.

Touch your finger to your nose. How did you do that? You may be surprised to learn that nobody really knows.

A neuroanatomist can tell us the area of the brain where the first nerve impulses fire to begin that movement. We can also trace the chain of nerves that conduct impulses from the brain to the appropriate muscles. But no one knows how you go from thinking about touching your nose to firing the first cell in that chain. You just decide to do it and you do it, without having to worry about the details.

Thoughts are not just psychological in nature, they are physiological – electrochemical triggers that direct and affect the chemical activity. When given an electrical command – a thought – the brain immediately does several things: It responds to the thought by releasing appropriate control chemicals into the body, and it alerts the central nervous system to any required response or action.”
Shad Helmstetter

This is at least true for those things that are under our voluntary control, such as raising your arms or touching your nose.

Now make yourself salivate.

You probably didn’t find that as easy, and you may not have been able to do it at all. That’s because salivation is not usually under our conscious control. It is controlled by a different part of the nervous system than the one that governs movement. While the central nervous system governs voluntary movement, the autonomic nervous system regulates physiologic functions that normally operate without conscious control. The autonomic nervous system doesn’t readily respond to ordinary thoughts like “salivate.” But this does not mean that it cannot be controlled.

Relax for a moment and imagine you are holding a juicy yellow lemon. Feel its coolness, its texture, and its weight in your hand. Imagine cutting it in half and squeezing the juice of one half into a glass. Perhaps some pulp and a seed or two drop into the glass. Imagine raising the glass to your lips and taking a good mouthful of the tart juice. Swish it around in your mouth, taste its sourness, and swallow.

Now did you salivate? Did you pucker your lips or make a sour face when you imagined that? If you did, that’s because your autonomic nervous system responded to your imaginary lemon juice.

Imagery is a thought process that can initiate what are normally automatic processes – and thoughts, as we have seen, have power. Imagery is a flow of thoughts you can see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. An image is an inner representation of your experience or your fantasies—a way your mind codes, stores, and expresses information.

Thus there are two major ways that we think and encode information: through logical linguistic representation and imagery.

Imagination, in this sense, has not been greatly valued in our culture. The imaginary is often equated with the fanciful, the unreal, the impractical and the magical. The premium is on the practical, the useful, the real, as it should be – but imagination nurtures human reality as a river brings life to a desert. Imagination is the language of emotion and as Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence has pointed out “emotion matters for rationality. In the dance of feeling and thought the emotional faculty guides our moment-to-moment decisions, working hand-in-hand with the rational mind, enabling – or disabling – thought itself”.

In the last twenty years, however, we have learned that imagery is a natural language of a major part of our nervous system. Critical to this understanding is the Nobel-prize-winning work of Dr. Roger Sperry and his collaborators at the University of Chicago and later at the California Institute of Technology. They have shown that the two sides of the human brain think in very different ways and are simultaneously capable of independent thought. In a real sense, we each have two brains. One thinks, as we are accustomed to thinking, with words and logic. The other, however, thinks in terms of images and feelings. And both types of thought have the power to make things happen with the body.

The essential difference between the two brains is in the way each processes information. The left brain processes information sequentially, while the right brain processes it simultaneously. Imagine a train coming around a curve in the track. An observer is positioned on the ground on the outside of the curve, and he observes the train to be a succession of separate though connected cars passing him one at a time. He can see just a little bit of the cars ahead of and behind the one he is watching. This observer has a “left-brain” view of the train.

The “right-brain” observer would be in a balloon several hundred feet above the tracks. From here s/he could not only see the whole train but also the track on which it was traveling, the countryside through which it was passing, the town it had just left, and the town to which it was headed.

This ability of the right hemisphere to grasp the larger context of events is one of the specialized functions that make it invaluable to us in cognitive healing. The imagery it produces often lets a person see the “big picture” and experience the way psychological stress or illness is related to events and feelings s/he might not have considered important. The client can see not only the single piece but also the way it’s connected to the whole. This change of perspective may allow the client to put ideas together in new ways to produce new solutions to old problems. A right-brain point of view may reveal the opportunity hidden in what seems to be a problem.

The right brain has a special relationship not only to imagery but also to emotions. This is another of the major strengths it brings to the healing adventure. Many studies have shown that the right brain is specialized to recognize emotion in facial expressions, body language, speech, and even music. This is critical to healing because emotions are not only psychological but physical states that are at the root of a great deal of illness and disease. Rudolph Virchow, a nineteenth century physician and founding father of the science of pathology remarked, “Much illness is unhappiness sailing under a physiologic flag.” Studies in England and the United States have found that from 50 to 75 percent of all problems presenting to a primary care clinic are emotional, social, or familial in origin, though they are being expressed by pain or illness.

Emotions themselves are, of course, not unhealthy. On the contrary, they are a normal response to certain life events. Failure to acknowledge and express important emotions, however, is an important factor in physical illness and psychological distress; one that is widespread in our society. In many ways we are emotional illiterates, lacking clear guidelines and traditions for expressing emotions in healthy ways. It is difficult to know what to do with distressing emotions such as grief, fear, and anger, so we cope as best we can. We may unconsciously build layer upon layer of inner defenses to protect us from feeling unpleasant feelings [experience avoidance]. But strong emotion has a way of finding routes of expression. If not recognized and dealt with for what it is, it may manifest as pain or illness.

Social and family relationships to some extent depend on our ability to process emotions internally. We don’t need to express every emotion we feel. But strong, persistent emotions need to be expressed or resolved, as their chronic denial may lead to physiologic imbalance and disease as well as psychological distress. When there is inner conflict, the mind/body is the battleground. It may pay dearly for prolonged, serious struggle. Bringing the conflicting sides, whether sides of the brain or sides of the argument, to the bargaining table may be the beginning of healing. The goal, after all, is not to become a “left-brain” or “right-brain” person, but a “whole-brain” person.

In any successful arbitration, both sides must have the opportunity to express themselves, to state their grievances, their desires, their needs, and what they can offer in the interest of peace. If they speak different languages, there must be an impartial translator willing to listen and speak for both sides, or the two must attempt to learn each other’s languages. This is why imagery is important—it is a major language of the right brain. Imagery can indicate what the person cannot ‘say’ in words – the unspeakable.

Most of us understand and use left-brain language and logic every day. We are relatively familiar with our conscious needs and desires. Imagery gives the silent right brain a chance to bring its needs to light and to contribute its special qualities to the healing process. Calling verbal or logical thinking “left-brained” and symbolic, and imaginal thinking “right-brained” is an oversimplification, but it is a useful model for thinking about some uses of imagery. Imagery allows you to communicate with your own silent mind in its native tongue. Imagery is a rich, symbolic, and highly personal language, and the more time you spend observing and interacting with your own image-making brain, the more quickly and effectively you will use it to improve your health.

Two basic interventions exist in cognitive behavior management. The first and most well known is the logical sequence of enabling the client become aware of his/her distressing thoughts; attending to those thoughts through various journal and recording mechanisms; analyzing those thoughts in a formal and public manner in which to minimize the confirmation bias and then seeking to find alternative meanings or thoughts about the distressing circumstances; and finally, to adapt to these new, more balanced and rational thoughts. This practice was popularized by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis and is generally know as cognitive behavior therapy.

The new emphasis on the ‘magical’ qualities of imagery was first developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder and had the unfortunate history of being presented in a book entitled The Structure of Magic – giving it automatically a new age connotation. Despite this, such ‘right brained’ aspects have developed within the traditional helping professions and combined with the left side interventions make up the cognitive behavior resources.

Not all of these interventions have been scientifically vetted. Part of the difficulty is in creating measurements for what is ineffable. However, all of them seem to have evidence based data – although sometimes anecdotal – that they have brought relief to some clients. The decision of the clinician about usage must be contingent upon a) the nature of the client and b) the benign qualities of the intervention.