Three Pounds of Theoretical Elegance in 888 Words

Rita and Driftwood 2017

As you may or may not recall, we have several new features in our forthcoming Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice (3rd ed.) text. Here’s a draft of what we’ve tentatively titled a “Brain Box” from Chapter One.

Brain Box 1.1

Three Pounds of Theoretical Elegance

John Sommers-Flanagan

This Brain Box is a brief, oversimplified, description of the brain. I apologize, in advance, to you and to brains everywhere for this oversimplification and likely misrepresentation. The problem is that even if I took a whole chapter or a whole book to describe these three pounds of elegance, it would still be an oversimplification. Such is the nature of the human brain.

You may already be familiar with the concepts described here. If so, it’s a review. You may be less familiar; then, it’s an introduction. For more information on neuroscience and therapy, we recommend Neuroscience for counselors and therapists: Integrating the sciences of mind and brain by Chad Luke.

Brain Structure: The human brain has indentations, folds, and fissures. It’s slick and slimy. Put simply, it’s not a pretty sight. But the brain’s form maximizes its function. One example: If you could lay out and spread its surface area onto a table, it would be about the size of two pages of a newspaper. The folds and fissures allow more surface area to fit within the human skull.

Scientists describe the brain as having four lobes: The frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal (see Figure 1.2). The fissures or sulci of the brain demarcate the four lobes. At the bottom of the brain is the brainstem and cerebellum.

Each lobe is generally associated with different brain functions. I say generally because brains are specific and systemic. Although individuals have similar brain structures, individual brains are more unique than a fingerprint on a snowflake.

The frontal lobe is primarily associated with complex thought processes such as planning, reasoning, and decision-making (much, but not all, of what psychoanalysts refer to as ego functions). The frontal lobe also appears involved in expressive language and contains the motor cortex.

The parietal lobe includes the somatosensory cortex. This surface area involves sensory processing (including pain and touch). It also includes spatial or visual orientation.

The temporal lobes are located symmetrically on each side of the brain (just above the ears). They’re involved in auditory perception and processing. They contain the hippocampus and are involved in memory formation and storage.

The occipital lobe is located in the back of the brain and is the primary visual processing center.

I’m using all four lobes right now to type, read, edit, re-think, re-type, re-read, shift my position, and recall various relevant and irrelevant experiences. The idea that we only use 10% of our brains is a silly myth. They even busted it on the Mythbusters television show.

The brain includes two hemispheres. They’re separated by the longitudinal fissure and communicate with each other primarily via the corpus callosum. The hemispheres are nearly mirror images of each other in size and shape. However, their neurotransmitter quantities and receptor subtypes are quite different. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and is primarily involved in spatial, musical, and artistic/creative functions. In contrast, the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, and is involved in language, logical thinking, and linear analysis. There are exceptions to these general descriptions and these exceptions are larger in brains of individuals who are left-handed. Woo-hoo for lefties.

The limbic system is located deep within the brain. It has several structures involved in memory and emotional experiencing. These include, but are not limited to the: amygdala, basal ganglia, cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and thalamus. The limbic system and its structural components are currently very popular; they’re like the Beyoncé of brain science.

Neurons and Neurotransmitters: Communication within the brain is electrical and chemical (aka electrochemical = supercool).

Neurons are nerve cells (aka brain cells) that communicate with one another. There are many neuron types. Of particular relevance to counseling and psychotherapy are mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fire when you engage in specific actions (e.g., when waving hello) and the same neurons fire as you observe others engaging in the same actions. These neurons are central to empathy and vicarious learning, but many other brain structures and systems are also involved in these complex behaviors (see Chapter 5).

Neurotransmitters are chemicals packed into synaptic vesicles. They’re released from an axon (a part of a neuron that sends neural transmissions), travel through the synaptic cleft (the space between neurons), and into a connecting dendrite (a part of a neuron that receives neural transmissions), with some “leftover” vesicles re-absorbed into the original axon (referred to as “reuptake,” as in serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors).

There are somewhere between 30 and 100 (or more) neurotransmitters (NTs) in the brain, divided into three categories: (a) Small molecule NTs (e.g., acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA, Glutamate, histamine, noradrenaline, norepinephrine, serotonin, etc.); (b) neuropeptides (e.g., endorphins, oxytocin, etc.); and (c) “other” (e.g., adenosine, endocannadinoids, nitric oxide, etc.). Neurotransmitters are classified as excitatory or inhibitory or both. For example, norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, dopamine is both excitatory and inhibitory, and serotonin is inhibitory. Although several chemical imbalance hypotheses regarding the etiology of mental disorders have been promoted (e.g., “low” serotonin at the synaptic cleft causes depression), when it comes to the brain, I caution you against enthusiastic acceptance of any simplistic explanations. A significant portion of the scientific community consider the dopamine and serotonin hypotheses to be mostly mythical (see Breggin, 2016; Edwards, Bacanu, Bigdeli, Moscati, & Kendler, 2016; Moncrieff, 2008, 2015).

Figure 1.2: A Look at the Brain — If the image was here, you would see it. In its absence, use your brain to imagine it. Yes. It’s beautiful. In the real textbook, we’ll have a real image of a brain and not my snarky suggestion that you use more than 10% of your brain to imagine a brain.


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