Therapy

Family Dynamics, the Brain, and Psychotherapy

Our reactions to our social environment are automatic and shaped by our parents.

Posted Jan 15, 2021

 Neurons by Mike Seyfang/Flickr, CC by 2.0
Source: Neurons by Mike Seyfang/Flickr, CC by 2.0

In my opinion, the most important contribution of neurobiology to psychotherapy involves our understanding, albeit quite partial and preliminary, of the mechanisms by which we are programmed to respond to attachment figures. This understanding is sort of what is meant by sociobiology, if I may use a politically incorrect term. 

I found early on in treating personality disorders in therapy that I was no match for a patient’s parents in triggering or reinforcing their problematic (or even their positive) behavior patterns in the long term. I could coach them on how to be assertive with difficult family members ‘til the cows came home, and this might even work for a time, but, unless something was done about repetitive negative interactions with attachment figures, after a while the old patterns of self-defeating behavior almost invariably re-emerged.

Even so-called “oppositional” behavior follows this path: Oppositional children think and later automatically respond to their family as if the family wants or needs them to be a black sheep for various reasons.

Psychotherapy outcome studies seldom follow patients with self-destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns for more than a year after therapy ends, but the few studies I’ve seen that do are consistent with this clinical experience. So I had to figure out a way to help patients to make changes in their relationships with attachment figures.

When mothers and their babies interact, huge numbers of synaptic connections in the brain are made every second (see here for more details). These large numbers are “pruned” significantly during adolescence. We don’t know exactly how or why certain synapses are retained, but I suspect it is those that keep us aligned with the social behavior of our kin group and tribe. There is preliminary evidence that the pruning is dependent, much like the strength of many brain neural connections, on how often a particular neural pathway is stimulated.

Another factor involved is something called the myelination of neurons in existing neural pathways. This is the process of coating the body of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently. This process does not become complete until an individual reaches late adolescence.

With these two processes, we lose some flexibility in the brain, but the proficiency of signal transmission improves. Since we are talking in particular about those that form during interactions in infancy, it is reasonable to suspect that these interactions continue to do this. In particular, behaviors that occur in response to social cues become more automatic in order to preserve higher thinking ability for novel situations.

In addition to this, fear tracks formed early in life in particular are not as plastic as are other tracks in the brain. They never really go away, although they can be overridden by newly formed neural pathways (Lott, D. A. [2003]. Unlearning fear: calcium channel blockers and the process of extinction. Psychiatric Times, May, 9-12).

According to Neuroscientist David Eagleman on his PBS show, The Brain, about 80 percent of our behavior is done automatically in response to environmental cues (especially social cues, I might add) without any conscious deliberation. In a sense they are subconscious.

This does not mean that we lack the capacity to decide to think about and break the social rules we are usually bound by. We certainly can—this is where the family systems theorists have been wrong. But when we do, we are often faced with massive invalidation by our families, which is extremely powerful in delivering the message, “You’re wrong, change back.” When we distance ourselves from our social alliances, our level of the attachment hormone oxytocin dips and we start to feel unsafe.

The negative feelings generated by this invalidation is probably the biological price we pay if we don’t follow the seeming family dictates: the highly disturbing feeling of groundlessness described so eloquently by Irvin Yalom. This is nature’s way of telling us to behave ourselves for the good of our kin group. This has survival value for the group.

The implications for therapy are clear. In order to prevent problematic automatic behavior patterns that have been and that are continually reinforced through this powerful process, neither insight into which behaviors are performed automatically, nor which automatic belief systems keep us on the straight and narrow for our kin group, is usually enough. These patterns need to be interrupted at their source in order to help patients extinguish bad habits of both thinking (or, more often, not thinking) and behavior.