The Neuroscience of Language Explains How and Why Psychotherapy Cures

Drawing much inspiration from a lecture given by Sapolsky (2011), an expert in the neuro- and biological field, I would like to discuss the use of language, or — more accurately put–¬†communication, as a cure for psychological pain.

The profession of Psychotherapy, at its formation, was termed the “talking cure” (Freud & Breuer, 1895).¬† This literally means talk as a means of relieving one of symptoms or psychical and often also somatic nature. What the term “talking” does not describe is the “listening” from the other person. In psychotherapy it is the talking to someone who is actively listening that cures. Read also: The Psychotherapeutic Alliance.

Language is in verbal and non-verbal communication

Talking and listening is communication. When we think of communication, we think of dialogue, and language. Language, according to Sapolsky is more than speaking or writing verbally. Neuroscience has indicated, especially through studying the neurobiology of sign language learning of completely deaf individuals, that whether it is verbal or non-verbal, the communication process is the same. This means that language is not merely a motoric process (i.e. about moving lips and tongue), but rather a cognitive process.

Language is unique to humans

Human communication has universal qualities. All forms of human languages have semanticity, embedded clauses, all human language can “talk about things”, can talk strategy. There is arbitrariness of language, in which words are not tied to meaning. People are able to tell lies, and say one thing and mean/feel another. Language is also invented and re-invented. Human children have innate ability to coin phrases and say things they have never heard before (N. Chompsky).

Unlike animals that have specific vocals for specific emotions, human language is not tied to specific emotions. This explains why in therapy we notice a quality of communication in which there is a “content-affect split”.

Non-verbal aspect of language

We do not communicate with words alone, there is also verbal tone, sounds, body movement, hand gestures, facial expression. Gestalt therapists look out for these during therapy as well, since the non-verbal language reveal often much of the emotional content of the communication. Certainly emailing does not allow for non-verbal communication. Perhaps that is why many of us feel more secure communication over messenger apps to even talking on the phone.

Neuro-centers of the brain that affect language

Ninety percent of humans process verbal language in the left hemisphere of the brain. The other (right) hemisphere, process the non-verbal and emotional content of the communication. The Broca’s area is connected to the motoric nature of language production. The Wernicke’s center is responsible for language comprehensibility. The connection between these two centers connect the two functions.

Through studies of biological brain disfunction due to disease, degeneration or injury, scientists have managed to identify which part of the brain is utilized for which function. Through neuro-imaging, we know that in tourettes syndrome, for example, where the sufferer curses uncontrollably, the limbic system is hyperactive. The limbic system is not known to be responsible for emotions and not language production, but language is connected to the formation of emotions.

Many have also proven that singing is a way for people who suffer damage to the Broca’s area (and hence have problems talking). Singing activates the right hemisphere and emotional centers of the brain.

Hence the phenomenon of the talking cure; an emotional weight off the shoulders when on talks emotionally to someone who is willing to listen.  One can also see how verbal language is only a part of communication. Clients who have problems with speech (in particular in Alzheimers patients) respond to communication with music.

 

 

References:

Freud, S., & Breuer, J. (1895). Studies on Hysteria. SE 2.

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