Insights from neuro-biology to soul

A presentation for a workshop first given to a BACP workshop in Cardiff ‘Working with soul in counselling and psychotherapy’ in 2017, was shared with the group by the presenter, Dr Peter Bowes.

Peter’s interest is in developing a psychology of spirituality. He works with his understanding that human beings universally need a language we call ‘spiritual’ to speak of their experience. What is the source of that experience? Before we attribute it to an external influence such as ‘Spirit’ or ‘god’, it is responsible to explore it in other ways and certainly in today’s world to do so with awareness of current neuro-biological research.

The Powerpoint presentation used first the work of archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and Steven Mithen to point back to the ‘big bang’ of human evolution which in say a 6 million year history happened say between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago. This relatively short event saw the end of Neanderthals and the continuation of our species, homo sapiens.

These two authors offer different hypotheses. That of David Lewis-Williams points to the displays on the walls of the Lascaux Caves in the Durdogne. He refers to modern understanding of altered states of consciousness (see for example the work of Charles Tart) to illuminate the role of the shaman in these early communities. However, by this time the Neanderthal extinction had happened. The hypothesis is therefore about the capacity developed by homo sapiens that did not occur in the Neanderthals. Mithen uses his Cathedral and Swiss Army knife metaphors to attempt to offer how the increased ‘cognitive fluidity’ demonstrated by the artefacts left behind by the one and not by the other, might have developed. Each had perhaps the discrete areas of intelligence needed for survival but only homo sapiens was able to have the cognitive fluidity that linked these otherwise disparate intelligences together. Thus archaeologists note, for example, the development of increasingly elaborate burial rituals in homo sapiens which do not occur for Neanderthals.

So already questions form for us as to what prompted that development? What ‘drives’ that development? Can that theorising stay within a paradigm that insists there  is not an external power at work or are we driven in our civilisation to posit external forces and hence our religions or posit aliens and the ‘scientific fiction’ culture that develops with it ?

Another construct found more helpful to the author who is a therapist comes for that reference to altered states of consciousness. The shaman whose experience is of such altered states (dreaming say to psychosis as others might define some such experience), has power which inevitably others want to share. The cave paintings are offered by Lewis-Williams as arising out of that shared experience. No attempt to understand humans neurobiologiclly or indeed within any other disciple can be complete without taking cognisance of the universal and comprehensive experience of such altered states. Books such as The Irreducible Mind  (Edward and Emily Williams Kelly)  and The Mystical Mind (d’Aqulla) make strong pleas for and offer in depth evidence for such states.

More recent research and thinking by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary explores the operations and functions of the left and right brain hemispheres and the manner in which each half facilitates and inhibits the other. Again developmentally one might wonder about the need for such difference and sameness and what drives it to occur.

There is, of course, a vast amount of research and literature about these themes. Peter’s aim for this presentation in the context of soul in counselling and supervision is to draw attention to the wondering that happens when considering the apparent ‘big bang’ development in the growth of homo sapiens.

The work of Jaak Panskepp, who sadly died last year, detailed in his The Archaeology of the Mind, brings contribution from his neuro-biological research to our awareness. Acknowledging the plasticity of the mind/brain, he shows the existence of primary, secondary and tertiary brain areas. In the primary sub cortical area, he demonstrates the existence of seven primary affects to which he looks for the origins of our survival as a species and the dynamic that drives our evolution linking to the most fundamental of these affects, that of SEEKING. The capitals denote that this affect is not that we normally associate with our emotions. Further more, Sandra Paulsen, demonstrates that these affects can be damaged by our early attachment processes and that damaged, they can be ‘reset’.

However, returning to the purpose of the presentation, bowing before the extraordinary nature of the human being who is our client, should surely caution us from a profoundly left brain driven belief that we can know what is wrong with them and that by instruction such as that offered often by cognitive behavioural therapies to our tertiary level brain processes – a top down understanding- the desired changes can take place. Neuro-biological research is suggesting or showing to us that ‘bottom up’ processes are essential and that of Panskepp in particular must invite our attention to the conditions that are necessary such that change at primary processing levels takes place. We already know for example that EMDR stumbled upon those conditions some 25 plus years ago and only now is the neuro-biological research beginning to show us why this might be so.

Fundamentally, if we were to ‘know’ what those conditions are, then as therapists we might consider ourselves morally and ethically bound to create them for our clients. This observation will change the way psychotherapy is delivered in the near future.

St Augustine (354-430 AD) sagely observed years ago “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

Perhaps then we need as therapists to so value and love our clients that we hear more sensitively their experience of their world in their mind/brains with wonder and willingness to learn of the experiences of others. We may be more willing to comprehend the mystery of that experience that needs the language of spirituality, and to listen with awe to the breadth of those expressions. Each of us can be said to be creatures seeking, and that dynamic finds its source in those of our clients as well as our in our selves. What greater respect can we demonstrate? Are we witnesses to the emergence of soul?

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Insights from neuro-biology to soul

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