Introduction: Found units
The discourse on the mind-body relation and its implications for psychotherapy present particular tones today; in fact, following the recent and extraordinary development of neuroscience, the demand for a unitary conception of the human being has become more and more important.
In fact, Western culture as a whole, from Plato to Descartes to modern science, was built on fragmentations and dichotomies, beginning with the fundamental separation between soul and body. Indeed, the prevailing current of thought has since considered philosophy geek until today, the “psyche” as the place of recognition of the “identity” of the subject. However, this place of identification contains in itself the principle of separation because, as self-consciousness, the “psyche” is first thought for itself and therefore implies the separation of its own corporality.
We have therefore reduced the body to an “object”, a pure agglomeration of organs: it is with this “objectifying” gaze that the medical sciences have considered it and its manifestations, excluding any explanation. evoking not mere biological accidents and definitively excluding the relationship of the body with its world and thus with its modalities of existence (Onnis, 1985).
However, these last fifteen years have seen a genuine scientific revolution brought forth by numerous studies, especially in the field of neuroscience: they have led to the requirement to go beyond the separations and the dichotomies between psyche and soma, not on the basis of abstract evaluations based on the principles of “the inseparable psychosomatic unity of the individual”, but based on scientifically established data.
By analyzing the mind-body relation in this perspective, it becomes necessary to re-examine the meaning that is attributed to the concept of mind. In everyday language, “mind” is associated with higher intellectual faculties, though, and especially with what we call “reason.” However, writes Damasio (1995), one of the authors who most contributed to this scientific revolution, “in reason cooperate the” high “level brain regions and the” low “level brain regions, from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and brainstem. In the neural edifice of reason, the lower levels regulate the elaboration of emotions and feelings as well as the somatic functions necessary for the survival of the organism.this takes place directly within the chain of operations that generates the higher conquests of reasoning, decision-making and, by extension, social behavior, and creativity”.
Damasio’s conception, which evokes the “Descartes error” in this respect, is not speculative: it is based on careful observation of patients with neurological disorders, who associate themselves with the loss of decision-making abilities, an obvious impairment of the ability to experience feelings.
Far from being antagonists or intruders in the world of reason, emotion, feeling, and biological regulation have a role in the functioning of the human mind which feeds on them and has its roots in the body and in its contacts with the environment.
This is what led Damasio to assert that the “physiological processes we call” spirit “derive from a structural and functional whole rather than a single brain: it is only in the context of the interaction of ‘an organism, that is to say, the whole body with the environment, we can understand the mental phenomena’.
We can see how close this scientifically based conception is to the anticipatory assessment of Bateson (1984) who considered the concept of “spirit” as the result of “a circular soma-psyche-environment continuum”.
But in the foreground, it is the centrality of the body as seat of emotions and means of connection with the environment, which is highlighted, because it is an indispensable reference framework for the neural processes that we define as being the “spirit”.
When we talk about brain and spirit, Damasio adds, it is not common to refer to organs. “Faced with the obviousness that the mind derives from the functioning of the neurons, one discusses only them, as if their functioning could be independent of that of the rest of the body. But when I studied memory, language, and reason disorders in human beings with brain damage, the idea that mental activity, in its simpler aspects as in its higher aspects, required both the brain and the body, has become more and more important. In my opinion, the body offers the brain much more than a mere support or a simple modulation: it provides the basic material for brain representations.The soul breathes through the body, and the suffering, whether it comes from the skin or from a mental image, takes place in the flesh”.
The terms and experiences reported by Damasio can not be more clear to emphasize the existence of inseparable links between mind and body. This association is confirmed and deepened by other research conducted in the field of neuroscience.
We would like to address them in this article by highlighting that where one touches on the delicate issue of mental processes, neuroscience penetrates into territories usually maintained by psychologyand psychotherapy. On the contrary, they deal with themes that are not in dissonance with other disciplines, but seem instead to provide confirmation and support at the neurobiological level of clinical experiences, and the empirical results of developmental psychology, infant research and dynamics of the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the objectives of this article is precisely to underline how, from the moment when one can recover the lost body-mind unity for too long, it becomes possible to recover another unit: the one that unites psychology, psychotherapy and neuroscience.
If, after Freud’s generous but vain attempts in his “Sketch for a Scientific Psychology” (1895), neuroscience was considered antagonistic to the disciplines of the psyche, given the predominance in all fields of a reductionist epistemology today. On the contrary, the presuppositions of a “new alliance” between neuroscience and psychotherapy resurface. We will try to highlight some of the aspects.
We will first outline the main elements of neuroscience research and then discuss the implications for psychotherapy, and in particular the systemic approach.
Neuroscience and the study of the mind
Recent research on mental processes has been greatly facilitated by neuroimaging techniques (in particular, Functional Magnetic Resonance (fMRI) = Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that have enabled in vivo brain study.
A significant cross-sectional element that emerges from most research is the evidence of the role of psychotherapy in inducing structural changes in the brain through the formation of new synaptic connections. Speech, and therefore certainly all the emotional components that accompany it, induces biochemical changes in the brain, whereas before, this effect was generally reserved for pharmacotherapy. The word “medicine”, therefore! (see Kandel, 1999). This is what psychotherapists, aware of the healing power of words, have always supported, but who is currently finding an obvious demonstration,
Kandel and LeDoux’s research: “implicit memory”
Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000, focused his research mainly on learning and memorization processes. In studying responses to nociceptive stimuli induced in marine molluscs, he distinguished “short-term memory” and “long-term” memory; moreover, he has shown that the transition from one to the other is not only linked to the prolonged repetition of the stimulus and therefore to the simple “strengthening” of the existing neural connections, but is due to the fact that there is an activation to constitute entirely new synaptic connections. This phenomenon, located at levels of major complexity, is also found in the brains of higher mammals and humans.
From these data on the modalities of “stable storage of memories”, the implicit memory which is essentially an effective memory, emotional, linked to somatic perceptions; it has its seat in the limbic system, and especially in the amygdala. It accompanies the child’s learning from birth, and is the only one present during the first two years of his life; it is said to be implicit because it does not associate with the consciousness of remembering; the explicit memory which is, on the other hand, a declarative and semantic memory; it develops information from the hippocampus, an integrative brain structure connected to the cortex and maturing at around 18 months of age.
LeDoux (1998 and 2003) reviews these themes in his studies on the ” emotional brain”It emphasizes that implicit memory is essentially influenced by events and emotional experiences whose memory – which is an emotional memory – governs conduct without an explicit awareness of past experience and learning. These emotional memories go beyond consciousness because they are stored as networks of associations in sub-cortical structures like the amygdala in particular, which is, according to LeDoux “the emotional heart” of the brain. It is the seat of implicit memory which, the only memory existing until the age of two, provides the basis for successive learning; being plastic, it can change in the course of life. This type of memory has a phylogenetic justification through the survival experiments of the species:if they produce less precise responses than those of cortical origin – the high way – which are elaborate, but slower; they, therefore, make it possible, according to LeDoux, “to start responding to potentially dangerous stimuli before knowing exactly what they are about. This direct path can be at the origin of emotional responses that at the very moment, we do not understand “(LeDoux 1998).
When the memory is stored in the implicit memory, the associative networks to which it is bound must reach a certain threshold of activation so that it reappears, as is the case for similar and sufficiently intense experiments that occur repeatedly in time.
Let’s take a few brief considerations, which will be discussed in more detail below: First, it is possible to consider the centrality of emotion as an authentic bridge between biology and the influences of the environment, between nature and Culture.
Emotions also enable us to interpret unconscious mental activity by extending the notion of the Freudian unconscious, the place of repression, to a non-repressed, preverbal, presymbolic unconscious that would be associated in particular with the first experiences of life.
Research on implicit memory provides a neurobiological basis for the “implicit relational knowledge” studied in the field of infant research and that developmental psychologist (in particular, Daniel Stern) see as essential in the early interpersonal experiences of child (starting with those treated in models of attachment) because they are at the base of the construction of his inner world.
Edelman’s research: the “present remembered”
Edelman, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1972, also focuses his attention on the problem of memory. For this author (1991), the memory should not be considered as a place of archiving where memories are deposited according to a given organization and codification because the memories do not preserve an integral form but significant traces.
Research shows the existence of fragments of memories that, when remembered in the present, become part of a process with particular connotations depending on the interactive context of the moment. So we can say that memory has its seat in interactions interpersonal. This is how we argue with Edelman that paradoxically, it is the present and not the past that we are attentive to recognize and recall (“the present remembered”).
It is therefore clear that while current research on autobiographical memory (see Neisser & Winograd 1988, Rosenfeld 1988) suggests that almost all memories are reconstructed under the influence of the present context in which they are recalled, we must deduce as Stern (2006a) has made clear, that “memory is built in the interface between the intrapsychic (the representation) and the present interaction” and that therefore, it is in the dynamic exchange between intrapsychic and interactive that we must search the roots of mental processes.
In fact, we can dare to speak about the relational “extension” of the activity of the mind and pre-announce an essential question to which we will return later: to what extent, if the emotional intensity is adequate, the interactive context Does the specificity of the therapeutic relationship promote the pre-identification of memories and their re-development?
Siegel’s research: the “relational spirit”
As for the relational aspects of the mind, Siegel’s research helps us to go further because they start from the assumption that the mind is defined in the interactions between neurophysiological processes and interpersonal relationships.
All of his research gave birth to a very interesting scientific approach, connected to the field of psychotherapy and relational sciences: the “interpersonal neurobiology”.
In this perspective, interpersonal relationships ensure, since the first phases of life, a determining function in the orientation of the development of the mental activities of the child and the associated neural structures. It is in this sense that Siegel speaks of the ” relational spirit “.
His research confirms on a scientific level a premonitory intuition of Bateson (1984) who conceived the mind as a “metafunction” organizing the vital processes and feeding itself in the relation with the environment through a continuous dynamic of inter – reciprocal influences. Again, if we think back to psychotherapy, these studies refer to a therapeutic process fundamentally based on the relational exchange between “minds that meet” (Aron 2004).
Damasio’s research: a new synthesis between emotions and rationality
Damasio’s research, mentioned in the introduction, highlights that emotions are a fundamental food for rationality, and are for the mind an anchor to the body as a whole and in its environment.
The “error of Descartes”, according to Damasio, was to subordinate the mind to the regulation of neurobiological functions without taking into account the circularity that leads the functions to influence and feed the spirit itself. Thus, in Cartesian logic, the reason is separated from the body.
Rizzolatti’s research: “mirror neurons”
The research group of the Institute of Neurophysiology of the University of Parma, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, made in the early 90’s an extraordinary discovery for the understanding of mental processes: that of “mirror neurons” (“mirror” neurons “).
Mirror neurons, initially detected in the premotor cortex of macaques (Rizzolatti et al. , 1996, Gallese et al. , 1996), activate when finalized actions are performed, but also when we observe the same actions performed by others (obviously, in this second situation, the inhibition of the motor act is associated).
Successive neurophysiological studies based on different experimental methods (in particular fMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), have shown that the human brain is also endowed with a system of mirror neurons located in the parietal and pre-motor cortical regions. , with two basic functions: to control the execution of the actions and above all, to allow them to be understood . Learning and understanding of the actions of others is done through a process of imitation.
In addition, experimental results indicate that the same chains of mirror neurons are involved not only in recognizing the action of the other, but also in the “why” of the action, ie in the intention that motivated it. These “cognitive” processes are not simply interrelated (as classic cognitive science asserts), but are structured on the basis of circuits that “make it possible to understand the meaning and intentions of the other in what it does if we imitate and reproduce in our body its action (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2006).
It is this process that Gallese designates as an ” embodied simulation” (Gallese 2005b, Gallese et al. , 2006).
However, other important phenomena are made possible thanks to this magnificent mechanism of embodied simulation due to mirror neurons.
The first concerns linguistic comprehension: contrary to the classical assumption that the meaning of a linguistic expression is understood through the activation of a symbolic mental representation, some research indicates that it is based on “embodied” mechanisms. , therefore related to the body. Thus, nervous structures that ensure the organization of the motor execution of actions also have a role in the semantic understanding of the linguistic expressions that represent them (Glember & Robertson, 2000, Gallese & Lakoff, 2005).
The second phenomenon concerns living in reflection of the emotions and sensations of others, which, as we shall see later, has essential implications in psychotherapy. Research on mirror neurons shows that when we observe a facial expression of another person, we are able to grasp the emotional state (eg of disgust or pleasure): “his emotion is reconstructed, experienced and embodied , and therefore understood directly through an incarnated simulation that produces a body condition shared by the observer “(Gallese et al. , 2006). This is a resonance phenomenon that Rizzolatti calls “viscero-motor resonance” (2006) and that Goldman & Sripada (2004) call “resonance without mediation”.
So, when we observe an emotional state in someone else, for example a suffering face, we can understand it by putting ourselves in its place because we share the same pain in our body .
This means, writes Gallese, that “we experience a specific state of intentional harmony, generating a particular quality of familiarity with other individuals” because “through a functional state shared by two different bodies that, however, obey the same rules. functional, the “other object” becomes, in a way, another self “(Gallese et al. , 2006).
It seems obvious that these mechanisms of “simulation incarnated” by the mediation of mirror neurons represent the essential neurophysiological basis, on the one hand of intersubjectivity and on the other hand, of empathy, even if they are not the only ones responsible for their complexity. We will come back to these concepts later.
We wish to emphasize how these neurophysiological discoveries, which highlight the importance of the encounter with the other as the basis of the activation of mental processes, confirm the intuitions of the authors inspired by phenomenology.
What Merleau Ponty writes in “Phenomenology of Perception” (1945) seems to us significant here: “The communication and the comprehension of the gestures takes place by the reciprocity of the intentions and gestures of others, of my gestures and my intentions. understandable in the context of other people. It’s as if the intention of the other lived in my body and mine in his own”.
Implications for systemic psychotherapy
But what are the implications of these important discoveries in the field of neuroscience for systemic psychotherapy? They are numerous and very interesting. We will present the main ones.
The irreplaceable function of the relationship
It is clear that neuroscience provides strong evidence for one of the fundamental postulates of systemic psychotherapy: the importance and irreplaceable function of the relationship.
In the systemic approach, the relationship is not only the essential level of any communicative act, but it is also the contextual matrix that allows any attribution of meaning and any mental process.
The conception of the mind proposed by Bateson (1984) does not imply only the anchoring of this one in the body as the organizing principle of all the functions of the system-organism; it also links it through complex relational networks, to the environment with which circular links are so inevitable that contrary to traditional ideas, the unit of survival is not the organism but the organism in its environment (Bateson 1976 ).
The relational matrix of learning and knowledge processes, in general, is also a fundamental concept of the systemic approach, as it cannot be independent of references to the interpersonal context.
Laing (1968), who is not a strictly systemic author, but who drew inspiration from phenomenology and psychoanalysis among others, said forty years ago that ” the biochemistry of a human being is highly sensitive to social and interpersonal circumstances “.
The discoveries of neuroscience offer us the image of a man biologically predisposed to intersubjectivity and “relationality”.
The system of mirror neurons according to Rizzolatti “shows how deep and deep is the link that unites us to others, that is to say, how strange it is to conceive of an I without awe ” (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2006, 4).
Basic mental activities require a web of relationships, but the emergence of consciousness as well. “Consciousness begins when the brain acquires the power to tell a story without words, which takes place within the limits of the body, the history of life that paces the time and states of the living organism that are continually impaired by the encounter with objects and with the events of the environment ” (Damasio, 2000, 47).
On the developmental psychology side, Daniel Stern emphasizes even more clearly the relational dimension of mental processes: “Neuroscience shows that the human mind does not exist alone. The human mind is created through interaction with the wishes, thoughts, actions, and beliefs of others. Without this, there is no language, no morality, no conscience. We know something of the human mind only when we interact because it does not exist if we do not interact “(Stern, 2006b, 31).
The importance of “implicit relational knowledge”
However, these activating interactions of mental processes, besides constituting food and motivation, do not only develop in the realm of the conscious: they include a wider range of experiences and learning that would be unconscious. They are defined by developmental psychologists as ” implicit relational knowledge “.
It is to this latter that the internal operating models of Bowlby (1973), the relational frames of Trevarthen (1992) and the schemes of the being with de Stern (1995) for example refer.
With regard to the systemic approach, the implicit dimension generally crosses the whole relational field because in any communicative act, there are two levels: that of the content which is declarative and explicit, but also that of the relation expressed by the non-verbal, the analog and the emotional.
During early periods of development, up to at least 18 months of age, the child uses only relational knowledge implicit in his / her interactions with reference persons (see Stern, 1995). Its learning elements essentially correspond to emotional and emotional memories that are stored in what neurophysiologists define as the “implicit memory” whose neurobiological seat is in the subcortical nuclei and especially in the amygdala.
The implicit memory, the only form of memory existing in the initial phases of life, nevertheless continues to function even after the acquisition of the language and therefore after the appearance of the explicit memory.
That is why today, based on these neuroscientific evidences, we know that implicit relational knowledge develops in parallel with explicit knowledge and that together they grow on parallel paths during the rest of life.
As Stern writes (2006b, 29), “Now we have realized that implicit knowledge is one of the widest areas of knowledge we have, and that it includes everything that is important to a social and emotional point of view between people. We considered it a more primitive knowledge compared to explicit knowledge, currently we believe that it is a knowledge equally rich, but different “.
This knowledge throws a new light on the concept of the unconscious which, according to Freudian theories, is “the place of the repressed”, the product of a process of repression that the defenses put in place in front of what is not tolerable for consciousness.
Implicit memory and implicit relational knowledge show that there is also a “non-repressed unconscious” within which emotions, experiences and memories are deposited that have not been able to access the elaboration of consciousness.
As far as systemic psychotherapy is concerned, this perspective makes it possible to advance new interpretative hypotheses on the profound aspects.and latent family affective life (“a kind of shared family unconscious”) that we can associate with “family myths” (see Onnis et al. , 1994a). This mythical level, the profound emotional cement of the family, appears more and more at the center of the epistemological developments of systemic thought (see Onnis 1994, 2007).
We can consider that the emotional memories of undeveloped experiences at the conscious level will be stored in the implicit memory (amygdala). However, in this situation shared by family members, implicit relational knowledge requires the intervention of mirror neurons that activate a process of “reciprocal shimmering” of the emotions and mental states of each.
An implicit and shared relational knowledge is also sought in the particular experience of the psychotherapeutic relationship by allowing, through “moments of encounter”, this “something more” which is, for Stern, the triggering element of action that turns into psychotherapy.
The utility of implicit language in psychotherapy
Currently, the clinical practice of psychotherapy clearly shows that the use of different forms of implicit language that go beyond verbal mediation or at least logical thinking, is effective because it allows to approach more directly the emotional sphere.
We are well aware of the usefulness of metaphor or, in terms of systemic psychotherapy, metaphorical objects such as Caillé & Rey’s “floating objects” (2005) or “Sculptures of family time” (STF) elaborated by our team. a research group, where, instead of being asked to formulate a descriptive discourse, family members are invited to construct an analog and nonverbal representation in the therapeutic space (Onnis et al. , 1990, 1994b; 1992, 1996, 2004).
The resulting images are often remarkable for their emotional intensity and the implicit meanings they offer. Equally striking is the fact that after this experience of Sculpture, family members are able to express verbally a first re-elaboration of the emotional experiences elicited by analog representation.
But, what makes methods using metaphorical and implicit languages effective? In general, language explanations have been advancedIn this way, Lotman (1980) considers the metaphor to be “a point of conjunction,” an interface between the analog language of the imagination and the affective language. It would thus allow the circulation of open communications to affects and emotions. In addition, from a psychological point of view, the therapeutic metaphor can target the emotional meanings more directly by affecting affective zones that are largely unconscious (Ricœur 1986). At this preverbal and unconscious level, because of its evocative (and non-explanatory) power, the metaphor has the advantage of alluding without explaining or explaining, while opening spaces of greater freedom and creativity (Onnis, 1996, 2006).
Today, however, we can deduce from neuroscience essential indications for understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the functioning of metaphor and implicit languages in psychotherapy.
We know that the human being has an implicit memory in which memories and strongly emotional memory traces and related to bodily perceptions are deposited. Let us now see how the activation of this memory can be facilitated by the use of languages able to tune to its characteristics, that is to say languages using emotion and body.
According to Rizzolatti, the human brain has an extraordinary ability because it “resonates with the perception of the faces and gestures of others” by automatically coding them in visceromotor terms that provide the neural substrate for empathic participation (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2006). 182).
We have recently been informed of the essential function of mirror neurons, which record and reflect all the implicit components (gestural, mimic, emotional) present in the therapeutic relationship and which, when we work with the family, constitute even more articulated and complex frames .
If we reconsider the Sculptures of Family Time, we can conceive of them as a preferential tool given their ability to bring out, through the scenarios represented, the “mythical” dimension of the family; this does not surprise us since the “family myths”, emotional cement of the family, are written mainly in the implicit memory.
However, what is surprising is the consistency of the “implicit narration” that takes place during the succession of different sculptures, as if it were an authentic affective “tuning” between family members.
A new interpretive key arises through the activation of mirror neurons whose shimmering mechanism involves not only the relationship with the therapist, but also the relationship between family members.
Everything happens as if the ability of the brain to “shimmer in front of the perception of the gestures and faces of others” (according to Rizzolatti), allows a mutual sharing of affects (which does not exclude, obviously, ways of perceive different) that will activate “crossed reflections”, which long ago, had led to the formation of family myths in implicit memory.
However, an intense and shared emotional experience can also be favored by the use of implicit languages in therapy, which allow access to another level where the implicit memory opens partly to an explicit and more conscious memory. We notice this by listening to comments about their experiences, delivered by family members about their sculptures.
We do not know if this unexpected emergence of emotional states at a conscious declarative level is the equivalent of an “insight” (although there is no doubt that it can be born of an “implicit shared relationship” As Stern (2004) demonstrates when describing “moments of encounter”).
However, it seems that there are psychological, relational and neurophysiological data that allow us to no longer consider as random the hypothesis that a consistent and wise use of implicit and metaphorical languages represents a form of self-treatment: many reflections can to activate without each being a reflection of the other; on the contrary, each shimmer is capable of introducing something different and new, which is the basis of therapeutic change.
Empathy and resonance in the therapeutic relationship
The importance of the therapeutic relationship in the processes of transformation involving the patient and the therapist has long been a subject of reflection in psychotherapy.
The systemic approach has highlighted the role of this link in the context of its epistemological development which led it from the concept of “observed systems” to that of “observant or self-observing systems”; There was thus a passage from the first cybernetic to that which Von Foerster, in 1987, called “second-order cybernetics”: the observer participates in his field of observation and influence. Thus, the therapist is an integral part of the “system of therapy” (individual, couple, family) from the moment of the encounter and the constitution of a larger system that includes and transforms all its members.
Having thus defined the inevitable circularity of the therapeutic relationship, we can ask ourselves what are the essential qualities necessary to consolidate the therapeutic relationship and make it a fertile therapeutic alliance with transformative potentialities?
Many clinical experiences of varied orientations indicate that such qualities do not come solely from the correct application of therapeutic techniques, the validity of interpretations or the ability to respond adequately to patients; rather, they are born of the “something more” mentioned by Stern (1998, 2004), that is, of the emotional relationship between the therapist and the patient, and therefore of empathy. Often, this link is channeled into implicit relational discourses in which affective messages circulate: “The deeper level of psychodynamic events is, according to Stern, the level of the small interactions between people, what they do with their bodies, the tone of their voices, the expression of their faces,
But if empathy is an essential component of the therapeutic alliance, even if it is not the only one contributing to it, what are the neurophysiological mechanisms that make it possible?
To answer this question, we will also rely on the essential role played by the mirror neuron system.
As we have described above, mirror neurons are the neural system through which the reflections of not only the actions, but also the emotions and affective states of the other are created: here we refer to the concept of ” simulation embodied “proposed by Gallese (2005b, 2006). This author explains that the observer not only puts himself in the place of the other by experiencing his feelings (pain, joy, rage, disgust), but he experiences them directly through the mirror neurons, in his own body he put them in his “flesh”.
Such mechanisms of “embodied simulation” which are the basis of empathy, constitute the foundation of intersubjectivity. This seems to correspond to an innate predisposition of the human being because research has shown that as early as a few hours after birth, newborns are able to reproduce the movements of the mouth or face of the adults watching them (Meltzoff & Moore , 1997, 1998). This intersubjective process, which has many analogies with Winnicott’s “maternal mirroring” (1967) and Stern’s “affective tuning” (1987), is maintained throughout life.
In terms of the therapeutic relationship, intersubjectivity and empathy are made possible through the mechanisms of “embodied simulation” of the mirror neurons and creates a state in which “the spirit of each one feels understood by the spirit of the mind. ‘other’ (Siegel, 2001). The verb to feel is very important and can not be replaced by the verb to think.
Indeed, the process put in place is purely emotional and depends, as Rizzolatti writes, “on the sharing of viscero-motor responses that participate in the definition of emotions” (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2006: 180). This basic mechanism is fundamental.
“It is possible, explains Rizzolatti, that emotions can also be understood on the basis of an elaboration reflecting the sensory aspects related to their manifestation. But this development devoid of viscero-motor resonance would remain a pale perception, deprived of a spontaneous emotional color “(ibid, p.181).
Rizzolatti’s concept of “viscero-motor resonance” refers to another notion of “resonance” treated in the field of systemic psychotherapy (see Elkaïm, 1989). It then refers to a phenomenon of amplification of elements that are common and similar to the different interacting systems which, as far as the therapeutic relationship is concerned, are represented by the therapist and the family in therapy, each with their emotional baggage coming from their personal stories and their families of origin. “Resonance” as a shared evocation of similar emotional outcomes is born at the intersection of many systemic levels. It requires a work of cognitive and emotional development not to become a handicap, but to constitute an opportunity for transformation.
There is, however, no doubt that it, like empathic exchange, anchors its roots in the dimension of the affects and in the neural substrates that govern them; it activates the “implicit memory” (at thissubject, we refer you to the interesting works of Chouhy, 2008), but also the function of mirror neurons. It is likely that the threshold effect mentioned by Elkaïm (1989), that is, the level of emotional intensity required for resonance to occur, coincides with the visceromotor resonance referred to by Rizzolatti.
Here again we are witnessing the intersection of psychological and relational processes with neurophysiological phenomena that are interrelated and intertwined.
A new conception of therapeutic change
For a long time, the fundamentals of therapeutic change were considered to be related to cognitive development and the increase of self-awareness. For Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, the objective of the therapeutic process is to bring to consciousness what is nested in the darkness of the unconscious and repression.
In a fairly close manner, systemic psychotherapy has been based for a long time (when the first cybernetic separated the “observer” from the “observed”) on a “theory advocating change” which, according to Ruggiero (2007), proposed therapeutics animated by a sort of obsession with action that excluded spaces of silence and listening time.
However, the epistemological renewal of the last twenty years has radically changed all these conceptions, as much in the “relational” and “intersubjective” currents of psychoanalysis as in the systemic orientations inspired by constructivist and self-referential paradigms.
The change in the therapeutic relationship is an essential factor and tool for these approaches and implies, as we have already mentioned, the empathy and emotional elements previously derived from the implicit languages.
Stern (1998, 2004) identified as a place of change, the “implicit emotional relationship” to which only interventions that go beyond (but still important) techniques and affect capacity are truly effective. emotional to “be with” each other in the “present moment” of the relationship.
Systemic psychotherapists also value the empathic aspects of the relationship between the therapist and the family system, and emphasize at this level, the use of analog languages both to convey emotional tensions through the therapeutic relationship, and also to activate the creativity of the family through a common search for change solutions.
Similarly, we can hypothesize that in these processes, the mirror neurons have a fundamental function by allowing the biological level, the constitution of reflections, base of the empathy and essential link of the changes. But for this mechanism to take place, the simple activation of reflections is not enough, it is also necessary to introduce something new, which can modify and improve the perception of Self in the other. According to Gallese, Migone & Eagle (2006), this process has analogies to what happens in the mother-baby relationship. If the mother mirrors the child’s behavior too closely, it is likely that she does not facilitate her growth, the development of her emotional regulation skills, or her ability to signify mental states.Mirroring imitation must introduce new elements in relation to the initial configuration . According to these same authors, it is more than likely that this change also takes place in therapy where ideally the therapist does not refer literally the patient’s emotional states, but offers congruent empathic responses that allow the latter to find himself and to reflect to transform one’s experience (Gallese et al. , 2006).
These considerations have many clinical implications. By taking Stern’s point of view about the therapeutic change he describes as the fruit of “an implicit shared relationship”, one can think that the “now moments” he evokes are unexpected and unpredictable events that disrupt, destabilize and particularly “hot” the present moment by opening avenues for change to the extent that they are exploited by the therapist and the patient (Stern, 1998, 2004); then, in fact, new and unexpected elements emerge in the interlacing of reciprocal reflections existing within the therapeutic relationship.
Similarly, when in systemic psychotherapy we use analogical methods and languages (such as “Family Time Sculptures” for example), the intervention of the therapist who proposes metaphorical restituations similar to metaphors given by the family, introduces new metaphorical elements that first activate a transformation of the way of perceiving oneself within the family system (each member of the family is “perceived” in the relationship with the other to inside the family system) and, secondly, how to conceive the meanings of lived experience.
Ultimately, this process of reflection introduced by the therapist, brings out something new and different that promotes a process of change that the family is the author; she discovers in herself resources that allow her to creatively and autonomously choose the directions of her own transformation.
A beautiful metaphor of Karl Jaspers describes this situation: “when we admire the splendor of a pearl, we never think that it comes from a seashell injury”. The pearl represents here this extraordinary ability of the human mind to generate autotherapeutic processes, which obviously has neurophysiological correlates: indeed, the plasticity of the brain is capable of producing new synapses (Kandel, 1999, 2008) at the end of the psychotherapeutic process that is beginning to be identified by means of neuroimaging techniques.
We can only share the beautiful metaphor of Giuseppe Ruggiero (2006) about the role of the systemic therapist: to create a “synapse between the mind and the heart” even if in reality (and this only reinforces the processes of integration), the heart already beats in the spirit.
The considerations developed so far illustrate the strength of recent neuroscience discoveries that show how mental processes are supported by neurobiological substrates. As we have mentioned in the introduction, this research has made it possible to overcome the antagonisms between the neurosciences on the one hand, and psychology and psychotherapy on the other, by establishing a new alliance between them, a logical consequence of the unity found between body and mind.
It will suffice to think, to cite only a few examples, of the mirror function traditionally considered in the psychological and psychotherapeutic disciplines, which extend from Winnicott’s theories (1967) to the psychology of the Self of Kohut (1986), Lacan’s (1936) conceptions of intersubjective psychoanalysis.
In fact, these theorizations and the clinical experiments that confirm them, find today an extraordinary support in the biological equivalent function of the neural substrate constituted by the new neutron mirrors. The recovery, on the basis of scientific data, of a unitary principle of integration, appears today obvious.
However, there is a need to remain alert to the risks of new shifts to “reductionist traps”. The discovery of basic neurophysiological mechanisms that support certain mental processes does not mean that these mechanisms fully explain the mind; we must not underestimate the complexity of the latter, nor underestimate the influence of the existential history and the socio-cultural context of the people.
To integrate does not mean to ratify or reduce, but to introduce another complexity.
To return to empathy, let us emphasize that it can not take place in the absence of the essential function of mirror neurons, but that, however, it neither explains nor justifies all that is involved in the empathic implication; indeed, the latter depends on the quality and the “history” of the relationship.
Rizzolatti, the researcher who has discovered “mirror neurons”, has himself expressed this criticism: “The immediate self-understanding of the emotions of others is made possible by the mechanism of the mirror neurons which represents the prerequisite for empathic behavior. which largely underlies our interindividual relationships. To share viscero-motor the emotional state of another person, is a different thingexperiencing empathic involvement with her. If, for example, we apprehend an expression of pain, we are not automatically induced to feel compassion; even if it happens frequently, the two processes are distinct because the second involves the first, but the opposite is not true. Moreover, compassion depends on other factors related to the recognition of pain, such as to who the other and of what relationships we have with him ; it is influenced by our possible ability to put ourselves in its place, our motivation to take charge of emotional experiences, wishes and expectations of others “(Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2006: 181).
Thus, as regards the concept of resonance in systemic psychotherapy, it is clear that it is in correspondence with a neurobiological basis without which the shimmer would not take place, but this aspect is not exhaustive because it does not not include the richness of the emotional elements coming from the singular stories of individuals and interpersonal systems. For these reasons, the recent discoveries of neuroscience do not allow us to to no simplification of mental processes, but they pose more and more integration requirements in a unitary way while introducing more complexity.
In this perspective, Gallese (Gallese et al. , 2006: 539) notes that “a future research objective will be to determine to what extent experience-based simulation, which is probably one of the oldest, is mechanisms at the evolutionary level, is at the base of more sophisticated and linguistically elaborated forms of our ability to interpret the behaviors of others in terms of mental states. It is possible that the embodied simulation mechanisms have a crucial role during the long learning process that leads us to become proficient in the use of declarative attitudes toward the other. Storytelling, which we have been facing since birth is likely to play an important role in this acquisition process. ”
Scientific discoveries, however, provide access to vast areas of research on mental processes because they recognize the complexity of areas of darkness and mystery (see Damasio, 2000).