Reflections on the connection between neurology and psychologyWritten by Dr. Sunita Rai
Neuropsychology studies how the brain structure and functions relate to specific psychological process. Neuropsychology draws information from many disciplines - anatomy, biology, biophysics, ethology, pharmacology, physiology, physiological psychology, and philosophy among them (Kolb & Whishaw, 2009).
Dr Goleman (2007) shared on what happens in the amygdale, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, mirror neurons and the social brain at a talk at Google. It was interesting that he mentioned that the amygdala was still operating in the same way it always had even though we have evolved over the decades and have more complex symbolic threats.
The amygdala in extreme situations creates the amygdala highjack and this has three signs (Goleman, 2007). During an amygdala attack, that impulse goes to the executive centre (the prefrontal cortex, PCF) and scans all other incoming messages and shares crucial information such as ‘who's the boss’ or ‘how big a lose you will incur for reacting’ amongst others. This is highly fascinating as we cannot say that all decision making is only central to one small part of the brain. In fact, the brain and its functions are highly complex and constantly interacting.
The neocortex (cortical ability) at the top of the brain is mainly for intelligence quotient (IQ) while the emotional quotient (EQ) integrates the IQ and EQ centers (amygdala and hippocampus amongst others). It was exciting to learn the following from Dr Goleman’s (2007) talk :
- We have a resting ratio of right and left prefrontal cortex which can predict the mood of people. It is like a bell curve and usually we are at the middle.
- If we are too much to the right, it means that we might be clinically depressed or have anxiety disorder.
- If we are too far on the left, things are taken very casually and we hardly have bad days. The left has an inhibit circuit for the amygdala and calms the amygdala.
EQ has four domains and the first two are on self mastery (self awareness and managing emotions) and the second two are on the social brain (social awareness and relationship management). Learning about the basal ganglia helps in the understanding of how our gut feelings guides us in decision making drawing on our emotional connections. Part of being self aware is about being tuned to those gut feelings and it is needed in many important decision making such as in the area of morality or ethics. This can be a useful tool for therapists to be in-tuned with their own emotions and use it for processing in therapy to help others tune in to their gut feelings. It is like that inner voice that tells us what is ‘really’ happening in a given situation.
In managing emotions, the key focus is on managing dysfunctional and crippling emotions. The learning point is on the relationship between emotionality, impulsivity and learning. The ability to inhibit distracting emotions from the amygdala helps one to focus on learning. Research shows that those individuals who are more able to delay gratification and pursue goals learn better and have better relationships. In fact, when we see someone as being highly impulsive, it is a sign that the amygdala is poorly inhibited. As a therapist, one can help an individual or a group to better manage their emotions by helping them learn strategies on delayed gratification and the benefits of it. A new concept of ‘Flow’ state was introduced by Dr Goleman where one feels really good at performing a certain activity. He shared that we are at our optimum cognitive functions and IQ is at its max where we are highly motivated and are creative, innovative and best able to solve problems. However, if this state continues too long one might feel overwhelmed due to too much cortisol and adrenaline rush. A key question would be ‘How can a therapist achieve this optimal state during group therapy and sustain it long enough for maximum performance without overdoing it?