SCT and Interpersonal Neurobiology

SCT and Interpersonal Neurobiology

Michael Robbins M.A., L.M.H.C.

Major Take Home Messages:

  1. Experience Shapes the Genetic Possibilities of the brain. Nature Needs Nurture. “Mind” is the flow of energy and information that happens at the interface of the genetic possibilities of our neurobiology and the environment.
  2. The Brain and Mind develop through a process of differentiation and integration.
  3. A therapists most powerful tool to influence clients in the direction of mental health/ neural integration is the attunement of his/her presence.

Question: Is a state of neural integration, or having an integrated brain, an outcome of an SCT Therapy?

What is Neural Integration?

Neural Integration is the free flow of energy and information between the differentiated structures, and the associated functions of the brain and nervous system.

Simplified Brain Anatomy: Demonstration: The brain in the palm of your hand

The Tripartite Brain

  1. The brain stem. The most primitive, and oldest part of the brain. Controls and regulates the temperature of the body, the heart rate, basic reflexes such as breathing and coughing, grasping and sucking mechanisms (infants), basic survival mechanisms.
  2. The limbic system. Involved with our basic emotional responses, attachment, memory, motivational, learning systems. The part of the brain that functions at “the intersection of the internal and external world where the primitive needs of the organism (brain stem) negotiate with the requirements of the outside world.” (Cozzolino)
    1. There are two key structures that it are important for therapists to understand in the limbic system. The amygdala – along with the right hemisphere of the neo-cortex organizes implicit memory. Very involved in the neural networks that organize attachment, early memories, fear, trauma, strong emotional experiences throughout the life span. This develops first and is present in infants pre 18 to 24 months.
    2. The hippocampus. Develops after 18-24 months, organizes explicit memories in collaboration with the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. No explicit memories are coded in language prior to the development of the hippocampus.
  3. The Cerebral Cortex – composed of left and right hemispheres as well as the corpus callosum which connects the two hemispheres.
    1. The right hemisphere. Develops earlier then the left hemisphere. It is holistic in its perceptions of the world, responsible for facial recognition, the appraisal of affect, the immediate sense of safety or danger, contains an internal map of the body, it is though the left hemisphere, in conjunction with the amygdala that we grasp the emotional, nonverbal part of communication. Involved with the processes of Implicit memory.
    2. Left hemisphere. Linear, logical, language centers are here, as information travels across the corpus callosum, the left hemisphere helps us to integrate the non verbal, intuitive information into words. Involved with the processes of explicit memory.
    3. Orbito-frontal Cortex. This is the part of the Cerebral-cortex that touches both the limbic and the brain stem. Located in the front of the brain behind the eyes. When this area is functioning well, it helps to regulate the following 9 functions:
      1. The balance and regulation of the body and the autonomic nervous system
      2. Attuned communication
      3. Emotional balance
      4. Response flexibility – the capacity to pause and center before acting
      5. Empathy with others and insight into ones self (Mindsight – D.Siegal)
      6. Auto-noesis, the capacity to know oneself
      7. Fear extinction
      8. Intuition
      9. Moral judgment and a sense of Conscience

      All of these except for fear extinction have been researched in humans, fear extinction only in animals so-far. (D. Siegal)

  4. All of the systems of the brain are in constant communication with each other so in a sense these distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, although it does seem that there is some clear correlation’s between certain functions and certain areas of the brain. A healthy brain is also in constant communication with other brains and is constantly being shaped in this open process of sharing information and energy. A healthy brain, which supports a healthy mind, is Stable, Adaptive, Flexible ans Energized (SAFE). See “Complexity Theory”.

Basic Principals of Interpersonal Neurobiology from Dan Siegal

  1. The brain is the social organ of the body. Shift from a single skull model to a multi-skull model.
  2. Nature needs Nurture. Our genetic possibilities are constantly being sculpted by our interpersonal interactions, particularly our early attachment experiences. Neuroplasticity persists throughout our life times. Every significant, emotionally meaningful, attachment experience throughout a life time influences the development of new neural pathways and the structure of the brain. The work of Eric Kandell proved this. (He won a Nobel prize in 2001 for showing that experience activates genes which activate the growth of new neurons.)
  3. Hebbs Axiom “Neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Basic hypothesis regarding therapy (not proven, but makes sense from everything that we do know about brains and neuroplasticity.)

From a neurobiological perspective, therapy harnesses the reparative power of our interpersonal connections to create a higher level of neural integration and repair some of the damage done by early insecure attachment experiences.

What is the Mind in Interpersonal Neurobiology?

Interpersonal Neurobiology defines the MInd as the “Flow of energy and information”. The experience of “Mind” is created at the intersection of our interpersonal relationships and the genetic possibilities of our neurobiology.

What is “Experience” from a Neurobiological perspective?

From a Neurobiological perspective Experience = the Firing of Neurons.

The firing of neurons triggers the growth of new neuronal pathways. Novel, new or different experiences (but not too different, like trauma) create a greater (positive) impact on the brain’s development. It can therefore be hypothesized that psychotherapeutic interventions that introduce difference at a rate that the brain can integrate create the optimal conditions for new neuronal growth. The major tool to create new synapses in the brain is “Attention”. By mindfully focusing our clients’ attention we are developing new pathways in the brain.

Mirror Neurons and the Neurobiology of Empathy

Mirror Neurons. This is the neurological structure that enables us to actually feel the experience of another person when we observe it. Our brains literally “mirror” the internal states of other people. This has tremendous implications for therapy and all relationships. Use our mirror neurons to track our clients. What happens when there is a deficit of mirror neurons? What promotes or impairs the function of our mirror neurons? All of these are fascinating questions that have yet to be answered.

Memory Systems, Implicit and Explicit

  1. Implicit memory develops first, well before 18-24 months and is associated with the amygdala and the Right Hemisphere of the brain. The right hemisphere develops before the left. Implicit memories provide a holistic, feeling tone, or a sense of a pervasive atmosphere. The imprints of these memories are like the background noise of our character and fundamental assumptions about life. Often these are held in the body language of a person, in their voice tone, and in the deep patterns of muscular tension and energy exchange in their internal organs. By making these imprints conscious, we may be able to modify the patterns that are no longer functional for our clients. When we have an implicit memory, we don’t have the feeling that we are remembering anything. Might be more like a mood in response to some triggering event.
  2. Explicit Memories are associated with the hippocampus and the Left Hemisphere and involve a definite sense that we are remembering something. We can put explicit memories into words. Create narratives out of them. A coherent story involves aspects of both implicit and explicit memory. Hypothesis: If we are “exploring” in the SCT sense, we are using both sides of our brains and working with the processes of both Implicit and explicit memory.

What is Mental Health? Look to Complexity Theory for an answer.

Complexity theory is a mathematical way of looking at open systems that are capable of unpredictable or chaotic behavior. These systems naturally move toward complexity by balancing two forces: Differentiation and Integration. When systems are moving towards complexity by balancing differentiation and integration they are the most S.A.F.E. – Stable, Adaptive, Flexible and Energized. Dan Siegal uses this as a definition of Mental health and well being.

The river of well being has two banks. If we get too close to either of these banks, we lose the current of well being. One bank is rigidity, redundancy, boredom. The other bank is chaos, flooding, cacophony. The example of a Choir singing. This principal of the integration of differentiated parts is remarkably similar, if not the same as the SCT statement that “Human Systems survive develop and transform from simple to complex through the process of recognizing and integrating differences”.

What is “Emotion”

There is no fully agreed on definition for emotion in an interdisciplinary way, but this much can be said: Emotion involves an initial orientation and assessment in response to a stimulus. This arousal is first categorized as either positive, negative or neutral. The organism then orients itself in relationship to this stimulus based on this initial assessment. From these three “primary colors” of emotional response come all of the different gradations in our emotions.

Emotion also seems to have the goal of helping us to regulate and integrate experience. All the major theories of emotion talk about the capacity of emotion to integrate and regulate our experiences, neurobiologically, interpersonally, in relation to ourselves and in relation to the existential realities of life.

The neurobiology of “Fear and Anxiety”. Differentiate the “High” and the “Low” road.

The “Low” road is a “fast circuit” that bypasses the neocortex and goes straight from the amygdala to the motor centers so that the body has an immediate response. This has great survival value in the wild.

The “High” road is a “slow circuit” that includes the neo-cortex and involves some process of mental evaluation and assessment. This has great value in human, civilized interaction.

Three primary ways that therapy can help clients move towards neural integration

  1. Contingent or attuned communication in the context of the present moment of the therapist-client communication. Contingent communication occurs when the communication is: 1) perceived; 2) made sense of in a way that matches the senders intention; 3) responded to in a timely and effective manner. Contingent communication is found in every culture in the planet which suggests that we are hard wired for it.
  2. When contingent communication occurs in the present moment, the brain creates a model of a coherent sense of self. This is the process that is fundamental to a secure attachment experience. When this type of communication occurs in a consistent manner between the client and the therapist, the client develops a more permanent internal self-narrative that is S.A.F.E. (i.e. Stable, Adaptable, Flexible and Energized). In the context of an attuned relationship the brain can naturally move to integrate experiences that it had difficulty integrating prior to that. An attuned relationship, a coherent harmonious mind, and an integrated brain are all manifestations of the same thing! (Siegal)
  3. SNAG – Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth by strategically offering clients experiences that promote neural integration in the specific areas in which they are deficient. Use the principal of neuroplasticity across a lifetime and ones knowledge of the differentiated functions of a healthy brain to promote an optimal level of integration in the nervous system. Good therapy, contemplative practice, and secure attachment all have this same goal. Use a variety of different modalities (art, movement, music, talking, writing, poetry etc.) to promote holistic integration of all brain functions.

Self regulation and self soothing

Self Regulation and Self Soothing. The development of the capacity to regulate and soothe oneself in the face of difficult emotional experiences is one of the major goals of a healthy emotional development and involves integrating all of the major functions of the brain. Disturbances in our capacity to self-regulate in the context of our environments are the primary reasons that people come to therapy. These capacities are injured by difficult early attachment experiences, by current non-contingent or mis-attuned interpersonal relationships, and by genetic predisposition’s that make ones organism particularly vulnerable to disregulation (these tendencies can be ameliorated or made worse by interpersonal interactions.)

Summary: What is neural Integration? Be aware of these 7 domains and promoting integration in each of them.

  1. The integration of these primary two levels of consciousness: the capacity to observe the experience in context and the focus on the here and now.
  2. Bilateral integration of the Left and Right Hemispheres of the brain and all that this implies.
  3. Vertical Integration of the body, the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex and all that this implies in terms of function. Particularly note all of the nine functions that the orbital frontal cortex is a part of.
  4. Memory Integration, Implicit and Explicit Memories in the service of creating a secure, coherent, flexible, adaptable model of the Self across time.
  5. Integrating different states of mind or brain states. The reality is that we are a plurality of parts. create a sense of leadership of these parts from a coherent, centered place.
  6. Interpersonal Integration. Creating a context that supports a SAFE pathway of development. Both inside the therapeutic context and in the clients life.
  7. “Transpirational Integration”. The feeling that we are part of something larger then ourselves, something that is literally breathing through all of the dimensions of our being, through the manifest and unmanifest, through past present and future, known and unknown. Sense of compassion and service that naturally arises from the visceral experience of connection with this larger context.


This is a shortened bibliography of the resources that I found most useful in studying and preparing this presentation. I also looked at the work of Damasio, Schore, and Van De Kolk, three other seminal thinkers in this area, but I didn’t spend enough time with their work to have sufficiently mastered it, so I chose not to include them. The literature is truly vast and I have only scratched the surface of what is out there!

The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are.
Dan Siegal
Guilford Press, N.Y., 1999

Healing Trauma; Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain
Edited by Marion Solomon and Dan Siegal
Norton & Co. , N.Y. and London, 2003

The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy
Louis Cozolino
Norton and Co., New York and London, 2002

There were also two tele-courses that Daniel Siegal conducted that are available on tape that were invaluable to me in putting this all together. They are both available through the Psychotherapy Networker, or call (800) 990-1066.

Audio Courses from Psychotherapy Networker:

  1. The Clinical Applications of Interpersonal Neurobiology. Course # T101
  2. Psychotherapy and the Integration of Consciousness. Course # T105

<< Back to Articles