How many brains have you got? Answer: two – a left brain and a right brain, each interacting with the other but working very differently. And according to Dr Allan Schore of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, a revolution is underway in how much value we give to the right brain.

In his encyclopedic book, The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy – on which I’m drawing here – Schore makes the point that, after decades of focus on the brain’s left hemisphere, the emphasis of developmental science, biology and neuroscience has now shifted to the right hemisphere. And with that has come an unexpected challenge to the traditional belief in the dominance of the logical left brain and a discovery of the supreme importance of the emotional right brain in everyday life.

The left side of the brain is the seat of your conscious self, mediating awareness and dealing with thoughts, analysis and language. The right side is the home of your unconscious mind and deals with the management of your emotions and non-verbal communication (accounting for 60% of all communication), as well as relationships, coping with stress, empathy, trust, identification with others, autobiographical memories and identity.

A mother’s right brain

Of particular interest is the impact that a mother has on the physical development of the right brain of her small child. Just as direct left-brain to left-brain communication happens through a mother’s words, so direct right-brain to right-brain (unconscious) communication happens without words when a child is tuned to receive it. A mother’s tone, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, touch, posture and levels of attention will all impact on an infant and on the development of synaptic connections in their right brain.

Good and bad effects of a mother’s right brain

If a child grows up with secure experiences of love, attention, containment and nurturing, those experiences will be imprinted onto their developing brain’s neural circuitry. If a child’s predominant experiences are of distress, separation, abuse, neglect, fear, stress or rage, then those experiences will also be laid down. In the former case, the mother’s soothing regulation of the child’s powerful emotions should gradually be taken over by the child so that he or she can do it for themselves. In the latter case – the experience of trauma – that may not happen and the child may grow up with an impaired capacity for regulating their emotions or empathizing with others. Many people have childhoods that place them somewhere between these two poles.

Dissociation and other effects of trauma

Difficulty with emotional control and empathy resulting from trauma might manifest in a variety of ways including high anxiety, anger problems, addictions, self-harming, relationship problems or conditions such as borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes dissociation may be an automatic response to stress. That’s when a person glazes over and may have a sense of being cut off from themselves and their feelings or from the world around them, together perhaps with a sense of fragmentation. Dissociation is a defence of last resort and is effectively the brain going offline in the face of a past trauma which is triggered anew by something (perhaps relatively mild) in the present.

How psychotherapy may help the right brain

Psychotherapy doesn’t just involve conscious thought and communication, logic and analysis in the interplay between a therapist and a client. Unconscious to unconscious communication (ie right brain to right brain) also has a vital role to play in the healing process. Just as problems may have originated in right-brain to right-brain interactions in childhood, so they may be modified in the same way in adulthood. Because of the brain’s flexibility, the good news is that this is often still possible in later years.

For example, a therapist may ‘receive’ a person’s intense and perhaps frightening emotions, contain and process them on behalf of the person and ‘give them back’ in a less intense and less frightening form. Or a sensitive therapist may gradually allow a person to re-experience emotions that have been difficult to manage in safe doses in the secure environment that psychotherapy provides. In these ways what may previously have felt overwhelming can slowly be managed and made part of the person’s emotional life. Old ways of feeling and behaving may be loosened up and replaced by a more harmonious emotional world that also has greater spontaneity and flexibility.

Psychotherapy changes the brain

The fascinating thing is that this change happens physically in the brain and can be seen. Allan Schore quotes Dr Richard Glass of the University of Chicago: ‘Recent research in brain imaging, molecular biology, and neurogenetics has shown that psychotherapy changes brain function and structure. Such studies have shown that psychotherapy affects regional cerebral blood flow, neurotransmitter metabolism, gene expression, and persistent modifications in synaptic plasticity.’

Remarkable fluidity but that’s the right brain for you.