How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Works According to Neuroscience

What is cognitive behavioural therapy, anyway?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) looks at the correlation between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

If we have a negative thought, it can then stimulate negative feelings, which in turn can stimulate a particular reaction. If we change our thinking patterns, we can in turn change how we feel and react. The first step is to notice negative thinking patterns (“cognitive distortions”) when they arise. From there, we can ask ourselves the question, is this thought a fact or a belief?

We often treat beliefs as facts, for example, the thought that no one will like us at the party, stimulating the reaction of not wanting to go. However, do we know with certainty that no one will like us at the party? If our thought is a fact then it can’t be changed since it’s 100% true, however if we can say our thought is a belief, then we can search for evidence for or against that thought in order to reconsolidate the thought into a more balance thought.

 

How long does it take before I begin to notice changes in my thinking patterns?

Each time a core belief gets activated, for example the thought of not being good enough, connections in our brain get strengthened.

As neuroscientists put it, “What fires together wires together.” So if we think a certain way for a long time, it is likely those connections in our brains have become hardwired.

Essentially, what we’re doing in psychotherapy is creating new connections in our brains. Then every time we notice a negative thinking pattern, when we challenge those thoughts we are paving the way to create new neurological pathways. 

That being said, paving the way for new pathways in our brains takes time. Since old ways of thinking have been strengthened and hardwired, as we begin to create new connections, those connections are initially weak. If we think about playing a guitar, psychotherapy works in a similar fashion. When we first begin to learn the guitar, we need to spend time and effort placing our fingers on the cords. Over time, we become faster and faster at placing our fingers, since we get familiarized with where the cords are located. If we keep practicing, in time we no longer need to look at where to place our fingers. As they say, “What you practice grows stronger.”

In other words, we are strengthening those pathways in our brain, making them more automatic as we develop this skill. In the same way, as we learn different ways of thinking, we are strengthening those neurological connections every time they are activated and in turn weakening old connections the less they are utilized. 

 

Can you still learn new ways of thinking as you age?

When it comes to learning new things, through neuroplasticity, children’s brains are seen to be the most able to change. We are all born with a surplus of neurons, thus depending on which pathways and connections we utilize, other neurons die off through the process called pruning. Thus, it can be easier for children to pave new pathways in their brains. That being said, throughout our lifespan, we regenerate new neurons through a process called neurogenesis.

The bottom line is that no matter what age we are, we can always learn new things and change our thinking patterns.

 

Interested in learning more about how neuroscience explains therapy, and how it might help you? Book a session with Lisa!