Before speaking to the impact of neuroscience on counseling, it first needs to be defined. Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, and what it does. Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions. The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. The nervous system includes both the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system is made up of the somatic and the autonomic nervous systems.  The somatic nervous system is made up of peripheral nerve fibers that communicate back and forth with the brain about things like movement. It’s what gives us that quick response when we pull our hand away from a hot stove. The autonomic nervous system controls the parts of our bodies functions over which we have little control, like heartbeat. It’s made of of three parts: (1) The sympathetic nervous system, which manages our response to perceived or real threats (fight, flight, freeze); (2) The parasympathetic nervous system, which manages our capacity to relax; and (3) the enteric nervous system, which manages the functioning of our abdominal organs.

Understanding the latest research in neuroscience is important for counselors helping people to make changes in their lives. For example, since the sympathetic nervous system manages our responses to perceived or real threats, it is overactive in people who have been traumatized and who struggle with anxiety and phobias. Neuroscience has shown that habits, behaviors, beliefs, responses, etc. get ingrained into the brain by repetition. You can compare it to taking a walk in the woods where there is no path. The more you walk the same route, the more that route becomes a fixed pathway and the one you will take each time you enter the woods. Neuroscience has also shown that we can make new pathways by consciously choosing a path not taken. The more you walk on the new road, the more that road becomes a pathway until eventually it becomes the main pathway. This means that change is scientifically proven to be possible and that there are relatively clear steps for creating change.

Mindfulness and neuroscience.