Once feelings are blocked from conscious-awareness, any belief system can fill the bill. No matter how outlandish the belief, it will be adopted if it serves to symbolically fulfill old needs. The trajectory of the belief system begins deep in the brainstem and in ancient parts of the limbic system where devastating imprints are stored. The pressure/energy moves upward to cortical centers and forward to the orbitofrontal cortex (“OBFC”).
The right OBFC is doing its best to contain the pressure, but some of it escapes and travels to its ultimate destiny—the left prefrontal area. But because the need/feeling is partially blocked, the actual context of the pain cannot be connected. The result is a vague pressure from the feelings on the left side. It then concocts ideas about those needs/pains—God will watch over and protect me. These ideas are the wrappings for the pain that provide symbolic fulfillment. That is why the exact nature of the need/pain is not known. But if we strip away the covering, the pain mounts to the surface immediately. The symbolism slips in before the pain can become conscious. Its function is defense, and that is why it can be “far out”. It is dealing with a mysterious internal reality without even knowing what that internal reality is. The deeper and more powerful the pain/need, the more abstract and abstruse the ideation and belief. The ideas may be crazy, but the feelings are not. If the ideas are challenged, the person will continue to defend them with one rationale after another—all to keep reality at bay.
A study by a team of researchers from a number of universities, including Princeton and Harvard, found that faith in a placebo changed the brain’s neural activity, specifically altering the activity of those circuits that process pain and diminish its intensity (Wager, et al., 2004). Another team found that just thinking you are receiving treatment is enough to make you feel better (Zubieta et al., 2005). When subjects were given pills that were neutral but told they were painkillers, there were changes in the brain exactly as though they had received real painkillers, and a significant increase in the secretion of endorphins—the morphine-like pain-killing chemical in our brains. That is why patients in conventional insight therapy feel better and imagine they have made improvement. The fact is they do feel better. The effect is neurobiological. And that is why almost any therapy is addicting. It is identical to going to a doctor for a shot of morphine (endorphin is an analogue of morphine). The wonderful thing about this is that the injection is painless and done without benefit of a needle. A kind, attentive look by a therapist and there are squirts of morphine secreted in the brain. Implicit is that the doctor is going to make you feel better, and of course you do. We think the therapy did it but, in fact, the thought of what the therapy can do is what accomplished it. In contrast, what we offer in our therapy is pain, not as end in itself, but as a necessity for getting well.
Placebos work on the same areas of the brain that process pain. Many of the same areas of the brain that respond to pain also respond to mere expectations of pain, and expectations of less pain (how the therapy is going to help you) yield as much relief as less pain—the effect is neurobiological and real (Meissner, et al., 2011). In other words, how we respond to pain depends in great part on what we believe about it. So in a cognitive therapy that alters how one perceives pain there is bound to be a lessened response to it. Thus one can quell the pain of childhood by adopting a different perspective.
Placebo reactions are a good example of denial. Through someone else’s ideas, we can be so removed from ourselves that we completely deny an agonizing experience. That is not only the case with cognitive therapy; it mirrors how some of us grew up, in a kind of cognitive milieu. We were denying pain and getting on with life. Denying agony is not the same as being out of it. There is believing…believing in healing…and then there is real healing.
What we see again and again is how beliefs can diminish the experience of pain. When someone gives up drugs or alcohol and adopts new beliefs, his brain accommodates just as if he were still on drugs.
According to a 1990 Gallup survey of 1,200 American adults, one in four believed in ghosts. One in six had communicated with someone deceased, and one in four said they could communicate telepathically (through their mind). One in ten claimed to have seen a ghost or been in the presence of one. One in seven said they had seen a UFO. One in four believed in astrology, and fifty percent believed in extrasensory perception. In a 2005 Harris poll only twenty two percent of Americans believed that we evolved from earlier species. Fifty four percent thought that we did not evolve from earlier species. Forty eight percent believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution was not correct. Two thirds of the population polled believed that human beings were created by God.
The number and kind of belief systems is limitless. So long as beliefs are not anchored in oneself and in one's feelings, they can take off and encompass all sorts of delusional notions. The prefrontal cortex when separated from other aspects of memory (the disconnection) can soar into the delusional stratosphere without boundary. This applies to the most intelligent of us, including scientists who, disciplined in their own fields, once disconnected from their feelings, can believe in the most irrational of philosophies and psychotherapies, approaches that have not one ounce of proof about them. Once unhinged from feelings, anything is possible, and intelligence has nothing to do with it. Normally, the left brain harbors the critical faculties that can evaluate beliefs and test their reality. But now it is overwhelmed in dealing with right brain forces and cannot put its critical faculties to work.
Dr. Martin Teicher, a brain specialist at Harvard University, confirms a strong connection between trauma and brain impairment: “Severe early stress and maltreatment produces a cascade of events (that) alter brain development” (Teicher, et al., 2002), one result of which is “attenuated development of the left neocortex, hippocampus and amygdala” and their interconnections. A major consequence of the deprivation of love early in life is weakened communication between lower centers of the brain and higher control areas, and thus a disconnection between deep feelings on the one hand, and one’s “conscious” reality of thoughts and beliefs and behavior on the other, which may be shaped by the former without the person ever knowing what “drives” her.
It is easy to become entangled in a mesh of thoughts that bind us, the more labyrinthine the better—hence the attraction of insight therapy. One is now a captive of those beliefs, and he enters into his slavery willingly, because this slavery is also an important defense. If fascism were ever to come to America, it would no doubt come by popular vote, not by autocratic edict. We would slip into unquestioning obedience to the leader gladly for it would relieve us of having to think for ourselves. He would protect us from the evil “out there”. I am reminded of those who dive for sharks in steel cages. They have no freedom of movement but it is a fact that the sharks cannot get to them. Their steel cage is their defense and their prison. Chemical prisons are just as strong as those steel ones. They allow for few alternatives in behavior. Beliefs are the psychic equivalent of repression. We can rechannel the flow but we will not change the volcanic activity. We can cap the explosion with ideas, but there is always a danger of another eruption; sometimes it is in the form of a seizure, other times it is found in being seized by a sudden realization—finding God and being born again.
One patient during a session began to get into an incest sequence. Halfway through horrific pain, he sat up and screamed, “I am saved!” He saw the hand of God reaching down to protect him. From what? Himself. His experience and feelings. He was saved by the idea of God, unless we really believe that someone up there was listening and really did reach down. The idea intruded itself into his awareness in order to stop the agony. He became aware to avoid full consciousness. The idea took the place of the pain. He could go no further into his archives of suffering. He came out of the feeling with a jolt. He came out of his past and into his present; that present defended him against his history. There was a sudden, abrupt shift from his right brain to his left, from internal focus to the external. And the pain did it all by itself; no willpower was involved. Instead of saying, “There is an automatic governor in my system that won’t let me feel too much pain,” he believed that there was divine intervention that stopped him from suffering. God became interchangeable with serotonin.
Meissner, K., Bingel, U., Colloca, L., Wager, T.D., Watson, A. and Flaten, M.A. (2011) The Placebo Effect: Advances from Different Methodological Approaches. Journal of Neuroscience 31(45):16117-16124
Teicher, M.H., Andersen, S.L., Polcari, A., Anderson, C.M., Navalta, C.P. (2002) Developmental neurobiology of childhood stress and trauma. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 25(2):397-426, vii-viii.
Wager, T.D., Rilling, J.K., Smith, E.E., Sokolik, A., Casey, K.L., Davidson, R.J., Kosslyn, S.M., Rose, R.M. and Cohen, J.D. (2004) Placebo-Induced Changes in fMRI in the Anticipation and Experience of Pain. Science 303(5661):1162-1167
Zubieta, J., Bueller, J.A., Jackson, L.R., Scott, D.J., Xu, Y., Koeppe, R.A., Nichols, T.E. and Stohler, C.S. (2005) Placebo Effects Mediated by Endogenous Opioid Activity on Opioid Receptors. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(34):7754 –7762