Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
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Healing Emotional Disturbance by Psychoanalysis:
New Understandings from Brain Research

by Carol Campbell, MFT

As a marriage and family therapist who uses psychoanalysis to treat many of my patients, I am interested in what neuroscientists are discovering about the human brain. I have been especially informed by the work of Hyman Spotnitz, Daniel Siegel, and Allan Schorr. Their research has shown that what Sigmund Freud described as the dynamic unconscious might be thought of as another way of talking about certain aspects of the functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain.

The left hemisphere is much slower to develop in newborns, and is later associated with functions like conscious memory, logical thinking, and sequential thinking. An emotionally healthy person has good communication between the two hemispheres. But in the beginning, it's the right hemisphere where the action takes place that significantly shapes our future mental and emotional health. That action is the result of interactions between the baby and its mother that occur before the baby has acquired speech. In other words, an infant's preverbal life is the time when many permanent patterns of interaction are established. The quality of the mother-infant bond will have a huge influence on the quality of that person's emotional life as an adult.

Research on the human brain shows a couple of remarkable things. First, we now know that our mental structure is organized by the regions of the brain associated with our emotional experiences. In other words, all learning happens through the context of emotional experiences. Mental structures grow rapidly during the first year of life, and are shaped by the emotional interactions of the baby and caretakers. Mental illnesses that show up later in life can stem from problems with these early interactions between the baby and the caretakers.

Second, brain research is showing us that mother/child interactions are not just social experiences; they cause specific changes in the child's brain function and shape the style and quality of attachment that the child will have for significant figures throughout his or her life.

For example, one important emotional task in life is to be able to adequately self-regulate one's emotions, so that a minor disappointment does not trigger a hysterical response, or so that a devastating loss does not get dismissed as insignificant. Brain research shows that the ability to manage this emotional regulation is largely determined by what happens to the maturational process of neurons in the cortico-limbic areas of the brain in the first 3 years of life. Sometimes the neurons get jammed up in rigid and pathological patterns. Sometimes there is just too much or not enough activity in the neural systems. What causes these types of problems is now being linked to troubled interactions between the very young child and the caretakers, particularly unspoken and unconscious communications.

So what needs to happen to repair this sort of damage? Talking. Talking that will lead to a relationship between a therapist and a patient in which subtle non-verbal communication occurs, just as it did when the patient was an infant. Only this time the "caretaker" is an analyst who is focused on resonating with the patient's emotional experience. The person with the emotional problem needs to have a safe, reliable, predictable relationship with a therapist or psychoanalyst who is trained to encourage right brain-to-right brain communication. If the original damage was done in the right brain, then the cure needs to involve establishing mutual resonance in that region of the brain as well.

What this means is that when provided with an environment conducive to sharing his or her stream of consciousness, the patient will allow the analyst to assist in discovering unconscious feelings and beliefs that over time have caused healthy development to get derailed. Memories and traumas can be modified and transformed into narratives that make sense and hold together over time. The therapeutic relationship itself becomes the instrument of healing because of the attuned communication of therapist to patient. The mind is then freed to develop in a healthier manner, relieved of false or distorted unconscious beliefs. This process requires a unique therapeutic relationship for the patient to engage in — the "talking cure" first elaborated by Freud over 100 years ago.

Modern psychoanalysts and other therapists are combining the best of their evolving theoretical orientations with this striking new knowledge about neuroscience, so that more than ever before, excellent help is waiting for anyone wanting a chance to have a healthier, happier emotional life. A continuing challenge is how to make this profound help accessible and affordable to those who want it.


  1. Schorr, Allan, Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003
  2. Siegel, Daniel, Healing Power of Emotion, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009
  3. Spotnitz, Hyman, Treatment of the Narcissistic Neuroses, New York: Jason Aronson, 1995

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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