Irish playwright, poet and author Oscar Wilde is noted for coining the phrase, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” And while he may have said so intending a witticism, Wilde may have been ahead of his time when it comes to a current discussion among the counseling community.

Neural reductionism is a movement among scientists and psychologists who attempt to understand the nature of complex behaviors by reducing them to simpler, more basic, and fundamental biological or environmental components.

On the surface, reductionism seems to gain support because its practice of it boils behaviors down to their elemental components. For example, in cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), proponents of biological reductionism might break the complex behaviors into the basic elements of higher dopamine and lower serotonin levels within the sufferer.

Environmental reductionism theory purports that OCD is explained by noting that phobias are initiated by classical conditioning and maintained by ongoing conditioning by the sufferer.

And while both instances may have merit, it is unlikely that either one of these two reductionism theories is able to stand on its own. Cognitive behaviorists tend to lean more in the direction of a more holistic approach to understanding complex behaviors.

In an article entitled “The Siren’s Song of Neuroscience”, Rick Hanson makes the case that neural reductionism puts both therapists and their clients on a slippery slope of declining responsibility. He suggests that there is a danger in boiling down complex behaviors such as depression to a simple lack of serotonin. Addiction is likely much more than a shortage of dopamine receptors.

Oversimplification such as neural reductionism tends to swing the pendulum of explanation to the far side of any rational spectrum. It is much more likely that both biological and environmental elements contribute to the overall whole of any particular complex behavioral patterns.  Add to that the much more holistic (all-inclusive) elements of an integrated experience, versus behaviors, viewed as separate parts, and you’re likely to have a much more balanced therapeutic approach.

Cognitive behaviorists tend to fall in the zone of moderation between the two extremes of holism and reductionism. And for the purposes of developing a therapeutic philosophy that serves the greater majority of behavioral issues, they are probably on the right track.

Psychotherapists, according to Hansen, are in the business of changing the brain for the better. Along those lines, they seek to build up the underlying layers of their client’s inner strengths, including character virtues, executive functions, perspectives, attitudes, positive emotions, and capabilities.

These positive traits come from positive states, says Hansen. He believes that positive states are the building blocks of self-regulation and self-esteem. And the way he recommends identifying and subsequent growth of these building blocks is to experience them.

In such a scenario, rather than breaking each complex behavior down to it’s most basic components, the therapist helps the client savor… experience… each of the positive states illustrated by their inner strengths.

When a client is able to identify a positive experience with the help of their therapist, they are then able to allow the experience to be enriched through a process of intensification and drawing upon multiple modalities. Once they have gained a more poignant expression of their experience, the client is encouraged to consider how it could be helpful to them moving forward.

Tying this therapeutic modality to the concerns over neural reductionism, it becomes important to realize that neuroscience is still in its relative adolescence. By helping clients to focus on their positive experiences and perceive them through the lens of how such experiences might benefit them prevents an oversimplification of the mere biology of behavior. And in so doing, we encourage and support the client’s ownership and recovery from such behaviors.  A New Outlook Counseling Services provides therapy in Colorado.

Keyword: reductionism


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