The Safe Emergency
Picture your ideal learning environment. It is calm and tranquil, relaxing and non-stressful. You feel that in such an environment you will learn effortlessly with good recall. Whilst there are obvious attractions to such an environment, research indicates that this may not be the best learning environment.
Learning and stress
In fact, research indicates that we learn best under conditions of moderate stress; “Intellectual understanding of a psychological problem in the absence of increased integration with emotion, sensation and behaviour does not result in change” (Cozolino 2002 p.62). Learning requires that we integrate the new information coming in and process it in appropriate parts of the brain. This area of the brain, the orbital pre-frontal cortex is where thoughts, feelings and sensations can co-mingle in complex ways and sense can be made of them.
Too much stress and you can’t take new information in effectively as activation of your sympathetic nervous system “inhibits optimal cortical processing and disrupts integration functions” (Cozolino). Too little stress and your brain insufficiently stimulated or focused to take in new information. It is in these intermediate states, the ‘safe emergency’, that is optimal for learning.
Stress and therapy
The psychotherapeutic environment is one where there may often be a good balance of stress (or activation) and calm, one where learning can take place. When clients come to sessions, they can be in a state of distress and emotional activation with the events of the week and the difficulties they face in their lives. Before too long however, many clients start to relax. A chance to talk about and start to deal with their difficulties creates calm and relief, and it is perhaps in these moments where the optimal balance of activation and calm is achieved and effective learning can take place.
When this learning does take place, the chance to be able to deal with things more effectively in the future is increased, and we can start to make sustainable changes.
Cozolino, L. (2002) ‘The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy – Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain’ W. W. Norton New York
– Tim Hill
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