There is one single fact that makes this kind of experience so productive for healing and change, something finally being confirmed by the hard sciences in the last twenty years: neuroplasticity. Up until now our understanding of the brain was that it was largely “hard wired”—the term we’ve been using up to this point. The hard wired brain is like a computer—that is, the software might change but the structure remained the same. Neuroplasticity turns this idea on its head and suggests that we can actually change both the software and the hardware. This means that the same kind of experiences which “wire in” patterns of movement when we are children are possible to repeat as adults. In reality, we are not hard wired, we are “soft wired.” And this makes us capable of change in ways that psychologists one hundred years ago never thought possible.
Of course, we’ve all watched how fast children learn, and it’s true that our brains are more plastic when we are children compared to adulthood. Despite this, we can accelerate the learning we do in these therapeutic experiences by circling back to “talk therapy.” When counsellors add this layer of verbal reflection on top of powerful experiences then we are using all the parts of the brain together: cognitive, emotional, and neural, also known as the conscious, the subconscious, and the body.
Therapists who consciously use co-regulation are leveraging the unique human ability to share emotional states in real time. With this approach, a stable and grounded therapist can help create some relief from uncomfortable feelings in just a few minutes. Once relaxed, the opportunity presents itself for new experiences—one which is specific and safe—and the journey begins towards learning lessons that can’t be “unlearned.” Although we can easily forget cognitive lessons (Who invented the printing press? How do you do long division?), we never forget how to ride a bike. And therapeutic learning which re-wires patterns of movement in the brain becomes just like riding a bike, requiring less and less effort until it’s as natural as any other movement.