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Why research psychotherapy?

We still know relatively little about the brain-mind connection. There is masses of information emerging from neuroscience research about how the brain works, but it tends to be compartmentalised. Much of it is too complex to be easily understood by the non-specialist, so it's hard to join up the islands of knowledge. This information needs to be absorbed and integrated if it is going to be used therapeutically. I feel sure that there is a lot that could be done in this area, especially by bringing together teams of people that cross disciplines, such as neuroscientists, physicists and therapists.

If the new science is not absorbed and put to therapeutic use, there is a risk that it will be used for other purposes, such as control and manipulation. Recent elections have seen the rise of individually targeted social media posting that is tailored to the specific interests and personality type of each voter, based on information they have previously provided through their purchases, searches and likes. By using automated psychological profiling, emotional messages are selected that are likely to trigger the recipient to vote in a specific way. To be able to counteract this, we all need to become more conscious of how our opinions can be manipulated.

There are many more new challenges that are emerging as civilisation becomes more complex. We really don't understand fully the psychological effects of spending many hours a day in front of a computer screen, of having very little exercise, or of eating GM foods. Humans did not evolve to breathe an atmosphere which contains 410ppm of carbon dioxide, or to be surrounded by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones. Society is also changing, with the dominance of social media, the declining influence of the churches accompanied by the rise of fundamentalism.

These are global issues which psychotherapy can help us to understand, but there is also a more personal reason. From the very beginning of my therapy career I've been curious about the abrupt way that therapy can end. Yes, therapist and client can work together to bring about a suitable "ending", but the fact remains that a relationship that may have had profound effects on the client (and the therapist too) is being ended, and there are strong ethical prohibitions about it being continued in other forms. What happens if the client wants to keep working on their development but the therapy setting, with it's rigid hour and payment requirement is no longer suitable?

Would it be possible for psychotherapy to adopt some of the features of the career development model used in science, where a student graduates to be come a "postgrad", then a "postdoc", joining a team of people with a range of experience. Wouldn't this enable knowledge and experience to be passed on in a more effective way? To a certain extent we explored this model at the Hope Street Centre when we launched Brightstone Clinic (now closed). We took student counsellors, provided them with placements and supervision, and helped them to develop into fully-fledged therapists, many of whom have now "graduated" to running their own private practises.

As many counsellors go into the profession after having therapy for their own issues, there is a progression from client to therapist, but it's informal and beset with barriers. What I'm suggesting is to open up a progression path from client through to therapy researcher, for those who are interested in following it. As clients will bring their own specialised knowledge of the issues they have dealt with in therapy, this progression could bring a fertilisation of new ideas grounded in lived experience that could be of great benefit to psychotherapy as a whole.

As the founding director of the Hope Street Centre I've been in a privileged position to have some resources to explore these ideas. Research areas I'm investigating include resilience, the neuroscience of consciousness and meditation, climate change from a psychological perspective and the impact of food on mental health. This is a ridiculously broad field for an individual to take on, even with the support of several volunteers that have helped me over the years. I've reached the point of needing to upscale in order to do the work justice.

For psychotherapy to fulfil its potential of contributing to both global issues and individual problems, I believe it needs to step up to the mark, and find a way of resourcing multidisciplinary teams to work on the areas I've mentioned, and others.  As I write this, I'm already aware of a concern arising in my mind. I've never felt that the university environment is the best one for therapy to thrive. Therapists have a unique way of working which values close and deep relationships, welcomes the shadow, and encourages people to express their vulnerabilities and woundedness. I can't see this happening in an academic setting, so while being willing to learn from universities, we also have to establish our own research structures that nurture the qualities that make psychotherapy special.

My contribution to this is The Sanctuary, a building which was formerly a small church in the Scottish Highlands. Currently it needs a lot of building work doing to it, but once this is complete I hope that it can serve as a base for some of this research to continue. Its running costs will be low, it will provide basic accommodation and a place where teams can meet for an extended period away from many of the distractions of civilisation. Although still in the planning stage, I am interested in hearing from anyone who is enthused by the idea of such a sanctuary. If these ideas excite you, please get in touch.

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