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Each week on Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explore different aspects of human behavior and the brain.

Virtual Or No, Therapy Can Be Beneficial

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Therapy can be life-changing. However, anyone who’s ever seen a bad therapist likely agrees, on at least some level, that virtual therapy may be a step in the right direction. But is it actually effective?

Virtual therapy offers a true judgment-free zone. It also removes much of the shame and fear associated with telling even (or perhaps especially) the kindest of therapist one’s deepest and darkest secrets. It’s also much more convenient and, likely, inexpensive.

However, a good therapist can sense what’s going on beneath the surface. Due to the way the brain is structured, we can rationalize our emotional problems in a way that fits into the context of our current environment and feels safe, which can have little to do with accuracy. A good therapist also provides advice on how to face these issues, as we become ready to hear it.

In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke discuss the purposes of therapy and provide some perspective on the roles virtual therapy can and can’t fill.

Much of our emotional processing occurs in subcortical structures, such as the limbic system, that are loosely (relatively speaking) connected with the evolutionarily “newer” neocortical brain regions responsible for language and reflective thought. Many of these regions that are involved in rational thinking, such as the prefrontal cortex, are designed to create a coherent explanation of what’s happening across our internal and external environments, regardless of its accuracy.

Therefore, while we can innately know how we feel, a great deal is often lost – and distorted – in translation.

One classic psychology experiment that helped spark a long line of research had people choose a pair of pantyhose from four identical (unbeknownst to them) pairs; they gave all kinds of reasons why their pick was the superior pair. Numerous psychology studies also show that emotional decisions, ranging from people’s favorite artwork to the status of their romantic relationship, are best made with intuitive, “gut-feeling” approaches rather than via rational thinking.

However, these subcortical emotional structures are strongly connected to our motor system. A skilled therapist can therefore notice the changes in body language, tone or inflection, and facial expressions that speak the truth. In-person interaction will engage the therapist’s emotional and motor systems as well. So they can also sense shifts in emotional states and provide comforting nonverbal communication that extends beyond their conscious conception of the problem.   

That’s not to say that virtual therapists don’t have their place. Virtual therapy offers an excellent way to organize our thoughts. Since verbalizing our thoughts, whether it be externally or internally, can be very challenging, organizing them into a coherent narrative can help us better understand the problem. It also offers a safe and guided way to express these feelings—which is sometimes what we truly need. Other times, it can be a very helpful first step.

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