Richard Turner is arguably one of the best card magicians in the world. His skills with cards amaze even the best of other magicians. Hand him a deck of cards and he can immediately tell you how many cards are in the deck. Take the deck, take a card from the deck, look at it, return the card to the deck and give the deck back. He shuffles the deck with one hand and your card appears on top! Amazing enough in itself. But he is blind! He does all his tricks by feel! He became interested in magic at the age of 8 but then his retina began deteriorating and he lost his sight over the next few years but not his intense desire to be a magician—it is reported that he even sleeps with his cards.
It seems that his intense desire and practice with cards reconfigured his brain so that his occipital lobes now service the nerves in his hands rather than his eye balls. He has indeed put in the 10,000+ hours to become a master card manipulator who can deal from any place in the deck without you detecting it. And when he does these tricks, the area that used to process retinal stimuli now process touch! An amazing example of the plasticity of the brain even after the infant years.
His abilities tell me several facts important for a counselor:
1. The plasticity of the brain allows it to respond to what I ask it to do—and not only in the first few years of life. If I study math or music or chess or counseling or basketball, the brain will respond. Just like every other part of the body, it responds to what we demand of it. If we lift weights, our muscles get bigger and stronger and more efficient; if we run, the heart gets bigger and stronger and more efficient; and studies show that if we learn a foreign language, the brain gets bigger and stronger and more efficient—an important result for both middle age and older adults.
2. Brain scans can only be understood in the context of how a person lives. Unless a brain scan shows extensive scar tissue, the results of a brain scan are, at best, supportive of what a counselor can learn from interacting with a client. I often get the feeling that neurology is trying to take over the counselor’s role as a diagnostician. Neurology to me is the tail of the dog—you don’t know why the tail is wagging unless you see the face and the rest of the body. Recently I have seen notices of interest in ‘mapping’ the brain. Whose brain would that be and what would it tell us? Richard Turner? My father had an anomaly of his brain which caused fluid pressure to build up compressing the frontal cortex to be paper thin at his death but, other than his headaches, no one—even the doctors—detected anything abnormal about him.
3. Never ever contradict the passion of a client. A girl who had polio and could walk only with braces wanted to become a world class sprinter! Wilma Rudolph lost the braces and became an Olympic class sprinter. So did a double-amputee! It is reported that Albert Einstein was told in elementary school that he was a slow thinker and would never amount to anything. You know the cases as well as I do. And many of the possibilities in life come because the plasticity of the brain to reconfigure itself to accommodate we are most passionate about.
4. Of course the down side of that is that if we are passionate about being depressed or failing or being an alcoholic, the brain will also accommodate us. That, I believe, is why DSM Axis II personality types are so difficult to change—we have been practicing our own personality skills for many years and the brain has been transformed to help us be experts in whatever type we have chosen. Yes, and I still believe, as Claude Steiner’s script analysis assumes, that we did chose it very early as that response to life that made the most sense at that time. But we can choose a different way of being in the world and develop new skills—but that is not easy.
Many studies have shown that, for many common conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc., counseling is even more effective than drugs. My hunch is that the brain, even the chemistry in the brain, will respond to our interactions with our clients with more focus and intention than it will to the general challenge to brain chemistry that drugs give. Drugs may help enhance muscle strength but there is nothing like lifting weights or running intervals for an athlete to get the desired improvement in performance.
And always remember, just because a brain scan shows the occipital lobes in the brain to be firing, that person may not be seeing at all. We as counselors have both the insight and responsibility to interpret what is really going on.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'.