Brain Changers

Does neuroplasticity make it easier for therapists to earn their money?

By Kathryn Robinson April 17, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Seattle Met

 Honestly? This therapist was creeping me out.

I was sitting in a comfy chair in her pleasant North End office to research a therapeutic approach she and her partner developed—an approach a therapist friend of mine swears has revolutionized her practice. It’s not just talk therapy, my friend says. It’s a new paradigm for talk therapy—that builds new neural pathways in the brain. 

If this therapist is building new neural pathways, I thought, she’s searing them in through the sheer laser force of her gaze. Beatriz Sheldon has fathomless black eyes along with a smile so ferociously loving it could melt a stone. At this moment, that whole formidable arsenal was trained on me. 

“How is this feeling?” she asked with intense kindness. “Uh…creepy,” I said, feeling like a recruit at a Scientology meeting.

Turns out that was the right answer. 

Sheldon and her husband, Dr. Albert “Terry” Sheldon, were midcareer clinicians in the ’90s, when everything science knew about brain development got turned on its head. The old belief—that neurons are formed in childhood and don’t change—was rewritten by new research, proving that neurons grow and change their circuitry across a lifetime. Scientists call it neuroplasticity. 

Neuroplasticity doesn’t just affect our ability to learn information. It means we can alter the neural pathways responsible for our emotional responses to the world—aka anger, anxieties, neuroses; the stuff we go to therapy for. Jeffrey Schwartz, an LA researcher who specialized in obsessive compulsive disorders, used before-and-after brain scans to prove that therapy actually changed the structure of his clients’ brains.

This research supported what the Sheldons had discovered in their practice, and the result was their theory: Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems (CIMBS). In layman’s terms, CIMBS holds that each of us has six unconscious brain systems that childhood events can cause to become improperly entangled—what therapists call “insufficiently differentiated.” The trick is to disentangle them. “People are like icebergs,” Terry explained. “What we’re aware of—our symptoms, our difficulties in life—that’s 10 percent, the tip of the iceberg. The other 90 percent is unconscious. CIMBS gets at that.”

A CIMBS therapy session stays strictly inside the here and now. No talk-about-your-past stuff, which they say only reinforces old neural pathways; just what’s going on right this sec-ond, in this office. This explains the attentiveness with which Beatriz began my session: In provoking my anxiety, she hopped the quickest chute to the undersea depths of my iceberg. 

“You say my attention makes you uncomfortable,” Beatriz murmured, gently redirecting my diverted eyes back to hers. “Where in your body are you feeling that?” Jeez, I don’t know. “Well…I guess my hands are sweating.” 

“Ah! Good!” she said, delighted. “What might that mean?” 

What sweaty palms always mean. Fear.

To develop CIMBS the Sheldons watched hours of videotaped client sessions and began to hypothesize that sudden shifts in the body telegraphed information from the unconscious. What that looks like in the therapy office are infinitesimal physiological shifts. A sudden turn of the head. A slight raising of the voice. A flash of a smile on a person who’s defined herself as depressed. Terry remembers one client who felt suddenly—fleetingly—that she would vomit. When the therapist catches that moment, getting the client to pay attention to the feeling that preceded the body’s message: that’s what they say untangles the systems. In my case, sometime in the mists of early childhood, deep and loving attention got wired to fear. Focus positively on the outcome you’d prefer,
the Sheldons claim—and rewire the brain.

The process doesn’t look like much. “It’s like being stoned with somebody,” my therapist friend observes. But the CIMBS clients I spoke with described the therapy using terms like “life changing” and “most powerful experience of my life.” 

The woman who said the latter, also a therapist, underwent a CIMBS session with Terry Sheldon. Two days later, she woke up to find herself newly untethered from a lifelong feeling of shame—stemming from events she hadn’t even articulated in therapy. “The shame got disentangled without me ever even telling the story,” she marveled. Out went the antidepressants she’d been on for 20 years. “It’s quantum healing.” 

Weirdest, those changes might come without an aha! “Some of the learning takes place without insight,” Terry explains. “It’s a shift in the visceral experience, in the brain system internally. Something may just feel different or suddenly make sense.”

Candidly, I have no idea if a new pathway was built in my head. I do know that some 50 therapists have thrown over their old methods for this one—therapists whose sudden uptick in word of mouth has created full client lists. For my part, one hour with Beatriz delivered two rocking epiphanies—exactly two more than I experienced in a year drifting down the lazy river of cognitive behavioral therapy—along with an inexplicable sense of something in my psyche righting, like how your back feels after someone cracks it. 

Terry Sheldon likens it to physical therapy for the brain: not immediate, sometimes painful. But healing.


Published: May 2013

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