Cognitive therapy is based on the premise that the way an individual perceives and interprets events has to do with their upbringing, experiences and relationships. In other words, our brains become wired based on what we have encountered in our past and present. We then develop automatic thoughts and/or emotions that frame our behaviours. A useful metaphor that explains this neurocircuitry of the brain is the well-known optical illusion of the young lady and the old lady. Take a look. Who do you see?
Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure (1915)
This optical illusion demonstrates how the human brain learns to habitually interpret information in various ways. Most people see the young lady first when they look at this image. After some time (and perhaps the prompt to view the young lady’s chin as a nose and her ear as an eye), the old lady emerges. You might notice the image shifting back and forth between the two ladies, as you try to decide which image is more distinct.
How does this image relate to cognitive therapy and the rewiring of our brain in treatment? Let’s break it down: The interpretation of the young lady can be equated to the brain’s automatic thought process of interpreting a stimulus. This automatic thought process is deep rooted and requires the least amount of effort to produce. The old lady image can be equated to the brain’s non-automatic response, which requires some additional restructuring and reframing to develop. In cognitive therapy, the therapist and client can target the client’s unconscious, automatic thought processes. The therapist works with the client to help them challenge these irrational thought patterns, or cognitive distortions, by demonstrating that there may be more adaptive and rational ways to interpret an event. After a lot of hard work completing cognitive restructuring exercises and challenging harmful core beliefs, the client begins to rewire their brain to interpret and perceive an event more adaptively than they have in the past.
This is the beauty of cognitive therapy: We learn to interpret events from a neutral stance without our previous biases and assumptions. Perhaps, after you read this post, you might be able to see both images simultaneously.
Ashlyn Fisher M.S.W., R.S.W
Ashlyn is a registered social worker who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, mood disorders and addictions. She received her Masters degree from the University of Toronto and specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy.