A Practical Tour of the Mind & Brain

In my experience as a Registered Clinical Counsellor here in beautiful Vancouver, I have found it helpful to give some psychoeducation to clients about how the brain and mind work and its applications to counselling. The brain is made up of neurons and glia (support cells). The pattern of connections that neurons have with each other determines, among other things, what our automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are. The strength and type of connections that your neuronal network have can change based on experience. This is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This means that what we experience and how we direct our awareness can impact the constellation of our neural network. That said, the lower you go in the brain, the less malleable it is for experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

For our purposes, there are two main ways that the brain takes in experiences and sensory information. One route is really fast and happens outside of conscious awareness at speeds of 50 to 90 milliseconds. The second way is slower, conscious, and processes information at 250 to 500 milliseconds. The unconscious way that we take in information and experiences is generalized and negatively biased so as to detect threats. This is for survival purposes so that we can react to possible threats as soon as possible. There is not much context when we initially perceive something and so we tend to see the negative first and make wild associations so we can become aware of possible danger to avoid it. This works great for life and death situations; however, it can be maladaptive when the stresses are not life and death. The same stress response systems activate for physically dangerous situations as well as social and emotional adversity. The difference is a matter of degree as to what extent the stress response is activated. When a person experiences above moderate anxiety this can impair how well your higher thinking capacities work. The higher thinking capacities can add context and detail to the initial interpretations and expectations from our unconscious processing system. But, when we are stressed, the slow, conscious system doesn’t work as well, so we tend to spiral into negative thinking and broad generalizations which also leads to troubling behaviour.

The route and pattern that sensory information goes in is called ‘neurosequentiality’. This is about the sequential and hierarchial manner that the brain processes what you experience. Experiences are a collection of sensory information. Sensory information first goes through the bottom of the brain (brainstem), then to the diencephalon, then the limbic areas, and lastly the cortex at the top. Each level of the brain needs a different type of treatment to regulate it.

The lower levels need to be regulated first because they can dysregulate higher and more complex areas due to the sequential way that sensory information passes through. If a past experience was traumatic, then this forms a memory at the bottom level, and the brain checks the sensory information coming in for any cues similar to the past experience. If there are similarities, then the alarm system is activated. Using thinking techniques for this would largely be ineffective for regulating the lower levels because the bottom of the brain (brainstem) is regulated through movement and sensory stimulation that is simple, soothing, repetitive, and rhythmic. The next brain region (diencephalon) would require the same types of interventions but at a more complex level. The limbic areas need social and emotional interventions, and lastly the cognitive areas require more insight and perspective-based ways to regulate it.

Just as physical actions require energy, so does the brain in the form of glucose and oxygen for mental activity as the brain is part of the body as well. The interventions and exercises in counselling will be challenging and energy consuming. You will literally be creating new neural connections, forming new habits, and changing ways of thinking and behaving. Mentally prepare for this to be challenging just as physical exercise is. It shouldn’t be grueling, but it should be challenging. This is one of the reasons why counselling often starts with stress and energy regulation. These are the foundations that later sessions build upon. Think of it as building a house where the foundations need to be laid before starting on the higher levels. This is the same approach for counselling. It is important to focus on quality and going slow as this is the best way to learn. Speed and fluidity come after.

Until next time, keep up the excellent work on your journey in counselling!

Alistair Gordon, M.A., R.C.C.
Registered Clinical Counsellor #13561

  • When I decided to find a counsellor, I tried to find someone that I could relate to, someone that is like-minded and down-to-earth and with Alistair I really found the right person. He uses an integrative approach, showed me techniques to relax and get aware of my emotions, and helped me see things in a new perspective. Of course this is an ongoing process but I enjoy meeting and working with Alistair every time. The downtown office is a very neutral place – not too intimate, not too clinical – which is helpful to overcome apprehension, especially the first couple of times. What I find remarkable is that Alistair almost always knows what I’m trying to say, even if I can’t put it into words. Working with Alistair helped me a lot and it was the right decision to put my trust in him.

    - Michael S.

  • Alistair really cares about you the person, and I could really feel him trying to tackle my challenges. He was also very available for off-session contact via text and email. I think he did a great job with confronting me where I needed it. Alistair always could remember the important peoples' names in my personal life, which really helped with talking about my problems. I really felt like I was talking to a friend.
    Definitely feels great that they're options out there get help and I achieved a lot with Alister in as little as 5 sessions.

    — Max A

  • I have been working with Alistair Gordon as my counsellor at Wellspring for almost 6 months now and cannot begin to tell you how far I have come with his help. I have tried working with other counsellors and therapists in the past but never really found one that clicked for me. I always felt judged, unsupported, and rushed at those appointments until I booked my first appointment with Wellspring and with Allistair. Read More

    — Elyse Renouf

  • I am a young professional which for a long time now, has struggled with anxiety, insecurity, and difficulty in finding effective life coping mechanisms. Alistair was referred to me by a friend and upon the first meeting, I found Alistair to be empathetic, compassionate and intuitive. I have now been seeing Alistair regularly for 6 months and through that time my anxiety has significantly decreased, Read More

    — Kahir Lalji

  • I am very glad that I had the chance to work with Alistair. It was easy to connect right from the start. He uses an integrative approach, showed me techniques to relax and helped me see things in a new perspective. One of Alistair’s most remarkable qualities is that he almost always knows what I’m trying to say, even if I can’t put it into words. Contacting Alistair and working with him was definitely the right decision.

    — Michael Silberhorn

  • I had no experience with therapy and was unsure of the whole process. Alistair made everything very accessible and unintimidating. It was clear that he puts quite a lot of effort and preparation into every session. I'm so glad that I decided to do this, and could not have asked for a better person to help me with this. I would highly reccomend Alistair to anyone who has ever thought that they might benefit from talking to a professional.

    — Edward Hicks

  • I enjoy how sessions are collaborative where I can take the lead for the direction of what we talk about, and at the same time I know that Alistair will offer helpful guidance and insight along the way. I also like how we focus on the future instead of just the past. I find this to be empowering and helpful to move forward in life.

    — RM

  • Alistair is an awesome counsellor. He has been so helpful in working with me through some tough times in my life. He's always been available to chat with me in-between sessions. I'd recommend Alistair to anyone - he's really the ideal counsellor in my view.

    — JG

  • I have always felt very comfortable with Alistair. He has a calming presence, and you can tell he cares about being the best counsellor for you. He helps you with all aspects of your concern, and is always able to help me find a solution to the problem I'm having.

    — SD

  • Mr. Gordon is someone that captures the spirit and the heart of active engagement. He is empathic, genuine and incorporates action and creative problem solving into his practice. I have no hesitation in recommending Mr. Gordon as an effective career and personal counsellor.

    — Dr. Norman Amundson

    Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia "Active Engagement: The Being and Doing of Career Counselling"

  • Alistair is an exceptionally talented counsellor and has always demonstrated strong ethics, great compassion, wisdom and respect for others. I highly recommend him as a counselling practitioner.

    — Dr. Marla Buchanan

    Director of the UBC Centre for Group Counselling and Trauma,
    University of British Columbia