A Rally Call: Neurocounseling Research at the ACA Conference

The American Counseling Association recently held its 65th annual conference in San Francisco, which featured sessions on a variety of topics. At the conference, Counseling@Northwestern faculty member Dr. Eric Beeson and online graduate student Babatunde Aideyan presented twice on the emerging field of neurocounseling. In a session titled “Creating a Neuroscience Agenda for Counseling Research,” they focused on how to conceptualize research using the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), a framework for neuroscience research created by the National Institute of Mental Health. The RDoC is a tool that provides counselors with strategies to develop research models and frameworks that explain mental disorders from a brain-based perspective.

We caught up with Dr. Beeson and Aideyan after this session and discussed the importance of neurocounseling and how it to relates to their careers and education. 

How did you become interested in this form of neurocounseling research? How did you start working together?

Dr. Beeson: First, many counselors have never even heard of the Research Domain Criteria. Recently, all helping professions have been trying to figure out how to incorporate brain-based research into practice, so the impetus behind this is really education, awareness and outreach and figuring out what this means for the counseling profession. Hopefully, this will advance our profession so we aren’t just regurgitating what other people study, but are actively contributing to this burgeoning field of research. This presentation is a call to action or a rally call.

Aideyan: It is really for outreach purposes and for other counselors to become aware of this type of research. We also want to push counselors to adopt and implement this form of research in their own studies.

During the presentation, you incorporated an activity that required audience participation. Audience members stood on stage with different areas of the Research Domain Criteria. Could you explain the activity and what its main objective was?

Dr. Beeson: The activity was meant to demonstrate how the Research Domain Criteria is organized into a hierarchy. It starts with a very broad concept, gets more narrow, then ends with ways to measure specific constructs in research. So we just wanted to show how each component of the RDoC is connected. In a way, it demonstrates concentric research circles, where there is a general concept in the middle, and then other secondary concepts around it that make up the main research concept.

Everyone has a different learning style, so the objective was to try to activate those different modes of learning and have a visual representation of the RDoC. Plus, everyone who participated has a lived experience of being part of the presentation. So it was really just meant to demonstrate the concept in a different way. 

You kept both sessions that you presented during the ACA conference interactive and fun. Can you talk about why you decided to do your presentations this way, especially on a topic that is very research based?

Aideyan: Based on my experience at conferences, I don’t think people just want to come and sit in a lecture the whole time. I think having the audience participate in some way, or just getting their brain going a little bit through demonstrations and activities, is a great way to make the experience memorable. It also helps the audience to be more engaged during the presentation so they don’t feel like it is just a research lecture. Research is a collaborative effort between all of us, and we want to work together as counselors, so getting the audience out of their seats really puts that in their minds.

Dr. Beeson: You can also take a brain-based understanding here. The activities are going to activate a little more right-brain creativity, whereas being a passive recipient might only get to the left brain. Until you really promote that lateralization and that connection, they may not fully understand the subject. Activities enhance and solidify learning.

Babatunde, during the presentation, you talked about how this was a confusing topic when you first started studying it, but now it is essential to your growth as a counselor. Could you explain how this became central to your counseling identity?

Aideyan: There is focus on theories and techniques within counselor education. We take a variety of courses that introduce us to different counseling methods, but there is not much about the actual brain associations within the general counseling education. I did have a limited introduction to some of the neural processes that influence mental health and our behaviors, but Dr. Beeson’s research really solidified my understanding. As I move on in my career as a counselor, I do want to conduct research, so I find understanding research methods around brain-based counseling essential to my career as a counselor. When we think about mental health, it makes perfect sense for us to understand the brain as much as we understand human behavior and psychological mechanisms.

What do you want aspiring counselors to know about this research? What is the most important take away?

Dr. Beeson: This is such a transitional time for our understanding of neurocounseling. It’s becoming a new paradigm. In the next 10 to 20 years, this is going to be the next standard of care and practice, but right now, it is just exploratory, and there is a lot of excitement in that exploration. For aspiring counselors, there is the ability to contribute to this field. It is hard to break in to a system that’s been the same way for 50 years, but now there is some opening in that system. Counselors have the ability to contribute to it in a new way and to ensure that counseling values and principles are infused into the practice—social justice, wellness, and development, the core values of who we are as professional counselors.

Aideyan: This is a new era for collaboration within health care in general. When it concerns mental health, there are all kinds of professionals, but counselors are now able to understand the brain and neuroscience much deeper. We can use that understanding to collaborate with other medical professionals—doctors, psychologists, and others to help the clients. I think that is an incredibly exciting aspect of this research.

To read more about Dr. Eric Beeson and Babatunde Aideyan’s presentations at the ACA conference, check out our conference recaps. 

ACA Day 1 Recap

ACA Day 2 Recap