Why We Brainstorm: Counseling@Northwestern’s New Neuroscience Meetup

Within the professional landscape of mental health, counseling has developed a distinct reputation. In clinical settings, counselors are well-known for their abilities to empathically listen, effectively engage clients, innovate therapeutic techniques, and advocate for social justice.

While counseling continues to expand its influence within various domains of mental health, one area in which there seems to be an observable lack of counselor impact is the field of neuroscience. Search “counseling” alongside “brain” in any academic database, and this scarcity of research becomes abundantly clear. As the profession evolves, however, several leaders within the field are seeking to remedy this. By promoting “neurocounseling”—a therapeutic approach informed by neuroscience principles—many hope to build a future in which counselors can become neuro-savvy practitioners as well as active contributors to a larger scientific conversation. In fact, one such conversation is already beginning to take shape in Counseling@Northwestern’s newest neurocounseling initiative: BRAINSTORM.

BRAINSTORM is an online monthly meetup in which counseling professionals from across the country gather to discuss the latest neuroscience research and its clinical implications. Dr. Eric Beeson, core faculty at Counseling@Northwestern and an associate editor of the Neurocounseling section of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, spearheaded the movement alongside a team of graduate students and colleagues from across the country. At the inaugural event May 26, more than 30 counseling practitioners, students, and experts assembled in the same virtual platform used by Counseling@Northwestern students. Following a short presentation from Dr. Beeson, participants split up into breakout sessions and discussed their experiences with neuro-based counseling methods and research. Within these small groups, attendees swapped resources, examined technological innovations, shared experiences using specific neurocounseling methods, and crafted a vision to advance the profession through brain-based research. In other words, they brainstormed.

The underlying motivation for BRAINSTORM is embedded within its title. It is a community built on the belief that innovation occurs through collaboration. Much like the Counseling@Northwestern program, BRAINSTORM provides the opportunity for unprecedented connection among counseling scholars. In these monthly gatherings, participants eager for knowledge gain insight and borrow tools from seasoned counseling experts across the country. It is a platform for communication that is rarely experienced outside of conferences, and it is one that the creators of BRAINSTORM believe to be necessary to inspire a new era of brain-based counseling.

However, this movement raises an important question: Why should counselors “brainstorm” about neuroscience? If such research and advancement is already occurring within other allied mental health professions, what need is there for counselors to contribute to this conversation?

This line of questioning formed the basis for BRAINSTORM’s May gathering, and the following are a few of the takeaways participants shared:

1. When counselors contribute to neuroscience, everyone wins.

In order to continue as an effective mental health profession, counselors have a responsibility to stay engaged with the emergent trends in neuroscience literature. Not only should we stay well-read, but counselors should actively conduct research of our own. It is important to remember that, in many ways, counselors are uniquely positioned to contribute to this body of research. As professionals with extensive therapeutic training and client contact, we have a wealth of experience from which to frame our investigations. Therefore, as counselors begin to assess the neuro-impact of our clinical interventions, all allied mental health professions will benefit. When counselors actively participate in neuroscience, everyone wins. Clients, mental health professionals, and the global science community—everyone stands to gain from this advancement in research.

2. Neuroscience enhances counselors’ understanding of their clients.

Counselors are accustomed to the idea of attending to their clients—monitoring subtle changes in body language, noting relevant themes within a story, and creating assessments of client problems. These are all foundational elements that contribute to case conceptualization, but of course, these methods have their limitations. Practitioners cannot fully comprehend the complexities of an individual’s experience solely through in-session observations. By infusing the therapeutic process with neuro-based methods, counselors can begin to understand their clients on a much deeper level. By engaging with the literature, clinicians can better grasp concepts such as how trauma impacts the brain or how memory is affected by dysregulation. Additionally, in applying neurocounseling practices, physiological aspects of the client experience—such as heart rate, temperature, and skin conductivity—offer further insight that can be used in assessment. This in-depth knowledge not only provides counselors with increased ability to formulate treatment plans, but also allows for greater empathy as we begin to grasp more acutely the impact neurobiology has on our clients.

3. Neurocounseling discussion promotes community among mental health practitioners.

As counselors work alongside other mental health professionals, neuroscience provides a common language. Within settings such as hospitals and community agencies, having a familiarity with neuro-concepts increases our ability to communicate effectively. Additionally, within a profession with a diversity of theoretical orientations and backgrounds, raising our level of brain-based understanding will also provide a common foundation for communication within the counseling community itself. Neuroscience is more than just a way to improve counseling practice; it is an avenue through which counseling can grow into a more developed professional identity. Pursuing these topics by engaging in events such as BRAINSTORM creates unique opportunities for connection. By meeting together to discuss this new era of the profession, counselors can do what they do best: connect, collaborate, and inspire change.

For those interested in joining this growing community, registration for the next event on July 28 is currently open. By signing up, attendees also receive access to the BRAINSTORM listserv and website, where members share books, articles, tech recommendations, and other resources to incorporate neuroscience into counseling practice.

Christy O’Shoney is a Counseling@Northwestern student living in Brooklyn, New York. As she pursues her Master of Arts in Counseling, Christy is also engaged in her master’s level fieldwork as an intern at NYC Counseling, a private group practice in Manhattan. Drawing on her psychodynamic orientation and knowledge of interpersonal neurobiology, Christy helps clients integrate their cognitive and emotional experiences by using a collaborative approach to facilitate change. In addition to her studies and clinical work, Christy serves as a graduate assistant through Northwestern, coordinating initiatives such as “Brainstorm” — a collaborative mentoring community designed to promote neuroscience research in the counseling field. Christy also works as a writer, authoring articles on wellness, pop culture, and mental health