From the Editor: Brainspotting is an emerging treatment modality used by a growing collection of mental health practitioners originally designed and developed for treating trauma – including, but not limited to, sports trauma. Sports like gymnastics, diving, cheer competitions and the like have gained notoriety for some of the problems these athletes have developed after experiencing or even witnessing a traumatic injury. This post is the first of a series of three articles Podium Sports Journal will be publishing on Brainspotting. Athletes and practitioners who have experience with the technique and would care to comment or provide case studies are welcome and invited to contribute. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as these articles are published.
This piece was adapted from an article by Dr. David Grand which originally appeared in Dr. Frank Wagner’s German Journal: Trauma (published by Gewalt)
What is Brainspotting?
Brainspotting (BSP) is an emerging psychotherapeutic approach developed to productively address the impact of trauma on the human condition by Dr. David Grand. Its underpinnings reside in neurology and the neurophysiological pathways within the human field of vision.
Anyone knowledgeable of the nervous system is awed by the sheer volume of neural connections within the body – estimated at over 250 quadrillion (think one thousand times a million million = a quadrillion or (10 to the 15th power). These neural connections allow for and enable such a high order of computations that many believe the human brain is the world’s most sophisticated computer. Neural connections explain dramatic emotional reactions as well as the unconscious scratching of an itch on the end of our nose.
Who hasn’t admired the neuromotor skills on display in an Olympic Diving or Gymnastics event. To coordinate the millions of muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, and functional tissue sequentially in such a physical display is nothing short of miraculous. A regular by-product of this type of physical development and training is injury, sometimes traumatic, and the body develops defense mechanisms for its own protection – including reflex arcs that must be overridden if the athlete is to continue performing at such sophisticated levels. It was in response to this type of problem that Brainspotting was created.
Aside from being a remarkable writer, teacher, clinician and scientist, Grand is also an avid baseball fan – and a long time follower of the New York Mets. He was as concerned as anyone witnessing the undeniable deterioration in performance of one of the Mets more popular athletes, Macky Sasser, whose fall from all-star to no-namer is legend in MLB baseball annals.
Developed in response to Sports Trauma – The Story of Macky Sasser
Sasser developed a problem after a serious collision with Jim Presley of the Atlanta Braves at home plate. He began to hesitate and repeat his motion (double clutch) when returning the ball to the pitcher, a normally routine activity that opposing teams began to take advantage of. It is worth noting that he did not have this problem when throwing to second base on an attempted stolen base, but the issue became severe enough Sasser left baseball prematurely to coach at Wallace Community College in Alabama. The inventor of BSP, Dr. David Grand worked with Sasser after his retirement from baseball to better understand his experience of trauma and continue to develop BSP with specific application to addressing sports trauma.
Sasser is a huge proponent of Brainspotting after having remedied a problem that caused him undue stress and concern and eventually ended his career in professional baseball. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of stories about athletes like Sasser who developed problems that appeared to be motor coordination issues but didn’t respond to traditional treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Physical therapy was no more effective, and athletic training techniques designed to facilitate the throwing motion, or strength and conditioning approaches attempting to remedy a perceived weakness in the muscles recruited for the motor movement faired no better. What to do?
The athlete appears to “freeze” and the uncoordinated or incomplete motor actions all but destroy the fluid movements that enabled them to excel at very high levels. It is thought that Tom Watson’s ‘Yips’ in putting were one such example. Others ‘unexplained’ deterioration of what were previously gifted athletic performances have puzzled athletes, coaches, managers and team doctors – whose explanations were never quite accurate enough to clearly identify solutions.
The most prevalent of approaches involved psychologists, and their reputations as ‘shrinks’ sometimes helped but sometimes didn’t. As psychotherapy treatment modalities began to favor cognitive and then behavioral therapies – folks tended to fair better. Cognitive-Behavioral treatments are now the most popular by far. The focus of talk therapy of this nature examines the mental precursors to the problem, thought habits that contribute to it, as well as the emotional factors that are cause of or caused by the concerns the athlete identifies. Once the issues are identified behavioral plans are made to short circuit the problems. Behavioral treatments ensue under the direction of the therapist and in collaboration with the client. However, many feel the process is entirely too directed and that the patient’s insights and physical experience is undervalued. Brainspotting works a different way. But how did it develop? Because many of these concerns appeared to be neuro-motor deficits, they seem to belong better in the treatment domain of Brainspotting.
It began with the development of EMDR. Most neurologists, psychologists, and other trauma experts will readily recognize the use of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) as a widely accepted technique in dealing with the variety of emotional, neurological and physical symptoms resulting from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Grand is the author of 2 books on EMDR and was long recognized as an expert in the field prior to his creation of the Brainspotting Technique (BSP). EMDR recognized that the eyes are the windows into which trauma is recorded into the nervous system. It is only logical that the neural pathways in the visual fields of each eye link directly to the nervous system and is associated with virtually all cognitive, emotional, and sensori-motor functions. To say that the visual field is integral to our nervous system is an understatement.
The Visual Field is Key
Because of the robust number of hard wired neural connections in the visual field and it’s noteworthy role in sophisticated neuromotor movement, the technique of Brainspotting was developed in recognition of the fact that eye positions correlate with relevance to inner neural and emotional experience. These eye positions, or Brainspots, may through maintaining eye fixation, lead to a healing and resolution of issues that are held deeply in the non-verbal, non-cognitive areas of the neurophysiology. BSP utilizes both focused activation and focused mindfulness as its mechanisms of operation. It aims at a full, comprehensive discharge of activation held in the brain and body. BSP is a model that incorporates systemic activation and is based on diagnostic and developmental considerations. The BSP model is developed as both relational as well as technical. Its underpinnings are physiological, yet philosophically it is a client-centered therapeutic technique.
To better understand the relationship between neurology, trauma and Brainspotting – this video presentation by Dr. Robert Scaer, a neurologist and author specializing in trauma provides an introductory grasp of the body’s mechanisms for responding to trauma. Stay tuned for Brainspotting (BSP) Part 2 when we discuss – how Brainspotting can help.
Our next edition of this exploration into Brainspotting will explore the key components to the methods and techniques, and why the bilateralization of the brain is a factor. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are some references for light reading on this subject. Enjoy!
Badenoch, B. (2008) Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. Norton, New York.
Carter, R. (2009) The Human Brain Book. New York: DK Publishers.
Grand, D. (1999) Defining and Redefining EMDR. New York: BioLateral Books.
Grand, D. (2001) Emotional Healing at Warp Speed: The Power of EMDR. New York: Harmony Books.
Grand, D. (2002) Treating survivors of the world trade center disaster with natural flow EMDR resourcing, EMDRIA Conference Lecture.
Grand, D. (2009) Brainspotting Phase One Training Manual
Grand, D. (2009) Brainspotting Phase Two Training Manual
Levine, P. (1997) Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Martinez-Conde, S. & Macknik, L. (2007) Windows on the mind. Scientific American, 56-63, (August 2007).
Scaer, R. (2005) The Trauma Spectrum, Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. New York: Norton Books.
Schiffer, F. (1999) Of Two Minds. London: Simon & Schuster
Schwarz, L. (2010) Brainspotting with issues of attachment and dissociation. Brainspotting training.
Shapiro, F., (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols and procedures (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press
Siegel, D. (2010) The Mindful Therapist. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wolpe, J. (1969) The Practice of Behavior Therapy. New York: Pergamon Press.