A neuroscientist at University College London has explained how CBT works using coloured dots.
That is, his explanation uses coloured dots. CBT doesn’t use coloured dots (though if some wacky ‘third-wave’ therapy based on coloured dots turned up next week heralded as a new form of CBT it would not surprise me one bit).
Actually, Beau Lotto doesn’t mention CBT at all. His work in UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology concerns vision. But the underlying ways in the the brain processes information are the same no matter what kind of information it is. Vision is just one example:
The light that falls on to your eye — sensory information — is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what’s true for sensory information is true for information generally. There’s no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.
The quote is from (04:16) a TED talk that’s embedded below. It uses optical illusions (some of which are similar to the one I used here last month in Socks) to illustrate how our brains process information.
The key idea is that your brain creates meaning out of information, and it does this in ways that it has learned are useful. Here’s an example he gives. Try reading this (04:54):
What are you reading? Half the letters are missing…There’s no a priori reason why h has to go between that w and a, but you put one there. Why? Because in the statistics of your past experience it would have been useful to do so. So you do so again. And yet you don’t put a letter after that [next] t — why? Because it wouldn’t have been useful in the past, so you don’t do it again.
That’s the key idea behind CBT, too. You have learned to process information in a certain way because it is useful, and your brain uses the information to create your perception of reality (11:40):
The senses aren’t fragile. And if they were, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, color tells us something completely different, that the brain didn’t actually evolve to see the world the way it is. We can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see in the past. And how we see is by continually redefining normality.
If the way your brain processes information ceases to be useful (causing mental illness), then you can easily learn to process the same information in a different way that’s more useful to you you in the present. Your perception of reality changes, even though the incoming information is the same. Your world seems a different place.
In the video there’s a startling example of how quickly (thirty seconds) your visual processing can change. The changes produced by CBT (weeks or months) in processing thoughts and emotions can be equally startling.
A quote from the very start of the talk could apply to mental illness just as well as to the coloured dots (00:20):
…to win this game, all you have to do is see reality that’s in front of you as it really is…
What CBT does is create an actual change in the way your brain processes information. It seems to you that reality has changed, as if the way you thought about things before while you were ill was some kind of illusion.
If you’re a patient and you’re having some kind of therapy that doesn’t do that, it’s not really CBT. Or if you’re a therapist and you’re not doing that for your patients, then whatever it is you’re doing is not really CBT.
The way CBT achieves this change is by uncovering the reasons why you were processing information in a certain way — why it was useful. This component of CBT, this understanding, is known as a formulation or conceptualization. Once you understand why your way of processing information was useful, and why it is no longer useful, you can develop a new way of processing information that’s more useful now.
There is nothing unnatural or artificial about learning to process the same information in new ways. Your brain does this all the time. In the talk, Lotto says (12:04):
So how can we take this incredible capacity of plasticity of the brain and get people to experience their world differently?
It’s that incredible capacity of plasticity of the brain that makes CBT possible.
Here’s the TED talk, Optical illusions show how we see: