Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I speak with Dr. David Grand. David Grand is a psychotherapist, a writer, a lecturer, a performance coach, and a humanitarian famous for the discovery and development of the internationally acclaimed Brainspotting method. He’s the author of the ground-breaking book Emotional Healing at Warp Speed, and has been interviewed on CNN, NBC, and Nightline for his enormous success in healing victims of trauma. With Sounds True, David is just releasing a new book on Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, David Grand and I spoke about just what Brainspotting is. We talked about a simple self-Brainspotting exercise that you can try right now. David explained one of the core principles of Brainspotting; that where you look affects how you feel, and he discussed a situation in which he was the client and received Brainspotting therapy. Finally, David talked about some of the future innovations of Brainspotting, and why he’s so passionate about advancing the field of brain-based therapy. Here’s my conversation with Dr. David Grand.
Brainspotting is known as a brain-based therapy, and I wonder, to begin our conversation, David, if you could help our listeners understand this whole category of brain-based therapies.
David Grand: When I was trained in the ’70s and into the ’80s, everything was put in the context of the mind. And I always used to wonder, “Well, where is the mind?” And way back then, I was thinking, “Well, it’s got to be in the brain.” And the ’90s became the decade of the brain, where we really got to understand many things about it that we hadn’t before. And then from there, it started to filter its way into psychotherapy practice just as far as understanding what was happening during psychotherapy.
But the evolution of brain-based therapy is a matter of not just understanding what may be happening in the client’s brain during the therapy process, but really engaging them around it. In other words, educating the client as to their brain, even encouraging them to read books or go online. And as the process is going on, to really be talking about, “Well, this is where it’s happening in your brain, this is what’s happening in the brain, and this would explain some of the symptoms you have or reactions you have.”
And what’s really interesting is that people really like that. People really resonate with that. And it’s like the brain understands itself. So when in the therapy process, and really in other forms of work that I do in the performance and creativity work, when you describe and educate and engage the brain of the person in front of you, you’re able to really do a lot more, and have a process be more powerful and focused.
TS: So, pretend I’m one of your clients, and I want to understand more about how my brain is working and how Brainspotting is going to work with my brain to help me. Can you educate me? Here I don’t know very much about brain science—where would you start?
DG: Well, as far as Brainspotting goes, the watchword is: “Where you look affects how you feel.” And specifically, when we think about something that has any meaning to us or activates us in any way, if we look to the left or the right as we think about it or feel the feelings, it actually feels different.
Also, if we look up or down it feels different. It feels different—usually on one side it’s more intense and the other side it’s less intense. One side, it’s more right in our face; the other side, we have more perspective on it. And this is a matter of the field of vision being a reflection of our internal brain processes.
So with Brainspotting, we literally use where a person looks to find where they’re holding their traumas, where they’re holding their symptoms, their negative beliefs about themselves, or anything of that nature. And once we find it, we hold it in place and we have the person just stare—we usually use a pointer—stare at the tip of the pointer and just be mindfully aware of what goes on inside of them, especially attuning to what they’re feeling in their bodies, because the body is a reflection of what’s going on in the brain. I like to say what’s in the brain is in the body, and what’s in the body’s in the brain.
In addition, as far as the more specific brain-based approach, what I explain to people is that we have different levels of consciousness, which we all know, but that the consciousness of the left prefrontal cortex—which is the left part of the brain in the front where most of the thinking and reasoning goes on, and most of our conscious awareness goes on—it feels like just who we are. And the rest of our brain is not even there or it’s something or somebody else—just like we don’t attune, necessarily, to our bodies as being ourselves.
But what I like to do is to educate people that with Brainspotting, we’re bypassing this conscious thinking part of the brain, that left prefrontal part of the brain, and we’re able to access the right brain, which is the more intuitive body-based brain, and access the midbrain, which is known as the limbic brain or the mammalian brain. That’s where the fight-flight-alarm system goes on. And even, in some ways, access all the way back to the hindbrain, which is also known as the reptilian brain.
So in doing this with Brainspotting, we do it but we educate the person as far as what’s actually happening in their brain. One of the things that happens in Brainspotting is what we call processing, and I call it focused mindfulness, which is when a person is—let’s say a person is thinking about a trauma from when they’re five, and we found that spot and it’s to their right and up. And they’re looking at that spot and they’re aware that it feels like there’s a weight on their chest.
The processing that goes on, the focused mindfulness, is the uncritical tracking of a person’s internal process, and oftentimes it’s thoughts or feelings or memories. But it can jump around, it can go to things that seem totally unrelated. And people oftentimes feel like, “Oh, I’m not doing this right,” or, “What’s happening? I’m confused.”
What I explain to people is that in this focused mindfulness process, on the spot, that the person’s conscious thinking brain is observing the deeper unconscious brain. It’s observing the workings of that deeper part of the brain. And that literally they’re traveling down the neural pathways that are unpredictable and kind of mysterious to our conscious selves. But by doing it, we’re actually watching the brain process the experience and watching the brain healing itself.
TS: Now, David, help me understand this for a moment. You’re talking about, here, I come in, I’m a client, and I have some kind of past trauma, and that by helping me look at a certain spot—so in the visual field, you are helping me identify a certain spot—that there’s a relationship between me looking at that spot and the trauma that’s been held in my body and brain? I’m not quite clear on that, what the relationship [is] between the visual place that I’m looking at and the trauma experience being held in the body and brain.
DG: Let me start by just talking a little bit about trauma, and then I can give you a better reflection on that. The brain is a processing machine. It’s made to process infinite experiences that we have all the time. Traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, overwhelm the processing mechanism, which means that parts of the traumatic experience go unprocessed or frozen in different parts of the brain.
Robert Scaer, who’s a great expert on these things, has come up with a concept of “trauma capsules.” I like to say it’s almost like time capsules because they’re left frozen in time and space in different places in the brain. It’s not exactly as literal as this, but on a functional basis, this is how it works. So there are trauma capsules of frozen traumatic experiences that are left unprocessed, unresolved in the brain.
Now, if a person is talking about when their father left and didn’t come back when they were five years old, and it’s marked the person’s life, that information is held in certain trauma capsules in the person’s brain. When I have the person bring up the memory, [I] ask, “How activating is it, zero to 10?” Let’s say it’s a seven.
Slowly, we go to different places in the person’s visual field, and I’m asking them, “Where do you feel it the most? Where is it the most activating?” And again, let’s say, in this case, it’s to the right and down. Literally, when you bring the pointer there, the person will just feel it—it’s almost like a charge—and feel it with great specificity. And by doing so, that spot that they’re looking at, to the right and down, reveals and correlates to a trauma capsule or a number of trauma capsules that are held in the person’s brain.
When the person continues to look at that pointer, what’s happening is that the brain maintains its focus on that trauma capsule, and all the attention and processing that’s happening is not going on throughout the entire brain. It’s going out to that encapsulated region of the brain, which then has a chance to process through that experience in a way that it didn’t the first time around.
Literally, it can release that trauma capsule and just have it become a normal, integrated part of the brain, and go from being a trauma to being a memory—go from being something that has a charge and it feels like it’s happening in the moment to, “Well, it happened to me but it’s in the past, and I survived it and I moved on.”
TS: So normally these trauma capsules are hidden from our awareness, but there’s something that happens in the Brainspotting process, using this technique that reveals the capsule? How does that work?
DG: Well, people oftentimes have the erroneous notion that when they’ve been traumatized, that they’ll never get over it. One of the classic things you say [about] an image or a sound [is], “I’m going to have to see it or hear it or feel it the rest of my life.” What they’re really doing is just relating to that frozen information in the trauma capsule. And if a person goes for talk therapy, it’s going in through the conscious, language areas of the brain that don’t really get to where those trauma capsules are.
When we explore a person’s visual field and we find [where] that hot spot, or brainspot, is, it allows their brain to find it, which they haven’t been able to do before. And it allows the brain to figure it out through processing it the way that it was really meant to happen if it didn’t overwhelm that person, especially at that young stage in their life.
TS: Now, is there any way that someone listening to this right now could do some type of experiment with their visual field so they could get even just a little sense of what you’re talking about?
DG: well, the first thing I’ll say is that human beings are Brainspotting all the time; we just don’t know it. And ironically, people even in a psychotherapy session are Brainspotting, it’s just the therapist doesn’t notice it. What I mean by that is that we are looking in different directions, at different points, when we’re thinking about things or talking about things. In Brainspotting, we call it a Gaze Spot.
So if a client sits in front of me and she’s talking about something that just overwhelms her and just bothers her every day, and meanwhile she’s just looking right at one spot on the floor—she’s just staring at it, almost burning a hole in the floor—what’s happening at that moment is she is revealing to me that there’s something there, right in that spot in her visual field.
Just going backwards a couple of steps—when I say we’re doing it all the time, if you start thinking about something and then you realize you’re looking at a spot on the wall and there’s no reason for you to look at it, you’re naturally, intuitively, Brainspotting. When you do that, all you have to do is just keep looking at that spot—once you’ve discovered, consciously, that you’re doing it—and watch wherever your internal process goes. It’s almost always a fruitful, revealing internal experience.
But even more specifically than that—just to try this out—anybody who’s listening can think about something that’s bothering them. We don’t want them to take a major life trauma that they’re carrying that overwhelms them, if there is such a thing. Just something that’s bothering them that day, and look to the right. Which means just find something—it could be a lamp or a doorknob or something—and look at that and think about the thing that’s bothering them, and notice how they feel it in their body. And then, after doing that for 10 seconds, just look at something to the left, and just fixate on that and think about what’s bothering them.
And just notice the difference between what it feels like looking to the right or looking to the left. The best way to gauge it is what you feel in your body, whether you feel an activation in your body in your chest, your back, your head or something, or whether you feel more of a release or calm in your body.
By doing this experiment—people could be doing it right now as we’re talking—that spot where you feel it the most, if it’s more to the right or more to the left, that’s a Brainspot. That reveals where something is being held in your brain that’s feeding this thing that’s bothering you.
And the way to experiment with that one step farther is to just keep on looking at that spot, and just like you do when you meditate, just with mindfulness, notice where your thinking goes, step by step by step. But it’s really important to not judge it, to not put expectations on it, to not be critical of it. If your mind jumps around all over the place, it’s natural. If you start thinking about things that seem unrelated or just a shopping list, it’s all brain process.
So you just stay with it. If you stay with it for a minute, three minutes, five minutes, and watch where it goes, and then reflect back on what was bothering you, you’ll generally see that there’s been a shift—maybe a very slight, subtle shift or maybe a more noticeable shift—in just how it feels to you. That’s a mini-self-Brainspotting experience.
TS: And when you say look for the spot in the visual field—either left or right or scanning from left to right—where you feel it the most, what do you mean “feel it the most”? I might feel peaceful or I might feel quite agitated? What am I looking for?
DG: Well, for a basic self-experiment, or just to know what it feels like, we’re generally looking for where you feel it the most.
TS: Where I feel the most inner disruption?
DG: I use the term “activation” because activation’s sort of a catch-all term. If we say “disturbance,” it means one thing to one person, one thing to another. Activation just really means where your brain and body feels activated—where you feel something.
We use a rating scale from zero to 10, and this can be helpful in that self-exercise. It comes from Joseph Wolpe, who was a famous behaviorist, where zero means where you don’t feel anything, where it’s totally neutral. Ten means where you feel it the absolute most. And whatever number in between, it gives a number to it.
So a way to simply judge where you feel it the most is to judge the activation of the issue of whatever you’re feeling emotionally, bodily. When you look to the left, you might look to the left and say, “Oh, it’s a five over there.” Then you look to the right and it jumps up to an eight. Numerically is a good way to quickly identify the difference of where you feel it more and where you feel it less.
TS: Now, I’m curious about something you said about how we’re Brainspotting all the time, because one of the things I’ve noticed is that I’ll often find myself staring off into space in a certain direction, to the point where my partner might say to me, “You’re staring at that person,” and I’m like, “I’m not even looking at them. I’m just staring.” But I’m not necessarily activated in that moment. I’m in some kind of dreamy state. What’s going on then? Does that have anything to do with Brainspotting?
DG: Oh, absolutely. In a psychotherapy office, people bring in what’s bothering them. So generally speaking, something that bothers you is something that, when it happens or you think about it, it makes you feel uncomfortable. I like to use the technical term “lousy.” It just makes you feel lousy. But the field of vision reveals all kinds of different things in different spots.
I work with people who are in [the field of] creativity, and we find the creativity spot where they feel the most creative. We can also work with people from what we call a resource model, which is to find the spot where a person feels the calmest and most grounded.
What you’re talking about, where you’re staring off into space, it is not random by any means. What’s really happening is that something about that spot is allowing you to stare into inner space. There’s something on a deep basis there that you’re pondering that you may not even have an awareness of. And if you feel like you’re just kind of floaty or drifty or not even knowing what you’re thinking about, it’s because you’re in the right brain or you’re in the midbrain or the high brain that doesn’t have thought and doesn’t have language. It just has an intuitive sense of things.
So the visual field is loaded with meaningful eye positions, and they don’t all correlate to negative things. They can correlate to neutral things, or to things of interest, or things where we feel introspective. Our visual field reveals our internal field, which is the brain.
TS: I think the part about all of this that still feels quite mysterious to me is understanding how the position of my eyes or whatever it is I’m looking at is relating to brain activity, the relationship between those two things. I’m still not clear about that.
DG: Well, in simple terms, with the most rudimentary understanding of the brain and brain activity, it stands to reason that if you’re look off to your right or looking to the left, your brain is not going to be exactly the same looking at two different positions, especially ones that are distinctly apart.
The brain is always active; it’s always searching in different ways. So literally, your brain—if you do a brain scan of somebody look to the right or to the left, it’s not going to look exactly the same. The shift in eye position correlates to a shift of brain activity.
But this is not just because we’re human beings. Part of this is being members of the animal kingdom. If you look at animals and watch how they scan, what they’re really doing is orienting to their environment. And orienting to one’s environment—the main way that humans do it is through sight, and for most animals, sight is an important part of it.
So we’re wired to orient—to the left, to the right, up, down, in front of us, even behind us. So being able to orient to our environment externally, which is really tapping into orienting to our internal environment, is just part of being in the animal kingdom. Usually in orienting, we’re orienting for two things: either for danger, which shows us that there’s a tiger coming from our left or a car, a taxi—speaking from Manhattan, a taxi coming at us from the left; or we’re orienting towards safety or nurturing, such as food or other people that we’re associated to.
So we’re wired to orient to our visual field and to our entire environment. That’s one of the reasons why where we look reveals so much of how we feel and what’s going on inside of us.
TS: Now, David, it’s fair to say that you “discovered” Brainspotting, and that you discovered it at a certain point in your career in 2003. And I wonder if you can tell us about that. How is it that you discovered [what] seems like quite an important breakthrough, and has this discovery been confirmed by other people, other researchers, other practitioners?
DG: I discovered Brainspotting—and I didn’t really discover anything. Looking in different directions has been used with other techniques: NLP, hypnosis, and so on. But also where we look has been used by archaic healers and shamans, so I didn’t really discover anything. I just sort of stumbled upon something that was there right in front of my face and recognized that there was something to it that I could utilize.
I was doing a version of EMDR, which is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. When I say my own version, I was doing very slow eye movements with a woman was an ice skater. And we were trying to break through this last thing that she hadn’t broken through, which was a jump called a triple loop that she needed to do for either a short or a long program. And everything else had been cleared through with the prior work, and she was just stuck on that.
And as I went across her visual field, just before we got to the bridge of her nose, her eye went into this dramatic wobble, and then just locked into place. When that happened, it felt like a hand grabbed my wrist and locked my finger in place so that I just held it right in front of where that wobble and freeze was. And for the next ten minutes, a torrent of information and processing experience came out. She became very emotional at different points and releasing in other points. It was trauma after trauma after trauma that was coming out.
What was fascinating was too things: The first was that these were new traumas that hadn’t come out, and some of them were on the skating rink and injuries. Some of them were family stuff with her parents fighting. But a lot of these were new traumas that never came out in the process that I had done with her for that year of treatment.
But the second thing was that a lot of things that I thought we had resolved reopened and processed through to a deeper level. The next morning she called me from the practice rink. She was very excited. She said, “David, David, I just did a triple loop with no problem!” And she never had a problem with it again after that.
What happened for me, at that point—I mean, it was really dramatic, so I wondered if there was something there that might have application to other clients. So in doing these slow eye movements, I started to look for these eye glitches, eye wobbles, eye anomalies, and any time I saw one, I stopped right there and just told the person, “Keep on looking at my finger and watch what happens.”
And they started to go into, in almost every case, a deeper, more focused kind of processing than they were in before with the work I was doing. And the work I was doing was very effective and powerful, so for me, this really grabbed my attention that this was a breakthrough to another level.
During the course of the last 10 years, on my own and [with] others who have studied with me, we’ve discovered many different ways of observing and harnessing a client’s visual field to see where different experiences can really be focused or brought out or released, including positive experiences as well.
TS: Now, let’s go to this story of the ice skater and the triple loop. So she came to you, you had been working on this for awhile, and then this one day she kept her vision in one position for 10 minutes. New stories came forward that she saw in front of her, she was engaged in this focused mindfulness, as you called it. And the next day, she had this breakthrough on the rink. So what happened? What happened during those 10 minutes that then allowed her to have a breakthrough the next day?
DG: Well, I can only speculate, but we are looking into this more and more through research. And I’m not a brain researcher, so some of this even goes beyond my expertise. But there must have been some capsule—I call it a trauma capsule—that either we couldn’t find or the encapsulation was too great that somehow, with all the work and all the focus and all the eye movements and everything, it just never revealed itself.
And something about the information that was in that trauma capsule held the block for her about doing the triple loop—and it’s really very hard or impossible to say exactly what it was. And there was nothing conscious about it. It was a reflexive as a knee jerk when you tap the knee. At that moment, when I hit that spot and her eye started to wobble like that, it was something that her reflexive system was experiencing and saying to me, “David, there’s something right here in this spot.”
But there was no thought, to words. It was just a reflexive response. And the fact that somehow I stopped there—and I felt it intuitively in my reflexive self also, probably—helped whatever it was to just really hold it in place and have her brain really just focus in on that trauma capsule and really open up what was inside of it. And all the traumas that came out had been frozen and held secretly in that compartment in her brain.
But once [they] had been processed and released, she was able to really come back into time, into place, to not be stuck when she was five or three or 12, but really be in the moment and do what all of her training and all of her practice was meant to allow her to do, which was to do an unfettered movement that, for most of us, would be an impossibility, but for a championship skater is actually not such a big deal. So it translated from locating through that eye position to liberating through the processing to the actual change in behavior and the liberation of her movement.
TS: I guess part of my question is this idea of the liberation that comes through the processing. What’s your understanding of, when this material is released from the capsule, how is it that just the release of the material then frees us in some way?
DG: Well, if we take it just as a single event trauma—let’s say a car accident, and a person was driving a car and was broadsided on the right by someone who ran a light. And [in] some place in that person’s brain [this notion] was frozen, because, again, the traumatic experience was still frozen in the person’s brain.
And part of that person, that little piece of their brain, was left behind in that traumatic event feeling like, “It’s just going to happen. It is happening. It’s just happened.” That’s what it means for something to be frozen in a person’s brain. That part of the brain is still in the experience. The brain didn’t process it through. It never got past it.
So literally, every time that person approaches an intersection, they’re afraid of getting into an accident. But what’s typical of trauma is the person’s not afraid of being hit on the left; they’re not afraid of being rear-ended. They’re afraid of being hit on that same spot to the right, because it’s frozen in the brain. The experience and the fear it’s going to happen again is frozen in the brain.
We find the Brainspot for the person. What it does is it finds that frozen capsule of information where that person’s brain is still stuck in the trauma. And when they start to process it—and literally, they’ll go through it looking on that spot. They’ll go through it step by step by step. They’ll feel it. They’ll feel the impact. They’ll feel the sounds and so on. But they’ll get past it. They’ll get to the point where afterwards they found out, yes, their car was destroyed, but they were OK. Or maybe they broke their arm, but they weren’t killed as they were afraid they were going to.
And then they continue to process. The brain continues to go through, historically [what’s known as] the recovery. As that happens, as they’re still looking on that spot and they go back to the accident, instead of being right in it or feeling that charge or the impact, they start to feel like, “It’s OK. It’s further away. It’s distant. It’s in the past. I can go on with my life.” In other words, that part of the brain has now had a chance to come out of that frozen, stuck position and process through the experience like the rest of the brain did.
And now the person goes to drive to that intersection, and they probably don’t even think about that they’re going to be in an accident or broadsided on the right, because that part of the brain is not thinking about it anymore. It’s more thinking about what they have to be doing.
TS: Now, I’m curious, David, if you yourself have received Brainspotting therapy to work out any issues, and if so, how that went for you.
DG: With a few circumstances, yes, I did. And the funniest thing is that when I was in the recipient position, the client position, I went into it just like anybody else would, even though I discovered it and I developed it and it’s my thing. And I started to just do what everybody else does because it’s so intuitive. It seems like it’s happening on its own.
And my thought after doing a session over something that was really bothering me [with] a colleague of mine who was really a top therapist [who] did the Brainspotting with me was, “Hey, this stuff really works!” [Laughs] But it wasn’t coming like, “I know it works,” because I’ve done it with thousands of people, but I knew it worked because of what happened inside of myself.
As much my conscious brain knows all the stuff it does about Brainspotting, that left prefrontal area of my brain, the rest of my brain is as mysterious and unknown and vulnerable as anybody else’s. So I got to experience it just—
TS: It might be too personal to share, but would you be willing to share with us what you were working on and what happened for you during the Brainspotting process?
DG: Well, it had to do with an unresolved trauma for me where my son was in a bicycle accident, where he was hit and run over by a car. And interestingly enough, before Brainspotting, I had processed it with the EMDR I’d received. And it had resolved most of it, maybe 90 percent of it.
But there was still a piece I could never really get through, and it had to do with getting the news on the telephone. I was in my office and my wife called, and told me that my son was in the hospital. He’s OK, he’s going to survive, but then all this stuff [about] the burns and the bone breaks and all that kind of stuff. So I never was able to really work through the trauma of the telephone call and of my fear of bad news coming on the phone, especially when I’m in the office. So that’s really what I Brainspotted.
TS: And can you tell us what that process was like for you, on the receiving end? How you experienced it, what happened?
DG: Well, what’s interesting is that—I have a saying: “Every trauma is a retraumatization.” It brought back three prior times when I had gotten very bad news in the office on the telephone. So what really had happened, the reason it hadn’t really processed through with the prior work I had done, is that we hadn’t gotten to the traumas that were underneath it or underpinning it.
One of them was when I had gotten the news 15 years earlier that my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer and that they had found a tumor that had metastasized and all that kind of stuff. But that was one of the things that had to do with being traumatized by getting bad news on the telephone in my office. So that came up and processed through. Not that the incident had no more meaning for me, but the telephone sort of became neutral for me as opposed to somehow dangerous.
TS: And do you have a sense that there’s a certain number of sessions that are required? In your case, how many sessions did it take for the receiving bad news on the phone trauma to work through you?
DG: That was one two-hour session.
TS: That’s it?
TS: That’s pretty amazing.
DG: But remember, I had done a lot of work on it before, so I want to be clear about that. But as far as what people bring into my office and the office of other Brainspotting therapists, I like to say, “What you put in is what you get out.” And some people are much more ambitious when they go for therapy and counseling, and some people are much more limited as far as what they want.
So the amount of time it takes has to do with: a) how ambitious you are or how more limited your goals are; but b) whether it is a single event trauma or whether it’s repeated traumas, whether it’s traumas from childhood or traumas from adolescence or adulthood. Someone who’s had a lot of early childhood trauma, it’s really infiltrated throughout the brain, and it was the brain in its early development that was traumatized. So to really get fuller resolution, it can take many sessions, it can take 20 sessions, it can take a year of sessions.
For other people and other issues, it can take one, two, five, 10 sessions. So it really varies. But you want to keep it in context. Whatever gets done in that one two-hour session or in those 50 one-hour sessions, if you contrast it to most other therapies, especially talk-based therapies, you are getting a universe of difference.
So you may literally get in five sessions what you wouldn’t get in a year of talk therapy, because you’re not getting access to the deeper brain, to the intuitive brain, and to those trauma capsules or other experiences that are held in places in the brain that you just can’t find your way to by talking and thinking.
TS: And have you encountered situations where Brainspotting just is not effective? Now, granted, it could be that a client just leaves after one or two sessions and so they don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness that’s required. But outside of that, are there other types of applications where Brainspotting just doesn’t seem to work?
DG: In general, no. And I’m starting with the general. Basically, when people say, “Well, who does Brainspotting work on?” I say, “People who have an active nervous system,” which generally covers most of us. By the time you’re flat-lining, no, Brainspotting’s not going to work for you.
The exceptions are if you have a major psychiatric illness: someone with schizophrenia [or] bipolar disorder that is not properly medicated or treated, or the person doesn’t have enough of a support system. You don’t want to use anything—not just Brainspotting, but any approach—that might destabilize them. That would be an example. Another example would be somebody who has an active addiction, and what they need is really what you do for an addiction, which is [a] program and a much more comprehensive kind of approach.
With everything I’ve talked about so far, Brainspotting has its place, but it’s not going to be the primary mode of treatment. It’s going to be more an adjunctive or helpful mode of treatment. Another aspect of this is that the therapist who works with the client, no matter how good they are at Brainspotting, has to have expertise in the condition that the client is bringing to them.
So if a client is bringing in childhood sexual abuse, Brainspotting is very effective at getting to those traumas, but you have to know how to move in much more slowly and gradually, and work from a much more, what we call a resource position.
TS: What do you mean by that?
DG: Well, first of all, Brainspotting is not just a technique. Brainspotting is a technique that’s used in the context of an attuned, empathic relationship. Brainspotting does not replace, should not [and] cannot replace, a therapist really being there with a client, really listening, really tuning in and following them in a very open sort of way. So that needs to go on no matter what.
But there still needs to be the expertise in what the client is bringing. And if a client is coming in for OCD or panic attacks, you have to be an expert in Brainspotting and OCD and panic disorder. If a client is bringing in complex PTSD trauma or what we call dissociative disorder, which is usually people who have different parts of themselves that tend to come out at different times, then you need to be an expert in that.
Working in a more resource way means working with, instead of where you feel active in your body or vulnerable in your body, working where you feel calmer or grounded in your body. Brainspotting with that means finding the eye positions that go together with the calm, grounded experience of the body, which is the calm, grounded areas of the brain, and being able to work very supportively and incrementally, and making sure that you don’t overwhelm or destabilize the client.
TS: Now, in your new book on Brainspotting, I thought one of the interesting sections was where you talked about how the client him or herself can actually find the Brainspot by working from the inside of their body—not necessarily where the therapist is moving the pointer or their finger, but working from the inside. And I’m wondering if you could explain that.
DG: Let me give you an experience I had. I went for hernia surgery, and I was waiting in a room with six other people who were waiting for surgery. Surgery’s not my favorite thing, you know. Beyond being sarcastic about it, I had a childhood phobia about being cut or getting injections or things like that.
So what I did is as I was lying there in the bed, with an IV in—which I’m not too thrilled about either—I look for the spot in that room where I felt the least afraid, the least activated, whatever it is. I saw that my feet were feeling calmer than the rest of my body, and I just scanned my environment and I found an outlet. It was to my right and down. And when I looked there, I didn’t feel great, but I felt much less overwhelmed or afraid than in any other spot.
It took them 90 minutes to bring me in for the surgery. For those 90 minutes, I was just looking at that spot, and I just felt like I was not overwhelmed, I wasn’t starting to get into negative thoughts or fantasies. It just kept me present and it kept me to the calm place in my body, which actually started with my feet and slowly worked its way up my legs.
The easiest way, and in the book the primary thing I talk about, are exercises using what we call the resource model. Again, that’s going from the body resource or where we feel calm and grounded in the body to finding spots that match that up. So literally, it can be different for different people at different times. You just sort of scan your body and see where you feel the calmest and most grounded. Oftentimes it’s the extremities, or the feet touching the ground, or your body touching the chair if you’re sitting in a chair.
And with that, you just kind of sit with that for a little bit and notice how it feels, and then you just scan to your left and scan to your right. And you see which direction seems to go along with that calm, grounded feeling of the chair supporting your body. And once you find it—sometimes it’s a region, sometimes it’s a pinpoint—you just look at that and watch where things go for you.
You can do that just for meditation or wellness, but you can also do that to help you to process something that’s bothering you. But the self-work is best done not focusing on where you feel it the most, but more where you feel the calmest and most grounded. Some people can do well on their own. They’ll find a spot, they’ll start with where they feel the tension in the body, the pressure in the body, and then look to the right or look to the left. And they notice exactly where they feel it the most, and [they] just look there and process it through.
But again, in the book and just basically on my own, I recommend that people use more resource work for self-work. People who are meditators really know how to do this already, but even people who are meditators find that the meditation is enhanced when they work with a body resource and a resource Brainspot.
TS: I’m curious what you think, now that you’re bringing up meditation, about what happens when the eyes move up and back with your eyes being slightly shut. So you’re not actually looking outside, but there’s more of a sort of inner and upward looking happening in the eyes, if you know what I’m talking about. I think this is something that certain meditators have found in their practice, that that can be a type of inner eye gaze that can be nourishing.
DG: Well, I’ll start with the fact that even with our eyes closed, we’re usually looking in one direction or another. And when we think about something—and I’ve noticed this with my clients. Sometimes clients will close their eyes. And I started to watch, and I could literally see that their eyes were directing more towards the right or left or up or down. So even with the eyes closed, we’re still looking in certain directions.
So literally, in terms of your question, although most people would tend to look up, some people would look more up to the left or the right. Some people actually go in the opposite and find themselves looking down, because everybody’s wired a little bit differently. So you can incorporate this.
Mindfulness has to do with awareness. So let’s say if you’re meditating and you are aware of where you’re looking, you add that in. Where are you looking with your eyes closed? And just maintain your gaze in that direction, with your eyes closed. It can focus or enhance meditation.
I want to add one more piece to this, which is really interesting. Eye position, in Brainspotting, is not just determined by where we’re looking, just what we’re seeing. It’s also determined by the six eye muscles that hold each eye in place. These eye muscles are really incredible because the job that they have to do—because we have two eyes—of maintaining our focus. They are adjusting and micro-adjusting all the time, every time we move our eyes, even if we stay fixed on an object. So the six eye muscles for each eyeball are loaded with reflexes.
So one of the things that we’ve discovered is that it’s not just what we’re looking at visually, but it’s the positioning of those eye muscles that [also] has to do with our orienting and also locating different things in our brain and within ourselves.
TS: Do you think it’s fair to say that we’re in the early days of Brainspotting, and that in the next couple of decades we’re going to learn all kinds of things? And if that’s so, what are the kinds of questions you’re asking and the kinds of things you hope to learn in the decades to come?
DG: You’re absolutely right. We’ve been at it for 10 years. We’ve done a vast amount of work. There are Brainspotting therapists trained all over the world. So we’ve come a tremendous ways in 10 years, but I know and the real experts in Brainspotting know that we’ve just scratched the surface. We’re really just at the beginning of this, and if you think that you really know what you’re doing, you’re kind of fooling yourself.
When you really get into Brainspotting, you just want to look and understand more and more and more. I’m discovering new things all the time, so my practice is changing and developing all the time, and it’s part of what I bring into the trainings and teach other people.
The very simple thing of technology is what can really take Brainspotting to another level, in two ways: one is the technology just of brain scanning, and of course—I did a session with somebody in an fMRI scanner, really early just in terms of looking what goes on with that. But things like QEEG—quantitative EEG brain scanning—can be done.
If we can get access to enough Brainspotting sessions done with QEEG on, and really watch the patterns, we can start to not just look by eye position, but we can start to read what’s going on in the brain—not just by what a person reports, but by what we see. We can start to really find different ways of getting with greater accuracy to whatever a person is holding in their brain and their body and help to process it out more.
So that’s one of the things. I’m just giving one example because there’s lots of ways of watching the brain and reading the body. Another thing is really [the] use of computer technology. We’re still very low-tech. We have a pointer. It’s like the old schoolteachers’ pointer, the telescoping pointer. In front of the right screen or maybe even with the right goggles on, literally we can simulate for people not just left and right and up and down, but close and far and all kinds of different things and different colors and lights.
So advances can be made using information we have already in other fields, or developing information just by what we observe and discover with Brainspotting. I can’t imagine in 20 years just what we’re going to be able to do with Brainspotting.
TS: Now, David, I think of you as a real pioneer, and also someone who is very focused and—this would be my own language—I would even say on a mission. And that’s what it takes, often, to bring a type of revolutionary new therapeutic approach into the world. And I’m always curious when someone has this kind of sense of mission or pioneering, torch-carrying quality about them, what’s motivating them? So I’d be curious to know a little bit more about what’s motivating you in your work.
DG: Well, some might think it’s my desire to heal people, and certainly that’s part of it. Again, from a humanitarian point of view, I have to tell you that the core of it is that I am incredibly curious about things, and I’m always observing things.
And as far back as I can remember—I can remember some ways back to when I was two or three—I was looking around me, Brainspotting, I guess, and just looking at that and saying, “What is that? Why is that? I wonder why this is happening.” I’m just an incredibly curious person, and I’m always interested in what makes things tick.
When I was younger, I used to be very mechanical. I’m still mechanical, but I’d literally look at things—motors or other mechanical things, electrical things—and just look at it and I could figure out how the person or the people who developed it developed it, and how they made it work. That was always fascinating to me.
As [therapists], we’re working with the most infinite mechanism that’s known in the universe, which is the brain, which has one quadrillion connections, which is one billion multiplied by one million, which, as far as we know, is close to infinite. With people in front of me, yes, I’m there to help them and I’m always looking to help them as much as possible, as fast as possible. But people are absolutely fascinating for who they are and how they are and why they are. You see some patterns that are universal, but you see so much that’s absolutely unique.
So a part of me is just like that two- or three-year-old—is always curious and fascinated. How does this work? Why is this? What’s making this happen? So more than anything else, that’s what drives me, and I think it really comes as much from my creativity as it does from anything else.
TS: And then just one final question, David. I’m curious what your hopes are for Brainspotting in the near future. What are you hoping might flower?
DG: Brainspotting, to me, started as a psychotherapy, because I’m a psychotherapist. And it started more in the realm of trauma therapy. But it goes to everything that has to do with what goes on in the human brain and the human being and the human spirit, which goes to creativity, performance, spirituality, personal growth and expansion. And [it] also just goes with things that have to do with the body, somatic things.
So for me, being able to use the visual field to locate and help the human system to access its self-healing capacities, as well as it self-actualizing capacities, to me goes way beyond psychology and psychotherapy, and it really goes to all aspects of who we are and how we are, and how we can grow and change and develop.
So really, I do a lot of work in sports performance and creativity and acting coaching and things like that. I know it has applications for business. Business is all based on the human brain and collective human brains. But science, learning—you literally can learn more looking at certain things from certain positions than from other positions. When they say a person has a learning disability or learning block, well, if they’re positioned in a certain place in the classroom, looking to that block position to the left, the kid’s not going to learn as much as if he was seated in the right and looking off to his right where he has more access. So I’m just going to education as well. Wherever human endeavor goes, and it entails orienting and orienting through a visual field, has potential application for Brainspotting.
TS: I’ve been speaking with David Grand. And he is the discoverer of a technique called Brainspotting, and he’s also written a new book published by Sounds True called Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change. David, thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge.
DG: Tami, it’s been a pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.