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Infant Research & Neuroscience at Work in Psychotherapy

Posted Feb 07 2013 6:24am
For decades, psychotherapy has been considered “the talking cure”: two people in conversation, 
with a shared goal of relieving the suffering of the patient. From the early days of Freud to the 
current popularity of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the spoken word has been the central focus in 
the therapeutic alliance. In recent years, however, the advent of functional MRIs and other 
brain-scanning technologies has led to new discoveries about the workings of the brain that may 
afford clinicians innovative and exciting new ways of working with clients, beyond simply “talking.”

Judith Rustin’s Infant Research & Neuroscience at Work in Psychotherapy: Expanding the Clinical 
Repertoire brings together many of these new discoveries. In her book, published by Norton, Rustin 
summarizes key research in the areas of both infant behavior and neuroscience, and provides 
easy-to-understand examples that help clarify how rather elusive concepts—such as implicit and 
unconscious ways of remembering and communicating—can be applied in day-to-day therapeutic 

Rustin begins with a focus on infant research, stating that “the nonverbal modes of communication 
discerned in the interactive process between infant and mother…can be used by the therapist as tools 
or techniques in treating her patients.” After summarizing much of the major research on the 
infant-mother interaction, including studies on eye-to-eye gaze, face-to-face play, and self- and mutual 
regulation, she describes her treatment of a patient called “Jack,” detailing how she applies her 
knowledge of infant research to their therapy relationship. Her description brings the reader into the 
therapy room, and provides an excellent example of the research at work.

In each of the chapters that follow, Rustin continues to first explain the current research on the brain 
and infants, then follow up with a clinical example of how she or another clinician has applied that 
research to a specific therapy client. These real-life accounts, in addition to bolstering Rustin’s theory, 
make the book more than simply a dry review of the scientific literature.

The book goes on to discuss studies on memory, the mind-body connection, the fear system, and mirror 
neurons and shared circuitry. Since Rustin believes that focusing on the spoken narrative “can 
sometimes limit our vision to other possibilities for understanding and intervention,” she illustrates in 
each example how attending to bodily responses and emotions—both her clients’ and her own—can 
provide insights that might otherwise be missed.

The ideas in Rustin’s book are not intended to replace traditional psychotherapy; rather, she says, 
“they just provide additional pathways for understanding and intervening in a way that offers additional 
sources of fluidity and elasticity to the therapeutic relationship and clinical process.” Rustin does an 
excellent job of reviewing the literature and giving detailed examples of how to apply infant research and 
neuroscience in a clinical setting with adults. She makes it clear that each therapeutic dyad is unique, and 
that the examples she provides are just one of many ways that the research can be applied. By opening our 
concept of therapy and demonstrating new applications of research, Rustin has contributed an important
 addition to a growing body of work.
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