Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Paradigm Shift: The Right Brain and the Relational Unconscious

Allan N. Schore, PhD


Though long devalued by science, psychoanalysis, and indeed unconscious cultural forces, a massive amount of current experimental and clinical data supports the psychobiological organizing principle that emotional processes are essential to organism survival. Emotions involve rapid conscious appraisals of events that are important to individual, and represent reactions to fundamental relational meanings that have adaptive significance.

Both neuropsychoanalysis and affective neuroscience are focusing on the neurobiology of emotion. A large body of studies demonstrates the central role of the right hemisphere in not only the recognition and expression of intense emotions, but also in the nonverbal communication of emotional states. In the psychoanalytic literature Dorpat (2001) comments upon this unconscious communication: “In adults as well as children, emotions are the central medium through which vital information, especially information about interpersonal relations is transmitted and received.” This right brain-to-right brain dialogue of ultra-rapid bodily-based affective communications in both mother–infant and patient–therapist attachment transactions occurs beneath levels of conscious awareness of both members of dyad (Schore, 1994).

In the neuropsychological literature, Schutz (2005) underscores the adaptive value of efficient right hemispheric processing of emotions:

The right hemisphere operates a distributed network for rapid responding to danger and other urgent problems. It preferentially processes environmental challenge, stress and pain and manages selfprotective responses such as avoidance and escape… Emotionality is thus the right brain’s “red phone,” compelling the mind to handle urgent matters without delay.

Furthermore, both clinicians and researchers are placing an emphasis on not just conscious, but “rapidly processed” and therefore unconscious emotion. Neurobiological studies confirm a right hemispheric dominance in the processing of unconscious negative emotion and self-images, especially self-images that are not consciously perceived (Sato & Aoki, 2006; Theoret et al., 2004). Drawing upon his extensive research on the basic science of implicit, affective processes, Lane (2008) concludes:

Primary emotional responses have been preserved through phylogenesis because they are adaptive. They provide an immediate assessment of the extent to which goals or needs are being met in interaction with the environment, and they reset the organism behaviorally, physiologically, cognitively, and experientially to adjust to these changing circumstances.

In my 1994 book I speculated that emotional processes lie at the core of not only early developmental processes, but also in the re-evocation of these processes in the psychotherapeutic relationship. Psychoanalytic models of psychotherapy focus on the recognition and retrieval of early affect-laden memories. In this approach, affects, including unconscious affects, are both “the center of empathic communication” and the “primary data,” and “the regulation of conscious and unconscious feelings is placed in the center of the clinical stage” (Schore, 1994).

It is now clear that a deeper understanding of affective processes is closely tied to the problem of the regulation of these processes. Affect regulation, a central mechanism of both development and the change process of psychotherapy, is usually defined as set of conscious control processes by which we influence, consciously and voluntarily, the conscious emotions we have, and how we experience and express them. In a groundbreaking article in the clinical psychology literature, Greenberg (2007) describes a “self-control” form of emotion regulation involving higher levels of cognitive executive function that allows individuals “to change the way they feel by consciously changing the way they think.” This explicit form of affect regulation is performed by the verbal left hemisphere. Unconscious bodily-based emotion is usually not addressed in this model. Notice this mechanism is at the core of insight, exclusively used by not only by classical psychoanalysis but also cognitive behavioral therapy.

In contrast to this conscious emotion regulation system, Greenberg describes a second, more fundamental implicit affect regulatory process performed by the right hemisphere. This system rapidly and automatically processes facial expression, vocal quality, and eye contact in a relational context. Therapy attempts not control but the “acceptance or facilitation of particular emotions,” including “previously avoided emotion,” in order to allow the patient to tolerate and transform them into “adaptive emotions.’’ Citing my work (all of which focuses on right brain implicit affect regulation) he asserts, “it is the building of implicit or automatic emotion regulation capacities that is important for enduring change, especially for highly fragile personalitydisordered clients.”

I suggest that the early forming survival mechanism of right brain implicit affect regulation (rather than later forming left brain conscious emotional control) is at the center of the paradigm shift in clinical work, especially with the more severe psychopathologies whose etiologies lie in preoedipal stages of development.