Back To The Future

After fifty years of predominance of behaviourism and cognitive psychology, the tide is now turning back to motivation and emotion

A paradigm shift

Every few decades there is a change of perspective in science (1), and a closer look at the history of psychology confirms that the same applies to the study of the human psyche. Fifty years ago there was a strong focus on motivation and emotion, then the 1970s saw a general shift taking place in favour of cognitive science: it was the beginning of the cognitive turn, or ‘cognitive revolution’, as it is sometimes called. At its very inception, there was a lively debate within behaviourism: some practitioners focused on the complexity of mental processes in humans as well as animals, while others proposed a rather mechanistic, stimulus-response perspective (2). The latter became prevalent and arguably created the soil for today’s dominant model of CBT.

The tide is now turning once again, however, with the first signs of change heralded a few years back in the field of attachment theory. Contemporary interdisciplinary studies link John Bowlby’s initial ideas to developmental psychology, child psychiatry and developmental neuroscience. According to neuro-psychoanalyst Allan Schore, (3) these studies effectively update Bowlby’s model, bringing about a fundamental change of perspective in three distinctive areas: a) neurobiology; b) social-emotional attachment; c) self-regulation. Partly drawing on Schore’s description and partly using my own research on the topic, I will brief explore each of these themes.

The first shift: recognizing the importance of early right-brain development

It is widely acknowledged that the origins of adult disease are found in disruptions happening in the early years of life (4), a time during which unconscious responses to emotional stimuli are processed. The part of the brain that does the processing is the right brain hemisphere, which differs from the left in physiology, neurochemistry, and behaviour. According to contemporary neuro-psychology, emotionality is processed by the right brain hemisphere, alerting the mind to cope with stress (5, 6) and to deal with urgent matters without delay (6). When a person faces a taxing but overall manageable situation, the initial response is dealt with by the less emotional, more ‘motor dominant’ left prefrontal cortex (3, 7). It is when this fails that activity in the right brain increases: the right brain is adaptive and it processes emotion. The right brain constitutes the hub of what Schore calls the implicit self, (4) one of the implications of this being that unless therapy addresses this core, positive changes are likely to be superficial, short-lived, and ultimately ineffective.  In other words, unless therapy takes place at the level of right-brain to right-brain communication and beyond a merely cognitive level, it is not going to make any substantial difference.

The second shift: from cognition to emotion.

For John Bowlby “emotion is nonverbal communication of basic but very powerful attitudes in mind and potential action.” (8) This basic tenet had powerful repercussions in counselling and psychotherapy. It was creatively and fruitfully translated by Daniel Siegel who, writing on the magnitude of primary emotions, formulated the notion of “contingent communication” between therapist and client. (9) The signals a client sends are both verbal and non-verbal; the therapist needs to recognize these and respond. For Siegel, contingent communication is the foundation of mutual interaction and makes positive attachments possible. This will sounds obvious to therapists, yet it is astonishing how often the obvious needs to be stated, particularly if a dominant perspective downplays the role of non-verbal communication.

“After three decades of the dominance of cognitive approaches -- Richard Ryan wrote in the editorial note of Motivation and Emotion -- motivational and emotional processes have  roared back into the limelight” (2). This is partly due to the fact that the cognitive revolution of the 1970s has come under close scrutiny. It also reflects, as we shall see, a general shift in the humanities, something known as the ‘affective turn’.

Already in the 1980s the child psychologist Daniel Stern had come to some interesting conclusions when he described infancy primarily in terms of affect. According to Stern, infants "take sensations, perceptions, actions, cognitions, internal states of motivation, and states of consciousness, and experience them directly in terms of intensities, shapes, temporal patterns, vitality affects, categorical affects, and hedonic tones” (10) . Early in life, affects are both the primary medium and the primary subject of communication.

A critique of cognition comes also within the world of cognitive science. In a paper published only a few months ago, Cromwell and Panksepp (11) warned against the inflated use of terms such as ‘cognition’ in behavioural neuroscience research. In their view, this term has been “both overused and misused” (11). They also argue that an overemphasis on cognition, without taking into consideration developmental thinking and non-cognitive levels of perception, may effectively “hinder progress in the search for new treatments ... for psychiatric illnesses and neurobehavioral disorders” (11). Cognitive science, they conclude, must re-learn that the influence of “ancient emotional systems” is “independent of cognitive processes”. (11) Panksepp sums it up beautifully when he writes: “The power of the word may reside in the power to affect”. He also makes the bold claim that the intention behind both the cognitive revolution and neuro-behaviourismwas “to put emotions out of sight and out of mind” (12).Similarly Dan Shanahan (13) maintains that the cognitive revolution concentrated mostly on information processing, overlooking the crucial role played by emotion.

What this substantial body of research stresses is the need to understand human cognition in more comprehensive and holistic terms, moving away from the prevailing reductionism. Our unique human capacity to symbolize includes, right from the start, both information processing and feelings. (14) To neglect this is to overlook one of the complexities of being human.

The third shift: self-regulation

Alongside emotion and affect, the other factor significantly ignored by the cognitive turn is motivation.  What motivates us humans is self-regulation, i.e. the ability to lessen pain and maximize pleasure. Fonagy and Target (15) see self-regulation as the very core of child development, a point of intersection of genetic predisposition, early experience and adult functioning. Early relationships outline a person’s ability to perform three important tasks: a) responding to stress; b) maintaining concentration; c)reading other people’s mental states. (14)  These faculties are susceptible to change in adult’s life, a fact that constitutes the very heart of therapeutic intervention. The importance of self-regulation is now widely recognized: Judith and Allan Schore put forward a modern account of attachment theory as affect regulation. (16)  They cogently argue that Bowlby’s original formulation came about at the time of behaviourism and was therefore interpreted and applied within the rigid confines of cognitive and behavioural modalities -- at variance from Bowlby’s original purpose. Bowlby’s focus was on the integration of biological and psychological models of development, something which current interdisciplinary research is more in tune with, with its interest in matters such as “affective bodily-based processes, interactive regulation, early experience-dependent brain maturation, stress, and non-conscious relational transactions” (17).

The affective turn

From the mid-1990s a new mode emerged within the humanities: affect theory and the ‘affective turn’ (18). This approach questioned the privilege granted to language in favour of more basic, perhaps more real forms of organizing information. A pivotal moment in the development of affect theory in the humanities was the publication, in the mid-1990s, of an article by Brian Massumi titled “The Autonomy of Affect” (19) in which he stressed the positively disorienting nature of affective states, their ability to put an individual in contact with herself and her own vitality, as well as their autonomous nature. It is not easy, in other words, to categorize emotions and put them in a box. This is, when one thinks of it, one of the unique characteristics of living beings. The unprecedented nature of affective states outplays both reason and cognition. For Anna Gibbs, effects are a “level of experience” that “cannot be translated into words” (20). The bodily information precedes the information contained in language. What several writers and researchers endorsing the affective turn are effectively saying is that affects come before cognition. In other words,“all thought is an afterthought” (20)

Psychotherapy and reprogramming

How long will it take for this paradigm shift to take hold and become more widely accepted and implemented? It is difficult to say, especially when taking into consideration wider implications. Cognitive psychology and behaviourism have been undoubtedly favoured by governments and institutions. First of all, they provide a rather straight-forward, even simplistic view of the human beings that politicians readily understand. But there is a more worrying, controversial factor: it is impossible to deny that, when not appreciated holistically, these approaches have been used for re-programming thought patterns and behaviours deemed wrong by those in power. An example of this comes from general S.L.A. Marshall, official US historian of the Second World War, who in 1947 published a landmark book, Men against Fire, (21) where he reported that 75% of Second World War combat troops were unable to fire on the enemy. How could soldiers bypass their “natural human empathy” which “generates huge psychological resistance to up close and personal killing?” (18). Soldiers needed psychological conditioning, Marshall argued, so as to be able do their job. The military sought ways to solve the problem and turned to the cognitive behavioural psychology for advice (18). It is hard to imagine the US army turning to the psychodynamic or humanistic tradition for inspiration in order to reprogram its soldiers so that they would kill more efficiently. Neither approaches, however different, are grounded in a philosophy that would support the reprogramming of individuals but are geared instead, among other things, towards a shedding of delusional thinking and the unfolding of one’s natural potential.

It is only natural that the military would find inspiration in cognitive behavioural psychology. As Darian Leader has convincingly argued, “most therapies aim to hear what is being expressed in a symptom”. Their aim is not to stifle the symptom, however, but “to give it a voice and to see what function it has for the individual”. By contrast, he concludes “CBT aims to remove symptoms” (19).

Going beyond clichés

The fine points of every therapeutic orientation are unfortunately lost in the necessary process of simplification associated with teaching, training and the practical applications of an approach. It is crucial to convey ideas simply and to find equally simple ways to implement them in the therapy room. Yet the risks involved are of stereotyping and even misrepresenting them: we have all heard of the cold, uninvolved, blank screen analyst; of the overly empathic, over-involved person centred therapist; of the task-and-goal oriented CBT practitioner. For this reason, I do not wish to misrepresent CBT by substantiating a cliché. The fact remains, however, that this approach is tailor-made to the needs of the market: if symptoms are seen as deviations,a brief course of re-education and ‘belief modification’ takes the place of a deeper understanding of life’s dilemmas and contradictions.

The complexity of being human

A substantial interdisciplinary body of research is now recognizing the pivotal role of what fifty years of cognitive science and behaviourism have pushed aside: motivation, emotion, affective states. The affective turn is to be enthusiastically welcome because it broadens the scope of counselling and psychotherapy above and beyond the natural sciences and the bio-medical model. These are arguably ways of exercising mastery over nature - but human beings are complex: they resist being put in a box. (24) One of the elements of surprise, unpredictability and uniqueness in us humans is constituted by affective states, emotion and motivation.  To ignore them is to ignore the beauty, complexity and even unruliness of being human.

Acknowledgment I am grateful to Allan and Judith Schore, whose seminar in Cambridge in October2011 gave me the initial spark for writing this article.

Manu Bazzano, UKCP registered, is a person-centred/existential psychotherapist and a writer. His latest book is Spectre of the stranger: towards a phenomenology of hospitality. Please visit


1 Kuhn, T. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962

2 Ryan, R.M. A New Look and Approach for Two Re-emerging Fields, Motivation and Emotion 2007; 31, pp 1–3  

3 Schore, A. N. (2011),The Science of the art of psychotherapy - Seminar at Cambridge Faculty of Education, 8-10-2011.

4  Leckman, J.F & March, J.S. Developmental neuroscience comes of age. In Journal of child psychology and psychiatry 52 (4), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; 2011, pp. 333-38.

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8 Bowlby

9 Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

10, D. (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant: a view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology, New York: Basic Books, p. 67

11 Cromwell H.C, & Panksepp J. Rethinking the cognitive revolution from a neural perspective. In Neuroscience and bio-behavioral reviews  2011 Oct 35(9).

12 Panksepp, J. (2007) The power of the word may reside in the power to affect Springer Science, retrieved on line 29-03-12

13 Shanahan, D., A new view of language, emotion and the brain. In Integrative psychological and behavioral science Vol 42 (1), pp 6-19.

14 Lasségue, J. Shanahan on Symbolization. In Integrative psychological behavioral science  Vol. 42, (1), pp. 27-31. Mendeley; 2008

15 Fonagy, P. & Target, M., Early intervention and the development of self-regulation. In Psychoanalytic  enquiry, Vol 22 pp 307-55, 2002.

16 Schore J. R. &. Schore A. N. (2007) Modern attachment theory: the central role of affect regulation in development and treatment, Springer Science,retrieved on line15-03-2012:

17 Ibid, p. 1

18 Gregg, M. & Seigworth, J. (Eds.) The affect theory reader, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010

19 Massumi, B. (1995), The autonomy of affect. Retrieved 2 April 2012

20 Quoted in Cronan, T. (2012), Radically private and pretty uncoded. In: Radical philosophy, No. 172 March/April 2012, pp. 51-53

21 Marshall, SLA (1947/2000) Men against fire: the problem of battle command, University of Oklahoma Press

22 Fraser, G. Men without a safety catch. The Guardian, 13 March 2012.

23 Leader, D. A quick fix for the soul. The Guardian, 9 September 2088.

24 Bazzano, M. (2012) Spectre of the stranger: towards a phenomenology of hospitality, Sussex Academic Press.

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