Brain change and domestic violence

The goal of any domestic violence prevention program that treats offenders is to help the participants adopt and maintain a set of new behaviors and thought processes. It is relatively easy to educate clients about behavioral alternatives to violence. It is more difficult to have them practice these new behaviors within the group and hopefully in their real life home situations. What is most troublesome., though, is helping clients practice, practice, practice these new actions to the point they become totally familiar, habitual and automatic. Fortunately, our knowledge of how the brain works can help counselors promote real change. That is because real change inevitably involves brain transformation. New neuronal networks must be developed, improved and maintained while older, less desired networks are diminished in size and potency. A fuller description of neuronal networks, along with more information about my treatment program can be found in my upcoming article, “The Utilization of Neuroplastic Change Principles in Domestic Violence Treatment: An Experimental Program,” to be published in the October, 2014 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Partner Abuse.

Here is an example of how such brain change patterns can be described to clients. Let’s  propose a client decides that one aspect of his tendency toward domestic violence is related to his habit of frequently making critical remarks. Although it would be useless to attempt to describe exactly how and where criticism is located in the brain (in reality, an abstract concept such as criticism will be linked with many overlapping circuits in the brain) it is meaningful to most clients to have them envision their criticism as a single network. Thus, the “criticism network” becomes the target for neural diminishment. The only way to do taht, of course, is by lessening the number of times one makes critical remarks as well as the number of times one even thinks about making such remarks. Here the phrase “use it or lose it” becomes paramount. The first goal for this client becomes not making criticisms so that the strength and interconnectivity of the criticism network will be weakened. Next comes building a more desired network, here entitled the “praise network.” Since “neurons that fire together wire together” it is imperative that the client identify and implement giving praise several times a day to his domestic partner, children, etc. By doing so over a fairly lengthy period (I generally estimate about six months) the client’s praise network will gradually evolve from a difficult, awkward task that requires conscious effort toward one in which the client can quickly and gracefully give praise to others in a natural, almost habitual manner. Thus the principles of long-term potentiation predict that the criticism network will be diminished through non-usage while the praise network will grow stronger and more efficient over time.

Arborization will predictably also affect the client’s behavior. For example, as the praise network grows it literally takes up more space in the brain and connects with other networks. So, for instance, the client might discover that giving praise makes it easier to be connected family members since they are now more likely to stay present and even seek his company. Connection in turn leads to engagement which leads to improved empathy toward the people he no longer criticizes and instead praises.

This last possibility demonstrates one way that brain change plans differ from standard behavioral management rpograms. Brain change in intrinsically evolutionary and therefore somewhat unpredictable. As the targeted network expands it links up with other neural networks in patterns unique to the history, wants and needs of the participant. For example, building a praise network might lead from praise to connection to empathy as above but it could also extend from praise toward self-praise and self-nurturing.