Neuroscience and "The King's Speech"

The year’s best movie about therapy (so far) is not really about therapy. In “The King’s Speech,” England’s King George VI and his speech therapist storm and rage at each other, and even share a drink in one pivotal scene. That’s definitely not in a therapist's code of ethics today! But in a lot of ways, the movie illustrates very well how therapy works. 


If you’ve seen the film, you know that the future King first goes to see Lionel, the speech therapist, because of a debilitating problem: he can’t make a public speech without stuttering. Lionel tries a lot of different methods and tools at various points in his work with the King, from behavioral exercises to insight about the King’s emotions. But the main tool is their working relationship itself. 


Neuroscience helps explain why. The most important discovery in psychology in recent decades has been a growing understanding that human nervous systems develop and change through relationships. We aren’t born like “plug and play” MacBooks; we are born with only rudimentary means of soothing ourselves, and we learn best when we can plug into a mature person’s nervous system as a resource to help us shape our own. 


But the shaping is never just one-way. Babies elicit strong instinctive responses from their parents, which help them connect with and understand these tiny people who can’t speak for themselves yet. Parents change through the experiences they have with their children. 


Throughout life, relationships have powerful impacts on our neurochemical patterning.  


I think that what science is discovering is the simple fact that we all need relationships, the same way we need air or water. To work well, our minds need contact with other minds. I realize of course that relationships can be painful, confusing, and scary. Traumatic experience can have a way of seeming to live on and on in painful relationship patterns in the present. This is one of the main reasons people enter therapy--the hope that relationships don't have to always follow the same frustrating course. 


The good news here is that we retain some ability all our lives to change our neural pathways. Even chronic patterns such as depression or anxiety can change through new experiences in relationship. Even people who have had good reason to shut themselves off from relationships can find safe ways to enjoy the benefits of reconnecting. 


Like the King in the movie, we can get stuck in neural pathways that seem to leave no way out. But a good-enough relationship can offer a way to renegotiate the pathways. If we can plug in to each other’s nervous systems--which is what we do whenever we have an exchange with another person--we can use our combined resources to reshape our neural pathways. A well-trained therapist is someone who's good at using this process in helpful ways. 


In the King’s case, Lionel soon discovered that the King could speak fluently in some emotional states, but not in others. So part of their work together involved finding workarounds: If you can’t say it, sing it or shout it. If you’re stuck, try cursing. 


There’s one scene where the King is stuck on a word, and Lionel curses for him. They’re using their mirror neurons, which allow people to feel each other's feelings; when Lionel curses, the King shifts back into fluid speech, just as if he had done the cursing himself. 


In this way, over time the King acquires his own ability to speak, by getting to plug in (when he needs to) to Lionel’s nervous system and use it as a resource in reshaping his own. 


cpoole@speakeasy.net    206-390-7875