Soothing psychotherapists’ brains with NeuroBalm

Promoters of Emotionally Focused Psychotherapy offer sciencey claims with undeclared conflicts of interest, cherry picked evidence, and bad science.

The temptation exists for researchers and clinicians to search for the strongest and most provocative version of their knowledge, which will create greatest publicity. The appeal is great; oversell and over-dramatize the result and attention will follow. — Jay Lebow, Editor, Family Process

amygdalaPity the poor therapists. They want to do the best for their clients. They are required to get CE credits for licensure and renewal. But how do they choose their CE courses? With workshop promoters hawking approved courses in thought field therapy and somatic experiencing therapies, therapists can understand that professional organizations’ approval is no guarantee that what they will learn is evidence- supported or that it will mostly help, rather than hurt their clients.

Worse, few therapists have the research background minimally necessary to interpret the sometimes wild claims made promoters of workshops. They are unprepared to evaluate impressively sciency claims that are being made for treatments. And what is more sciency than neuroscience?

Psychotherapy is an inherently uncertain, subjective process. Isolated in sessions with clients, therapists do not have ready ways to monitor what is going on with confidence and decide moment to moment if it is helpful. Even when psychotherapy is manualized, done by the book, there is lots of uncertainty as to what is to be done when, to whom, whether it is done effectively, and how to follow-up.

Neuroscience seems to hold the promise of reducing some of that uncertainty. Exploitative hucksters make lots of money from therapists and their clients with claims that they can use neuroscience to monitor and direct the process of psychotherapy with precision. The hucksters play on the belief that changes in neural functioning can somehow serve to get more at what is “really” going on in therapy, beyond and, if necessary, in sharp contradiction of what therapists observe and clients report.

Enter workshop promoter Susan Johnson.  As told in the New York Times, she claims her emotionally-focused therapy (EFT)

can help couples break out of patterns, “interrupting and dismantling these destructive sequences and then actively constructing a more emotionally open and receptive way of interacting.” She aims to transform relationships “using the megawatt power of the wired-in longing for contact and care that defines our species,” and offers various exercises to restore trust.

Wow! If we could only monitor that interrupting and dismantling and the megawatt power of the “wired-in longing” with neuroscience.

In this blog post I discuss an article in PLOS One in which psychotherapist Johnson teams up with neuroscientist Jim Coan to claim they can do just that.

Ultimately, our handholding paradigm has provided a unique opportunity to test some of the proposed mechanisms of social support in general, and EFT in particular, all at the level of brain function, in vivo.

It is a terrible article, starting with its undisclosed conflicts of interests: Johnson is using the article to promote her psychotherapy products. And when we get past that, the article is shamelessly blatant cherry-picked evidence and poor psychotherapy research. We can learn from it as such.

Click in text for video
Click in text for video

But wait, hold on! Think of me like the greeter at the local Kanuka_BalmMacy’s department store who sprays you with free cologne or maybe rubs your hands with a soothing balm. Before we get into discussing the article, you can get a free sample of the Neurobalm right here that is being used to promote this psychotherapy product. See, no, feel for yourself. This is best appreciated wearing high-quality earphones to do the wonderful soundtrack justice.

Disclaimer: As you can already tell, I find this article outrageous and I am just getting warmed up in explaining how and why.  I am a PLOS One Academic Editor and I have gone on record insisting that promoters of psychotherapy be held to the same standards as the pharmaceutical companies in having to disclose apparent conflicts of interest. And now I have encountered an undisclosed conflict in the very journal where I work for free to provide a small bit of the oversight of the quality and integrity of what readers find there.

Oversight of conflicts of interest is far from perfect, especially when it depends on author disclosure. And oversight of the 24,000 articles published in PLOS One last year cannot be expected to be perfect.  But PLOS One has numerous tools to be self-correcting, especially when faced with undisclosed conflicts of interest. Unlike the journals Prevention Science and Clinical Psychology Review that I have been recently complaining about, PLOS One asks every author about potential conflicts of interest and every article published in PLOS One has an explicit declaration. And unlike these other two journals, PLOS One has explicit, orderly procedures for responding to apparent non-disclosures. An editor like myself, just like any reader, can make a complaint, and PLOS One will evaluate whether an inquiry to authors is necessary in order to decide what further action to take.

disclaimerThe opinions I am going to express here are my own, and not necessarily those of the journal or other members of the editorial board. Thankfully, at Mind the Brain, bloggers are free to speak out for themselves without censorship or even approval from the sponsoring journal. Remember what happened at Psychology Today and how I came to blog here.

The full text of the open access article is available here.


Social relationships are tightly linked to health and well-being. Recent work suggests that social relationships can even serve vital emotion regulation functions by minimizing threat-related neural activity. But relationship distress remains a significant public health problem in North America and elsewhere. A promising approach to helping couples both resolve relationship distress and nurture effective interpersonal functioning is Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples (EFT), a manualized, empirically supported therapy that is strongly focused on repairing adult attachment bonds. We sought to examine a neural index of social emotion regulation as a potential mediator of the effects of EFT. Specifically, we examined the effectiveness of EFT for modifying the social regulation of neural threat responding using an fMRI-based handholding procedure. Results suggest that EFT altered the brain’s representation of threat cues in the presence of a romantic partner. EFT-related changes during stranger handholding were also observed, but stranger effects were dependent upon self-reported relationship quality. EFT also appeared to increase threat-related brain activity in regions associated with self-regulation during the nohandholding condition. These findings provide a critical window into the regulatory mechanisms of close relationships in general and EFT in particular.

Before co-authoring this PLOS One article with Susan Johnson, Jim Coan published a closely related 2006 study in Psychological Science. Coan received lots of press coverage, even before the article was available on the Internet. The blogger Neurocritic critiqued the press coverage and then followed up with a blog post critiquing the present PLOS One article.

Neurocritic provides some generally useful wisdom concerning interpreting statements about neural imaging, psychotherapy, and relationships. I think most neuroscientists would agree with him. If you are a therapist, you might want to bookmark his blog post for future reference when you feel slathered with Neurobalm from psychotherapy workshop gurus.

An extended excerpt from Neurocritic

Can neuroscience illuminate the nature of human relationships? Or does it primarily serve as a prop to sell self-help books? The neurorelationship cottage industry touts the importance of brain research for understanding romance and commitment. But any knowledge of the brain is completely unnecessary for issuing take-home messages like tips on maintaining a successful marriage.

In an analogous fashion, we can ask whether successful psychotherapy depends on having detailed knowledge of the mechanisms of “neuroplasticity” (a vague and clichéd term). Obviously not (or else everyone’s been doing it wrong). Of course the brain changes after 12 sessions of psychotherapy, just as it changes after watching 12 episodes of Dexter. The important question is whether knowing the pattern of neural changes (via fMRI) can inform how treatment is administered. Or whether pre-treatment neuroimaging can predict which therapy will be the most effective.

However, neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy that have absolutely no control conditions are of limited usefulness. We don’t know what sort of changes would have happened over an equivalent amount of time with no intervention. More importantly, we don’t know whether the specific therapy under consideration is better than another form of psychotherapy, or better than going bowling once a week.

Problems start  with the article’s title

Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy.

This title titillates the unwary but triggers an alert among even open minded skeptics.

Some of you may recall that in the tips I gave for writing titles in the Colon Theory of Titles. I suggested that if you reserve one side of the colon in a title for keywords, you might use the other side to have a little fun attracting interest in your article.

Coyne, J. C., & van Sonderen, E. (2012). The Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) is dead, but like Elvis, there will still be citings. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 73(1), 77-78.

Or the more outrageous

Krauth, S. J., Coulibaly, J. T., Knopp, S., Traoré, M., N’Goran, E. K., & Utzinger, J. (2012). An in-depth analysis of a piece of shit: distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and hookworm eggs in human stool. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 6(12), e1969.

Fair fun. But the problem with Soothing the Threatened Brain is that many of the therapists think there is something more profound about ‘soothing the brain’, rather than soothing the wife or her heart or her emotions. And this target audience is all too ready to believe that there is something special about promoters of emotion focused therapy claiming it soothes the threatened brain. EFT is better than other marital therapies because it works on the wife’s brain, not just a couple. Other therapies only do relationships or wives but EFT does brains.

If you think I am being too tough on therapists, you can do an informal experiment. Strike up conversations with a few therapists about how they understand the abstract and title of this article or the dramatic video is based on the study. I tried this, and though some expressed some skepticism, they really did not feel competent to argue with a peer-reviewed article or a video of a fMRI assessment.

undeclaredAppearance of conflict of interest

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Funding. This research was supported in part by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT), a not-for-profit corporation whose mission includes the scientific evaluation of EFT. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Additional funding was provided by a National Institute of Mental Health grant, Award Number R01MH080725, awarded to JAC. No additional external funding received for this study. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

This does not ring true. The website of the International Center for Excellence and Emotion Focused Therapy lists Susan Johnson as founder and director. Not only did Susan Johnson design the study and interpret the data, she provided supervision of the therapy and somehow decided the particular time point at which women who had received the intervention would get fMRI assessment. As psychotherapy research, this is bizarre and breaks down any benefits of experimental control — the investigator with strong allegiance to her treatment gets to pick when outcome assessments are done rather than having preset times of assessment.

The website for Johnson’s for-profit Ottawa Couples and Family Institute indicates that it shares the same physical space and administrative staff as ICEEFT. The nonprofit corporation serves a number of marketing functions, including maintaining a referral list of therapists who have completed sufficient trainings to obtain the certification, as well as granting permission to otherwise unqualified persons to participate in workshops and get certification so they can practice in the community, often without licensure. Depending on the country or state, people who attend trainings can offer EFT for a fee without having a license or any regulation as long as they do not adopt a title that is regulated and licensed in that particular jurisdiction. This can be a matter of calling themselves a coach or counselor, depending on the jurisdiction.

This is a rather standard arrangement in the therapy training business, whereby profit-making activities are from ostensibly nonprofit certification that extends the market for trainings.

If readers were informed of financial interests at stake….

If a candid conflict of interest statement had been provided, readers would have been more prepared to independently and skeptically evaluate claims starting in introduction and colorful and on scientific language throughout.

For instance, the authors declare in the introduction

Early research suggested that EFT was superior to behavioral marital therapy [20], and a more recent meta-analysis [21] concluded that 70–73% of couples who undergo EFT are no longer relationally distressed at the end of therapy – at an average effect size of d= 1.3.

The evidence of superiority [20] refers to a 1986 study with 15 couples each assigned to EFT or behavioral marital therapy. It was a small underpowered study that can be discounted by its high risk of bias, including the developers testing their own therapy.

Let us get real. Accumulated psychotherapy studies suggest that it is quite unrealistic to expect that a comparison of 15 couples receiving a particular therapy versus 15 couples who were on a waiting list will yield a significant finding. There are also lots of studies suggesting only modest differences between credible, active, structured therapies like EFT versus behavioral marital therapy. It is highly unlikely that such findings would be obtained by honest and transparent reporting of well-done psychotherapy research by anyone without a dog in the fight.

The “more recent meta-analysis [21]” refers to a 1999 poor quality review and meta-analysis also conducted by developers of EFT.

The meta-analysis is worth a look. You can click on the table to the right and see the 7 table EFT meta-analysis 1999-1studies included. All were done by developers of EFT or as a dissertation under the supervision. Three studies are nonrandomized trials, one with only seven couples. All of the randomized trials have 16 or fewer couples assigned to EFT,  and so have less than 50% probability of detecting a positive result if it is present. All of the articles identified as positive studies.

Essentially this is a poor quality meta-analysis of what should have been left as pilot studies conducted by promoters of a therapy in their own lab. The meta-analysis lacks many of the formal features of meta-analyses including forest plots and assessments of risk of bias. The overall effect size of 1.31 is improbably high in the failsafe N of 49 studies being unpublished to unseat a positive evaluation EFT highlights the absurdity of invoking that statistic. If we took failsafe N seriously, we would have to accept that there would have to be almost as many unpublished null trials as there are couples in the published studies.

It is instructive to compare the assessment of the EFT from its developers to a more detached consideration about the same time by a group organized by American Psychological Association to evaluate the evidence-supported status of psychotherapies.

The APA group tell you things that somehow get missed in this review of EFT in PLOS One.

It is important to note that the interventions were restricted to moderately distressed couples because the investigators were concerned that EFT might not be optimal for extremely distressed couples.

Promoters of a psychotherapy rarely lose a comparison between the intervention they are rooting for and a rival comparison-control, particularly in a grossly underpowered study. However, that is exactly what occurred in one of the studies included in the meta-analysis were EFT was bested by strategic therapy in follow-up. This led the APA group to declare systemic therapy “possibly efficacious.” I doubt this kind of upset has ever happened in formal evaluations of psychotherapy research. Of course, the APA group’s rules are kind of loopy and I would not give this evaluation too much credence. Nonetheless, the APA group goes on:

This difference between treatments resulted from the couples in the EFT treatment experiencing significant relapse during the follow-up period. The investigators noted that couples in this study were much more distressed than couples in the Johnson and Greenberg study, which might account for the differences seen in the two studies at follow-up. They cautioned that, with severely distressed couples, time-limited EFT might not be powerful enough to create sufficient intimacy to maintain posttest gains.

Compare this to what Susan Johnson says in the PLOS article:

 Moreover, EFT treatment gains realized among distressed couples at high risk for relapse are stable over two- and three- year assessment periods [22,23]. *

Art Garfunkel’s Mr Shuck ‘N Jive
Art Garfunkel’s Mr Shuck ‘N Jive

The discrepancy can be explained by picking and choosing particular timepoints for particular tiny psychotherapy follow-up studies with highly selected, on representative patients.  Come on Susan, you’re shucking us. This has little resemblance to finding best evidence, you are just finding evidence to sell your psychotherapy.

The APA group also noted some differences in the outcomes of a waitlist control group in behavioral marital therapy conducted by its originator, Neil Jacobson:

Whereas 50% of James’s [an EFT study done by a dissertation student] waiting list couples improved without treatment, the waiting list couples in the BMT studies reviewed by Jacobson et al. showed an improvement rate of only 13.5%.

So, even the waitlist control groups do better in the EFT versus BMT studies.

Johnson continues her overview of the literature in the PLOS One introduction.

EFT has also been successfully applied to couples in which one or both partners are coping with a history of childhood sexual abuse [28,29], major depression [30,31], and even breast cancer [32].

You are shucking us again, Susan. What constitutes being “successfully applied”? These are not randomized controlled studies. For instance, the application to breast cancer involved only to patients. You are hardly in a position to crow about this. Shame on you.

When I read an introduction to a scientific article, I expect a much more nuanced, balanced consideration of the existing literature in a way that leads up to the research question of a particular study. What we get in this introduction in no way resembles us. Rather, an author with undeclared conflicts of interest is shamelessly hawking her psychotherapy product.

But stay tuned. In Part Two of this blog post I will offer a detailed critique of the methodology and interpretation of the actual study. It would be great if readers read the open access PLOS One article ahead of my next post and were prepared with their own interpretations and maybe even to dispute mind.

*The EFT literature and apparently what is said in workshops provide strong claims about outcomes that are echoed in the advertisements of therapists who get certified in EFT. For instance, the website of a Philadelphia-based therapist claims

EFT ad
Click to enlarge

This is either an exaggeration or outright fraud if it is supposed to represent the likelihood of a positive outcome of a couple coming to this therapy.

conflict of interest


4 thoughts on “Soothing psychotherapists’ brains with NeuroBalm”

  1. This is a great article. The economic pressures behind the label of “evidence based” treatments have subverted and undermined the value of the term.
    You might look at the NMT – neuro sequential model of therapeutics. Similar conflicts of interests, selling a brand of untested treatment, using neuro jargon and a loose connection to real science.


  2. The academic in me really appreciates when scholars hold other researchers’ feet to the fire on their research. I’m a younger clinician, so I was trained in the heart of the popular therapist movement that heralded little scrutiny and was heavy on the celebrity. I’m torn about the issue of neuroscience in psychotherapy. Sometimes I feel like the language has been helpful. However, other times, it seems like it is not too different from how we think about food, by the nutrient rather than the fruit itself. That’s not an apple, it’s a sugar, etc.

    This article, however, opened my eyes to understand the carelessness of profiting from bad research. Is it any different than how we as private practitioners sometimes misrepresent our credentials to an unsuspecting public? I don’t know. I appreciate the article because it shed light on an important topic, one that perhaps many scholars have failed to do for fear of upsetting the celebrity psychotherapist machine.


    1. Many thanks, I got rather overinvolved writing this because I kept thinking about it as an ex-clinician and someone who once contemplated leaving academia and surviving doing workshops and trainings. When I dabbled in that, I discovered the enormous pressures to entertain and to do better than last year’s model. And so I fled.

      I am still struggling with how we prepare clinicians to deal with a bombardment of this kind of hype and pseudoscience. And I am am really opening to hear from clinicians what they need.

      Very best


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