The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Too many Es muddle the mind

So far, in the last two weeks, we have the idea that Solution Focused Brief Therapy works because when clients say something they’ve never said before they learn something new about themselves and their worlds. Added to this is that the ‘saying’ of something new might sometimes create an actual ‘whole person’ experience of that new thing. These are things that we can see: a client will be surprised to have said something they hadn’t realised they knew and another client might cry when they hear themselves express what had until then been an impossible desire. What comes next is more philosophical wondering than verifiable ‘truth’ – though philosophical wondering is likely to be as close as we’ll ever get to any truth about human life on Earth.

4E Cognition

The 4 Es refer to embodied, enactive, extended and embedded cognition – various ways in which we know what we know, but as I can barely manage three I’m leaving the last one out. From what we have said so far it is not too difficult to accept the embodied cognition idea – that our ‘mind’ is not located in our brain, is not just a super-computer receiving input from our five senses and responding accordingly, but is located in our bodies, of which our brain is a part. This makes sense of the client’s behaviour during a session when they physically as well as verbally respond to questions about a possible future. Or in the case of one client, the earlier mentioned Carrie, when describing life without the pervasive effects of childhood abuse: “I wish I could describe it but I can’t! I can feel it here!”

Enactive cognition proposes that our ‘knowledge’ is not knowledge of a fixed world but is a knowledge constantly being created by our interaction with the world as we progress through life. And the most important parts of our world are the people we share it with, our families, friends, colleagues and so on. If this is true then it is not surprising that the SF attention to interactions between a client and the significant others in their life creates new knowledge of what might be possible. Carrie describes her daughter reacting to seeing her mother smiling and energised by saying “I think I’ve got my mum back”; Carrie’s response would be to cry and “give her a big hug”, the daughter would then hold her mother “tight”. Since it is well-documented that the mother-daughter relationship changed dramatically after this session something significant must have happened. It would be reasonable to assume that describing the possible actions of her daughter and her own responses added to her knowledge of possibility upon which she then acted.

The third E is extended cognition and I owe most to Guy Shennan for my understanding of this idea. Extended cognition places knowledge not just within the body but also in our familiar environments. Guy cites the example of losing a ‘smart phone’ and with it a big chunk of our knowledge. We don’t have to go as far as to say our mind is partly to be found in our phones to see a value in this idea. I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms and usually feel a little bereft and cut off from myself. Our minds might not actually be located in our environment but they are usually more at ease in familiar surroundings. Our kitchens, for instance, are full familiar objects from old spice pots to new cups all of which remind us of who we are and where we have come from. So perhaps being in familiar surroundings helps remind us of what we bring to the world (along with the out-of-date spices). If this is the case then placing descriptions of the client’s hoped-for future in the familiar, hum-drum routine of their daily lives will help connect them to the richness of their knowledge and make it easier to imagine the fulfilment of their hopes.

The way we have developed SFBT at BRIEF has not been founded on these philosophical theories but on our experience of work with clients and three decades of putting that work under close examination. Seeking ever more detailed descriptions of future possibilities was a result of seeing the influence of these descriptions on clients’ lives. Locating the descriptions in everyday routine made it easier for clients to answer the questions. And with these changes the therapy became briefer. Mostly, we do not bother with this ‘theoretical stuff’, not least because it doesn’t help us do a better job, but sometimes it is interesting to ponder on the question why does SFBT work and, as it is a question that is often asked, a little safe theory ('safe' in that it doesn’t risk us believing that we ‘know’ our clients better than they know themselves) can be quite useful.

Chris Iveson
London
March 2017