Is Brainspotting Therapy Legit?
There is a newer type of psychotherapy called brainspotting that is gaining momentum among some therapists. Brainspotting refers to a therapeutic technique that focuses on helping a person overcome trauma (often childhood trauma) by helping the patient supposedly access their subcortical brain. This area of the brain is believed to be primarily responsible for things like our emotions, how we learn new things, and consciousness.
Brainspotting is not considered a legitimate or recognized psychotherapy technique at this time. It has very little scientific research to support its widespread use, despite it being “discovered” over two decades ago in 2003 by David Grand, an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist.
What is Brainspotting Therapy?
Brainspotting therapy is based upon the belief that some people get “stuck” in one spot when trying to process trauma through other types of therapeutic techniques, such as EMDR. Using that as a basis for its theory — that people’s trauma get stuck in the physical body — brainspotting suggests a person can become unstuck by processing a traumatic memory through a series of specific techniques.
Brainspotting is said to offer a benefit over traditional EMDR techniques because it does not require the patient to re-experience the trauma or traumatic event the patient is stuck on.
Psychotherapy techniques that focus on healing the mind through the body are sometimes known as somatic techniques, or Somatic Experiencing. Proponents of these techniques, which include EMDR, believe that mental health issues such as trauma can be better healed by focusing on the body’s reaction to the problem, rather than trying to treat it through the conscious mind. These therapies rely on the idea by relieving the physical stress of the body, it will relieve the emotional stress the mind holds.
How Does Brainspotting Work?
Despite it being available for over two decades, brainspotting has scant scientific evidence. Therefore, how the technique works is merely a hypothesis. Proponents of the technique suggest it works on the midbrain, a portion of the brain that controls the central nervous system in a human body. The belief is that this is somehow tied into our “flight or fight” response, by suggesting a third option — freezing.
Brainspotting believes our trauma has been “frozen” into our body’s typical response to potential trauma. By using specific techniques, a brainspotting therapist can help the patient un-freeze this trauma and break the connection between the body’s memory of it and the trauma itself.
What Research Has Been Conducted on Brainspotting?
Typically psychotherapy techniques require scientific backing in order to be understood as evidence-based psychotherapy. This means researchers study the technique to see if there something actually unique and beneficial in it versus treatment-as-usual. All too often when subjected to scientific scrutiny, “new” techniques are found to be no better than a placebo control group — that is, no better than simply talking to another human being.
Brainspotting has — as of 2023 — very little scientific research published looking into its validity and use in mainstream psychotherapy. Even though the primary therapist promoting brainspotting, David Grand, suggests he discovered the technique in 2003, it wasn’t until 2013 he first published on it. Instead of publishing a scientific journal article about it, however, he published a self-help book called ‘Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change.’ Not surprisingly, it was published by a company that specializes in alternative therapies media.
In conducting literature searches on this topic in APA’s PsycNet and Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, few references were found. The APA database found only one review article that discussed the technique in the broader context of the history of EMDR (Shapiro & Brown, 2019). PubMed, the government’s research database, found all of four references. Only one of these references was a scientific study with subjects. This study didn’t have a control group (so we have no idea whether the technique is any better than simply talking to the person) and used only psychologists and physicians as subjects (D’Antoni et al., 2022). Most references simply refer to journal articles that discuss hypothetical mechanisms for this technique.
Researchers led by Hildebrand et al. (2017) found support for both EMDR and brainspotting (BSP), when compared to each other in a study on 76 subjects — but no control group was used. The data shows that EMDR is a superior therapeutic technique to BSP. In other words, even in this rudimentary study, the technique with the decades’ worth of research backing works better than the newer technique with little research backing.
In short, there is scant scientific evidence that supports the use of this technique. At the moment, it appears to be more akin to quackery than actual psychotherapy.
Takeaways About Brainspotting
Brainspotting is a newer psychotherapy alternative therapy that is not recommended at this time, due to the lack of scientific evidence supporting its use. Brainspotting isn’t taught in graduate programs in schools that prepare students to become a therapist who are working toward their Master’s degree or doctorate. Instead, it is taught only by existing brainspotting professionals who charge high rates for therapists to become “certified” in the technique.
There’s at least one mainstream mental health website that promotes brainspotting while minimizing the lack of evidence supporting its use. It speaks to the technique’s effectiveness and benefits, while not mentioning any drawbacks or potential harm the therapy might have. That’s unfortunate, because people should not be seeking out unproven therapies when existing therapeutic techniques actually have proven data to support their use.
D’Antoni F, Matiz A, Fabbro F, Crescentini C. (2022). Psychotherapeutic Techniques for Distressing Memories: A Comparative Study between EMDR, Brainspotting, and Body Scan Meditation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 19(3):1142. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19031142.
Grand D. (2013). Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change.
Hildebrand A, Grand D, Stemmler M. (2017). Brainspotting – the efficacy of a new therapy approach for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder in comparison to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Mediterranean Journal of Clinical Psychology, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.6092/2282-1619/2017.5.1376