274 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4
The Magic of Encounter
© Lux 1477-9757/10/04274-16
The Magic of Encounter:
The Person-Centered Approach
and the Neurosciences
Bad Wildbad, Germany
Author Note. Address correspondence to Michael Lux, Alte Steige 23, 75323 Bad Wildbad, Germany. Email:
Abstract. The theoretical foundations of the Person-Centered Approach (PCA) were laid by Carl Rogers
more than 60 years ago. Neuroscientific research findings support his theories to a remarkably high
degree. The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between the PCA and concepts of
neurosciences. In the first step, basic concepts of person-centered personality theory are related to
neuroscience. The next and main focus is on the basic therapeutic principles of person-centered
psychotherapy. Particular ways are suggested in which findings in the neurosciences can contribute to
explaining the relevance of the therapeutic principles of empathic understanding, unconditional positive
regard and congruence. The supportive relation of the two distinct areas works both ways. It is argued
that the PCA offers a powerful meta-theory for an integration of neuroscientific research findings into
Keywords: empathy, mirror neurons, neuroscience, oxytocin, person-centered psychotherapy
Die Magie der Begegnung: Der Personzentrierte Ansatz und die Neurowissenschaften
Vor mehr als 60 Jahren hat Carl Rogers damit begonnen, die theoretischen Grundlagen des
Personzentrierten Ansatzes (PZA) zu entwickeln. Neurowissenschaftliche Forschungsergebnisse bestätigen
seine Theorien in einem bemerkenswert hohen Maß. In diesem Artikel sollen Beziehungen zwischen
dem Personzentrierten Ansatz und den Neurowissenschaften dargestellt werden. In einem ersten Schritt
werden Konzepte der personzentrierten Persönlichkeitstheorie mit den Neurowissenschaften in Bezug
gesetzt. Im Folgenden liegt der Fokus dann auf den therapeutischen Prinzipien Personzentrierter
Psychotherapie. Es werden Möglichkeiten aufgezeigt, wie die Befunde der Neurowissenschaften dazu
beitragen können, die Bedeutung der therapeutischen Prinzipien des empathischen Verstehens, der
bedingungsfreies positiven Beachtung und der Kongruenz zu erklären. Beide Forschungsrichtungen
unterstützen sich dabei gegenseitig. Es wird die Ansicht vertreten, dass der PZA eine Meta-Theorie mit
großer integrativer Kraft für neurowissenschaftliche Forschungsbefunde im Hinblick auf die Psychotherapie
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4 275
La Magia del Encuentro: El enfoque centrado en la persona y las neurociencias
Las bases teóricas del enfoque centrado en la persona (ECP) fueron desarrolladas por Carl Rogers hace
más de 60 años. Los resultados de la investigación de neurocientífica apoyan sus teorías a un grado
notable alto. El propósito de este artículo es explorar la relación entre el ECP y los conceptos de las
neurociencias. En el primer paso, los conceptos básicos de la teoría centrada en la persona de la personalidad
se relacionan con la neurociencia. El siguiente y principal foco está en los principios terapéuticos básicos
de la psicoterapia centrada en la persona. Se sugiere formas particulares en las que los resultados en las
neurociencias pueden contribuir a explicar la importancia de los principios terapéuticos: la comprensión
empática, la aceptación positiva incondicional y la congruencia. La relación de apoyo de las dos distintas
áreas de trabajo funciona en ambos sentidos. Se discute que el ECP ofrece una meta-teoría de gran
alcance para una integración de los resultados de la investigación neurocientífica en psicoterapia.
La Magie de la Rencontre : l’Approche Centrée sur la Personne et les Neurosciences
Les fondements de l’Approche Centrée sur la Personne (ACP) furent développés par Carl Rogers il y a
plus de 60 ans. Les découvertes de la recherche dans les neurosciences appuient ses théories à un degré
remarquablement élevé. Le but de cet article est d’explorer la relation entre l’ACP et les concepts des
neurosciences. Tout d’abord, les concepts fondamentaux de la théorie de la personnalité centrée sur la
personne sont comparés à ceux des neurosciences. Ensuite, l’article se centre principalement sur les
principes fondamentaux de la psychothérapie centrée-sur-la-personne et suggère des manières particulières
par lesquelles les découvertes des neurosciences peuvent contribuer à expliquer la pertinence des principes
thérapeutiques de compréhension empathique, de regard positif inconditionnel et de congruence. La
relation de soutien entre ces deux domaines séparés est mutuelle. L’article soutient que l’ACP offre une
métathéorie puissante pour une intégration des découvertes de la recherche neuroscientifique dans la
A Magia do Encontro: a Abordagem Centrada na Pessoa e as Neurociências
As bases teóricas da Abordagem Centrada na Pessoa (ACP), foram desenvolvidas por Carl Rogers há mais
de 60 anos. As descobertas resultantes da investigação em neurociências dão apoio às suas teorias a um
nível surpreendentemente elevado. O objectivo deste artigo é explorar a relação entre a ACP e conceitos
das neurociências. Num primeiro momento, relacionam-se os conceitos fundamentais da ACP com as
neurociências. De seguida, incide-se sobre os princípios terapêuticos que se encontram na base da
Psicoterapia Centrada na Pessoa. São sugeridas algumas formas particulares através das quais as descobertas
das neurociências podem contribuir para justificar a relevância de princípios terapêuticos como:
compreensão empática, olhar incondicional positivo e a congruência. A relação de suporte entre estas
duas áreas distintas funciona de forma biunívoca. Discute-se que a ACP oferece uma meta-teoria poderosa
para uma integração das descobertas decorrentes da investigação em neurociências na psicoterapia.
276 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4
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In recent years knowledge in the neurosciences has increased significantly. As a person-centered
psychotherapist and neuropsychologist my attention was especially drawn to the intriguing
parallels of these findings to concepts of the Person-Centered Approach (PCA). Such parallels
have already been pointed out concerning the theoretical frameworks of Carl Rogers and
Antonio Damasio, one of the foremost neuroscientists (Motschnig-Pitrik & Lux, 2008).
Rogers founded the PCA more than 60 years ago. He was one of the originators of humanistic
psychology and also a pioneer of empirical process research in psychotherapy. We owe to him
a new understanding of how humans can interact in a facilitative manner. His intention was
to describe general principles of effective psychotherapy. It seems that he was successful in
doing this, when we consider developments in other therapeutic approaches (see, e.g., Kahn,
1998). Rogers considered his theories to be preliminary and he expected that scientific progress
would lead to revisions. Today many research areas support his theories to a large degree, e.g.,
systems theory (Kriz, 2008), cognitive psychology (Motschnig-Pitrik & Nykl, 2003), positive
psychology (Patterson & Joseph, 2007) and the neurosciences (Lux, 2007).
The purpose of this article is to explore relationships between the PCA and concepts of
the neurosciences. In particular, my focus is on a proposed “translation” of the PCA into
neuroscientific terminology – a “neuroscientifically based person-centered psychotherapy”
(Lux, 2007). Such a translation has the potential to improve communication between the
PCA and various areas of basic research as well as other psychotherapeutic approaches.
The first section of this article is a broad outline of some possible relationships between
the person-centered personality theory and the neurosciences. However, this will be carried
out only insofar as it provides a foundation for the following section. This will be an attempt
to elaborate how the neurosciences can contribute to an explanation of the efficacy of person-
centered psychotherapy. Although the effectiveness of person-centered psychotherapy has
been empirically demonstrated (see, e.g., Barrett-Lennard, 1998) and in this sense does not
need neuroscientific affirmation, yet neurosciences can help to understand its therapeutic
principles in a new way.
PERSON-CENTERED PERSONALITY THEORY AND THE
Within the framework of the PCA it is assumed that our subjective world consists of
experiences. Only a small part of the totality of experiences is symbolized and comprehended
in consciousness. Symbolized experiences often are closely connected to the self. The self (or
the self-concept) includes the mental image one has of oneself as well as of one’s relationships
to the environment. It determines if and how experiences are symbolized. I suggest that the
self and symbolized experiences are based on the so-called explicit brain systems.
A central neuropsychological structure thereof is working memory (LeDoux, 2002). It
serves for the short-term storage of mental contents and provides a “workspace” for cognitive
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4 277
processes like comprehension, action planning, and reasoning. In neuropsychology it is
commonly assumed that only those contents which are represented in working memory can
be part of conscious awareness. With regard to concepts of the PCA I assume that working
memory is the neuropsychological structure where processes of symbolization take place.
Another important explicit system is autobiographical memory. In autobiographical
memory, experiences are stored in a way that enables their conscious recall as well as the
production of verbal reports about them. Following Schacter (2001), a leading researcher on
the psychology of memory, I equate the self with activated structures of autobiographical
memory. These considerations are closely related to Damasio’s (1999) “autobiographical
self” and to LeDoux’s (2002) “explicit self.”
Goals that have been acquired during one’s lifespan are also part of the structures of
autobiographical memory. By these goals the self is connected with executive functions. This
is a collective name for functions enabling purposeful control of behavior, problem-solving,
foresight, planning, and long-term stability of behavior. From my viewpoint these executive
functions permit the self to exert an influence on behavior, as seen in proposition XII of
Rogers’ (1951/1995a) originally stated theory of personality.
As aforementioned, symbolized experiences are only a small part of the totality of
experiences, of which the largest part is outside conscious awareness. I propose that the
totality of experiences comprises not only contents of working memory, but also processes in
explicit and implicit systems outside working memory. Implicit systems (emotional and
motivational – LeDoux, 2002) work automatically and do not rely on conscious control.
The results of these implicit processes can be perceived, e.g., as emotional reactions, orienting
reflexes, moods, or automatic behavior patterns.
Among other things, implicit systems exert an evaluative function. I suggest that these
implicit evaluative processes enter the organismic valuing process (OVP) and exert a substantial
influence on it. Stimuli can be evaluated implicitly without being represented in consciousness.
This was worked out by LeDoux (2002) as the example of the brain’s danger defense system.
According to his research the amygdala, the crucial brain structure for the so-called fight–
flight reaction, can be activated by subliminal stimuli. A similar position had been postulated
by Rogers (1959): “Thus it appears that the organism can discriminate a stimulus and its
meaning for the organism without utilizing the higher nerve centers involved in awareness”
As an expression of the actualizing tendency the OVP serves for the maintenance and
enhancement of the organism. The OVP is based on the totality of experiences, including
perceptual, emotional and cognitive processes. Rogers (1980/1995b) stresses the importance
of this holistic process when he states “that we are wiser than our intellects, that our organisms
as a whole have a wisdom and purposiveness which goes well beyond our conscious thoughts”
(p. 106). Furthermore, he explains that the OVP is expressed in feelings (Rogers, 1964).
Therefore, it is of crucial importance for mental health to be attentive to feelings, to the
messages of the body and the senses.
This is in fairly good accordance with considerations of neuroscientists. From a
neuroscientific perspective, emotions and feelings are influenced to a large degree by implicit
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processes. They have an indispensable orienting function for coping with the demands of
everyday life. Damasio (1994) elaborated on this in detail in his theory of somatic markers.
He and his co-workers have accumulated much empirical evidence for this theory from
neuropsychological experiments using the so-called Iowa Gambling Task (e.g., Bechara,
Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1997). Following the theory of Damasio, somatic markers,
which he several times calls “gut feelings,” are bodily signals reflecting emotion-related
experiences one previously had with a certain category of situations. By this, one is able to
evaluate the opportunities for acting in this category of situations. There is a huge amount of
evidence indicating that the emotion-related knowledge expressed in somatic markers is of
crucial importance for decision-making in everyday life (see, e.g., Damasio, 2003), which is
very reminiscent of Rogers’ view.
Within the framework of the PCA, congruence is central to mental health. Congruence
means that relevant experiences flow freely into awareness and are symbolized accurately.
Formulated in neuropsychological terms it corresponds to a concordance of processes in
explicit and implicit systems. This signifies that goals pursued by executive functions are
consistent with evaluations and needs that arise from implicit systems. Psychological basic
research outside of the PCA indicates that this is of crucial importance for mental health
(e.g., Sheldon & Elliott, 1999).
Incongruence means that important experiences are denied or symbolized inaccurately.
This has consequences for the integrity of behavioral control. It implies that “consciously we
are moving in one direction, while organismically we are moving in another” (Rogers, 1961,
p. 195). From the viewpoint of the PCA, this is the breeding ground for the emergence of
mental disorders. Very similar considerations can be found in neuroscientifically founded
conceptions of psychotherapy (e.g., Grawe, 2004), even though concepts of central importance
for person-centered psychotherapy are neglected therein (Lux, 2007).
Expressed in neuropsychological terms incongruence corresponds to an inconsistency
between explicit and implicit systems. Thereby, neuroscientists refer to a fundamental weak
point of the human brain, namely, the minor neural connectivity of implicit and explicit
systems (LeDoux, 2002). Due to this, LeDoux sees mental health threatened by non-
integration of explicit and implicit systems – which corresponds fairly well to the notions of
Person-centered psychotherapy aims at facilitating congruence. This means that
experiences are symbolized more exactly and that they are integrated within the self. Therefore,
openness to experiences, an accepting attentiveness to everything that happens within the
organism, is a crucial feature of the “fully functioning person,” the ideal case of mental health
within the PCA (Rogers, 1961). Constructive personality change in the direction of the
“fully functioning person” is achieved by the realization of the basic therapeutic principles of
congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy, which will be addressed in the
remaining part of this article from a neuroscientific perspective. In this regard, it should be
acknowledged that these principles are highly interconnected and are not in practice separate
from each other: “They are best viewed as a trinity – inseparable, essential, and mutually
interdependent” (Natiello, 2001, p. 6).
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4 279
PRINCIPLES OF PERSON-CENTERED PSYCHOTHERAPY
Empathy and its neurobiological aspects
It is commonly acknowledged that the therapist’s empathic understanding is of tremendous
relevance for psychotherapeutic processes. Many studies have demonstrated that client-perceived
understanding is an important predictor for success in psychotherapy (for an overview see
Barrett-Lennard, 1998). From the viewpoint of the PCA, empathy is not merely based on
conscious perspective-taking but also on an intuitive sensing of the inner state of the client.
Rogers (1959) defines empathy as follows: “It means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another
as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing
the recognition, that it is as if I were hurt or pleased” (p. 210). Thus, cognitive and emotional
processes interact in generating empathic understanding. Within the PCA a prerequisite for
empathic understanding is the congruence of the therapist (see proposition XVIII of Rogers’
(1951/1995a) theory). This implies his/her access to the totality of experiences arising in resonance
with the client. These experiences constitute, so to speak, a bridge into the client’s experiences.
Concerning the research on empathy, considerable progress has lately been made in the
neurosciences, which is in total accordance with conceptions of the PCA. In addition to
investigations on the theory of mind (ToM), which deal with processes of conscious perspective-
taking, this progress is primarily due to the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons (Gallese,
Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996). Both research lines complement one another in elucidating
different aspects of empathy (Keysers & Gazzola, 2007). Moreover, it has been demonstrated
how neuroscientific research findings are related to various aspects of empathic understanding
in psychotherapy (Watson, 2007; Watson & Greenberg, 2009).
Mirror neurons are activated both while a specific action is executed and while the execution
of the action is observed. It is assumed that they somehow produce a simulation of the observed
action within the brain of the observer and that such a neural resonance is involved in phenomena
like model learning, emotional contagion and empathy. Evidence indicates that interpersonal
resonances incessantly arise during social interactions – in the sense of automatic mimicry of
emotional expressions of the other – and that these processes are involved in emotional empathy,
i.e., feeling how another person feels (Hatfield, Rapson, & Le, 2009).
Within the simulation theory of empathy, advocated for example by Ferrari and Gallese
(2007), it is assumed that mirror neurons enable an embodied simulation of an observed
action, emotion, or sensation. Such an embodied simulation is conceived as an automatic
and pre-reflective mechanism. Hence, from this perspective empathy is not merely based on
conscious inference regarding the meaning of another person’s behavior, but also on processes
outside consciousness. “Embodied” simulation means that we do not just observe another
person, but that the observation is accompanied by changes in the observer’s somato-sensing
brain regions, “‘as if ’ he/she would be doing a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion,
or sensation” (Ferrari & Gallese, 2007, p. 85) like the observed person. Therefore, we can
know from our own experience how another person feels in a certain situation.
There are several findings which confirm the simulation theory of empathy. For example,
Wicker et al. (2003) showed that experiencing disgust and recognizing disgust in the face of
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someone else both engage the same brain region. Moreover, experiencing pain and witnessing
another person’s pain activates overlapping brain regions (Singer et al., 2004).
Further supporting evidence for the simulation theory can be seen in studies which
demonstrated that self-rated empathic capabilities are closely related to the degree of regional
brain activation during empathy-related tasks, e.g., witnessing another person experiencing
pain (Singer et al., 2004) or watching faces which express positive or negative emotions
(Jabbi, Swart, & Keysers, 2007). Additionally, a clear correlation of self-rated empathic
capabilities with the reactivity of mirror neurons was found in a study by Schulte-Rüther,
Markowitsch, Fink, & Piefke (2007).
There is evidence indicating that interpersonal resonances are also of great relevance
within the therapeutic relationship. Thus, in a study by Marci, Ham, Moran, & Orr (2007),
the relevance of the accordance of the therapist’s and the client’s skin-conductance, the so-
called concordance, was observed. In this study positive concordance – which means change
of therapist’s and client’s skin conductance in the same direction – was associated with the
degree to which the client perceives empathic understanding by the therapist, measured by
the Empathic Understanding Sub-Scale of the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory
(Barrett-Lennard, 1962). Moreover, high concordance was accompanied by more solidarity
and more positive regard in the therapeutic interaction registered by trained observers, which
is in keeping with the therapeutic principles of person-centered psychotherapy being
interconnected and interwoven.
An illuminating study by Schulte-Rüther et al. (2007) was designed to capture dyadic
face-to-face interaction. Subjects had to focus on facially expressed emotions (other-condition)
as well as on emotions evoked within themselves by the faces (self-condition). Brain regions
which are assumed to contain mirror neurons were activated in both conditions, yet more
strongly in the self-condition. This is strong support for the notion that mirror neurons are
involved in emotional social communication. The authors suppose that mirror neurons enable
“unconscious mimicry of observed facial expressions supporting the ability to infer feelings
from other persons’ faces” (Schulte-Rüther et al., 2007, p. 1366). Additionally, activation of
ToM-related brain regions (e.g., medial frontal regions, tempero-parietal regions) was also
detected. It is suggested that these regions are involved in the distinction between self- and
Thus, implicit/pre-reflective mechanisms (mirror neurons) interact with explicit/controlled
processes (ToM) in generating empathy, which is closely related to Rogers’ definition of empathy
cited above. With regard to the neurobiological level, to feel what someone else feels is probably
based on mirror neuron mechanisms. On the other hand other aspects of empathy like the
distinction between self and other (“as-if-experience”) and perceiving the causes for someone
else’s feelings might be associated with activation of ToM-related brain regions.
Moderating influences on simulation processes and their therapeutic implications
Evidence indicates that there are some moderating influences on simulation processes. In the
first place, simulation processes are affected by attentional factors. In this regard, Gu and
Han (2007) showed that distraction from pain-related stimuli leads to a disappearance of
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4 281
neural activity related to empathy for pain. Consequently, the therapist may foster his/her
empathic understanding by focusing on the client’s emotional expressions.
Furthermore, reactivity of mirror neurons is influenced by contextual factors. Iacoboni et
al. (2005) demonstrated that an action, executed in a situational context which fits the goal of
the action, is accompanied by a stronger activation of an observer’s mirror neuron systems, in
contrast to the same action being executed without context stimuli. Hence, according to Watson
and Greenberg (2009), the therapist may enhance his/her empathic understanding by asking
for detailed and descriptive “context information” about the client’s life and experiences.
Unsurprisingly, empathic responding is related to feelings one has towards another person.
An experiment by Singer et al. (2006) demonstrated that brain activity in conjunction with
empathy for pain is diminished if the person whom the subjects have to empathize with
acted previously in an unfair way. Thereby, acting unfairly led to an evocation of negative
feelings of the subjects towards the unfair persons. However, the effect reached statistical
significance only in men and not in women. Nevertheless, this study implies a close connection
between the therapeutic principles of empathy and unconditional positive regard. It reveals
that negative feelings towards the client seriously endanger the therapist’s capacity for deep
On the other hand, certain emotions have the potential to foster interpersonal resonances.
An exciting study was carried out with persons practicing Buddhist compassion meditation
(Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone, & Davidson, 2008). During this kind of meditation
feelings of compassion and altruistic love are generated. While the meditators experienced
feelings of compassion and altruistic love their limbic systems reacted more strongly to acoustic
emotional expressions of other persons than while they were in a state during which they did
not experience these feelings. Therefore, feelings of love and compassion seem to foster the
capacity to resonate with other people.
This is in line with findings of research in psychotherapy. Greenberg and Rushansky-
Rosenberg (2001, cited in Watson, 2007) investigated how experienced psychotherapists
succeed in empathically understanding their clients. The therapists mentioned that they
used various cognitive strategies but they also reported the occurrence of feelings of tenderness,
compassion, and care towards their clients during empathic understanding – feelings which
are closely related to the principle of unconditional positive regard (see below). Although the
therapists stated that such feelings arise spontaneously and naturally during empathic
understanding, it cannot be excluded that practice in compassion meditation may facilitate
the emergence of these feelings of evident therapeutic relevance.
So, the neurosciences have achieved substantial progress in explaining how the brain
might enable empathic understanding. Besides, they offer hypotheses for an explanation of
the functions of empathy in psychotherapy. This will be the topic of the next section.
Functions of empathy
As outlined above, empathic understanding means that the therapist senses the client’s
feelings as well as cognitive meanings. It also includes communicating this understanding
verbally and nonverbally to the client. Thereby, the therapist is able to improve the accuracy
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of her/his understanding by carefully paying attention to the client’s responses to their
expression of it. By this kind of interaction the client engages in “discovering previously
unknown elements” (Rogers, 1980/1995b, p. 155) of his experiences and at integrating
these into his self-concept.
Watson (2001, 2007) differentiated three central functions of empathy in psychotherapy
which constitute a useful framework for the purpose of this article. According to Watson,
empathy is at first involved in establishing a positive therapeutic relationship by directing the
therapist’s attention to the client’s concerns. Furthermore, if the client perceives empathic
understanding by the therapist, he/she will experience a sense of security which will be
facilitative of his/her capacity for self-exploration.
In this regard, links to Porges’ (2007) polyvagal theory can be seen to exist. From the
viewpoint of this theory it can be argued that the therapist’s empathic understanding, by
signaling security, activates the “social engagement system” (Porges, 2007, p. 120). This is a
component of the autonomic nervous system, which is dependent on the myelinated vagus
nerve. It supports social engagement behaviors by controlling muscles of the head and the
throat. In this way, it is able to improve social perception as well as emotional expressiveness
via facial expressions and the tone of voice. Further, its activation is accompanied by a
deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, which brings about calm physiological states
and self-soothing. Moreover, there is a close interaction of the social engagement system with
the neuropeptide oxytocin, which will be addressed in a latter section.
The second function of empathy is to support the client in affect regulation (Watson,
2001, 2007). Here, the therapist’s empathic understanding helps the client to label and thus
symbolize his/her emotional experiences. Exciting findings with brain imaging techniques
elucidate what might happen thereby in the client’s brain. Lieberman et al. (2007)
demonstrated that verbally labeling the emotional quality of an emotion-triggering stimulus
activates brain regions which have the potential to attenuate the activated emotions. In this
study, it was shown that verbally labeling affective stimuli activates on the one hand the right
ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex and on the other hand it deactivates the amygdalae.
In a related study conducted by Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, & Lieberman (2007), the
moderating effect of mindfulness, measured by the “Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale”
(Brown & Ryan, 2003), on these processes was investigated. This scale is closely related to
openness to experiences – a central attribute of the “fully functioning person.” In this study,
higher degrees of mindfulness were associated with greater prefrontal activation and a more
pronounced deactivation of the amygdalae during affect labeling. Thus, openness to experiences
seems to foster the brain’s capacity for affect regulation.
The third function of empathy is a facilitation of a “deconstruction of the client’s world
views and internal assumptive frameworks” (Watson, 2007, p. 63). This means that the
therapist’s empathic understanding supports the client in taking notice of concepts, beliefs,
and convictions, as well as to reappraise and modify them when indicated.
This function can be explained within the global workspace theory (GWT) of Baars
(1997). Within the GWT it is assumed that self-concepts, intentions, and expectations – the
context “behind the scenes” – unconsciously shape processes on the “stage” of working memory.
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 9, Number 4 283
Empathic understanding may help to represent unconscious context factors in working
memory, which is equivalent to symbolizing them. From the viewpoint of the GWT this is
a prerequisite to reflect upon, to modify, and to organize these concepts in a more adaptive
way. By this, the consistency within explicit systems (e.g., between conflicting aspects of
goal-hierarchies) and between explicit systems and implicit emotional and motivational systems
can be enhanced. Evidence indicates that both forms of consistency are important aspects of
mental health (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995).
In person-centered psychotherapy the therapist facilitates the improvement of consistency
between explicit and implicit systems by reflecting the client’s feelings. Formulated in
neuropsychological terms, due to empathic understanding the client’s explicit systems are
directed to a greater extent to processes in implicit systems. Thereby, it is more likely that the
client represents these implicit processes in working memory. The therapist facilitates this by
grasping implicit processes at the edge of the client’s awareness and by communicating them
verbally and nonverbally to the client (for further explanations, see Motschnig-Pitrik and
Nykl, 2003). By paying more attention to implicit processes they are integrated in explicit
systems by which the connectivity of explicit and implicit systems is strengthened – the weak
point of the human brain according to LeDoux (2002).
Damasio (2003) declares that “feelings are a necessary guide to the invention and
negotiation of ways and means, that somehow, will not clash with basic life regulation” (p.
168). From my point of view, empathic understanding is the most important resource to
help clients to gain access to this “necessary guide.”
Unconditional positive regard
The principle of unconditional positive regard implies that “the therapist prizes the client in
a total rather than a conditional way” (Rogers, 1980/1995b, p. 116). It means that the
totality of the client’s experiences are unconditionally accepted by the therapist. Unconditional
positive regard is marked by “feelings of compassion, warmth, respect or admiration, interest
or liking and other positive feelings” (Barrett-Lennard, 1998, pp. 99–100) of the therapist
towards the client, which pervade the therapist’s communication.
It is not a new insight that positive social contact generally decreases stress and anxiety.
Today, this is called the “social buffering effect” (Kikusi, Winslow, & Mori, 2006). From my
viewpoint, this effect is closely related to the therapeutic principle of unconditional positive
regard. Mirror neuron-mediated resonances may be a link: If the client is gripped by negative
emotions or feelings, but observes that the therapist understands him and stays calm – facing
all of the client’s experiences with a stance of unconditional acceptance – the client will shift
in a direction towards more calmness, due to the resonance evoked within him. Yet, there
may be more processes than mirror neuron-mediated resonances which are involved in the
stress-decreasing effect of close social contact.
In this regard an illustrative study was carried out with couples by Coan, Schaefer and
Davidson (2006). The wives, placed in a magnetic resonance tomography scanner, were
confronted with fear-provoking stimuli. This caused them to experience discomfort and it
provoked an activation of fear-related brain structures. But while the hand of the wives was
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held by their husbands a decrease of discomfort as well as of activation of fear-related brain
structures was observed. The amount of the fear-decreasing effect of hand-holding was
dependent on the quality of the marital relationship; the better the relationship the greater
the effect. The authors of the experiment supposed that the neuropeptide oxytocin is involved
in the fear-decreasing effect of hand-holding.
Oxytocin has a number of health-promoting effects, such as lessening of blood pressure,
improvement of wound healing or increase of pain thresholds (Uvnäs-Moberg, 2003).
Furthermore, oxytocin has (like social support) an attenuating effect on stress (Heinrichs,
Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). The stress-decreasing effect is presumably due
to a deactivating impact of oxytocin on the amygdala (Kirsch et al., 2005). There is growing
evidence that oxytocin plays an important role in social interactions. The administration of
oxytocin makes humans more capable of recognizing emotions in the faces of other persons
by improving the exploration of the eye area (Domes, Heinrichs, Michel, Berger, & Herpertz,
2007). Moreover, administering oxytocin is related to behaviors that are indicative of more
trust in other persons (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005) and it raises the
proportion of positive versus negative communication during couple conflict (Ditzen et al.,
There are some natural ways to raise the oxytocin level. It is supposed that any activity
which produces social connectedness causes an increase of the release of oxytocin, e g., sexual
activities, physical contact, or collective laughing and singing (Bauer, 2007). Furthermore,
Uvnäs-Moberg (2003), one of the foremost researchers in this area, assumes that social
interactions marked by love, warmth, and empathy evoke the release of oxytocin. Similarly,
Heinrichs and Domes (2008) summarize that oxytocin “is released in response to positive
social interactions, such as social support or social proximity” (p. 344). Additionally, a striking
experiment demonstrated that behavior signaling trust in another person is accompanied by
an increase of the oxytocin level of the trusted person (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2005).
Is it too daring to relate “the hormone of calm, love, and healing” (see the subtitle of
Uvnäs-Moberg’s  book) to the growth-enhancing and healing interpersonal climate of
person-centered psychotherapy? Trust, social support and proximity, emotional warmth,
empathy and love in the form of unconditional positive regard are distinctive features of the
therapeutic relationship in person-centered psychotherapy. Therefore, it can be assumed that
person-centered psychotherapy evokes an increase of the client’s oxytocin level. The following
effects seem to be possible:
1. Assisted by an increased release of oxytocin the client should be more trustful and he/
she should be more likely to disclose his/her experiences.
2. By the release of oxytocin the client should be more capable of registering the emotional
response of the therapist and therefore his/her empathy and positive regard. This
would imply improved psychological contact between therapist and client.
3. Because of the associated deactivation of the amygdala the client should be able to
address threatening experiences with less anxiety and, thus be more able to effectively
symbolize those experiences.
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4. Diminution in the threatening nature of these experiences is automatically recorded
in implicit memory, whereby “unlearning of maladaptive somatic markers” can take
place (see, for further explanation, Lux, 2007).
In Rogers’ terms, congruence is a “close matching between what is experienced at a gut level,
what is present in awareness, and what is expressed to the client” (Rogers, 1980/1995b, p.
116). As mentioned previously, the congruence of the therapist is of central importance for
empathic understanding. Besides, by its external aspect called genuineness or transparency, it
directly influences the therapeutic communication. This means that the therapist does not
hide himself behind a false front, but faces the client as the person she/he really is in the
immediate situation. A lack of genuineness, if perceived by the client, is a major threat for the
therapeutic relationship: “Clients are very perceptive and pick up on incongruence like a
magnet will pick up a pin. When they do, the trust level will fall, the intimacy will dissolve,
and the relationship will begin to atrophy” (Natiello, 2001, p. 34).
As I see it, being congruent instead of concealing oneself is a distinct sign of trusting
another person. Such visible trust should be accompanied by an increase in the client’s oxytocin
level – with the favorable consequences just mentioned. Mirror neurons are also relevant for
genuineness. If the therapist merely pretends to accept the client but is in fact indifferent
towards him/her or even dislikes him/her, these implicit, unspoken contents can reveal
themselves in body expressions. By mirror neuron-mediated resonances this can confuse the
In this regard there are connections to research by Ekman (2003). He investigated signs
of deception and discovered that in someone who tries to conceal his true emotions these
true emotions are revealed in so-called micro-expressions. Micro-expressions appear for a
maximum of 1/25 sec and are therefore too fast to be perceived consciously. In spite of this,
if they are present it can be felt that something is not in sync. I assume that such micro-
expressions are markers of incongruence. They may confuse the client and disturb a positive
therapeutic relationship. Being congruent prevents such confusing effects for the client.
This underlines the fact that it is a significant misunderstanding to consider that the
basic therapeutic attitudes are a matter of skill-training. Rather, they have to be deeply rooted
inside the person of the therapist to be able to unfold their healing power. Therefore, evaluating
and improving this is a vital element of the training as well as the ongoing development and
supervision of person-centered psychotherapists.
The neurosciences enable us to take a fresh look at the phenomena of psychotherapy and
understand them in a new way. They begin to reveal the brain’s impressive capacities to
mysteriously connect humans with other humans beyond words, thoughts, and intellectual
reasoning. If therapists want to apply these capacities to the good of their clients, they should
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engage in an encounter from person to person, “in which therapist and clients are both full
partners” (Barrett-Lennard, 2009, p. 83). This does not need the advice of a manual of
therapy – and may even be impaired by it – but it rather requires space for spontaneity,
willingness to be emotionally touched by the client and attentiveness to the subtle experiences
arising in resonance with the client.
Neuroscientific research findings refer to the reciprocity of social interactions. The
therapeutic principles in action of person-centered psychotherapy profoundly influence the
client on a neurobiological and a psychosocial level. Undoubtedly, the induced alterations
“act back” on the therapist. Thereby, feedback processes from client to therapist have the
potential to support the therapist’s capacity for realizing the basic therapeutic principles (for
a simplified overview see Figure 1).
The mutual influences in therapeutic interactions can be explained by taking the reciprocity
of trust as an example: If the therapist trusts the client, this can enable increase in the client’s
oxytocin level. Therefore, the client should be more trustful towards the therapist and he/she
should be more likely to disclose experiences. The client’s trust in the therapist reciprocally
fosters an increase in the therapist’s oxytocin level – with potentially favorable effects on her/
his therapeutic capabilities (e.g., more trustfulness, improvement of social perception). These
mutual feedback processes may be involved in the creation of an emergent phenomenon
Figure 1. The Circle of Contact (Up arrows symbolize increase of activation/release, or
improvement; down arrows stand for alterations in opposite directions. For explanations see
the text above.)
Ability to relate
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between humans, the relationship, which “is not just the sum of its parts (whole persons) but
is itself a living process at a further level” (Barrett-Lennard, 2009, p. 82).
The PCA, as well as humanistic approaches in general, are extensively affirmed by
neuroscientific research findings. However, it should be acknowledged that some
neuroscientific concepts still, to a certain degree, have the status of hypotheses. Of course this
applies in the same way for their possible relationships to concepts of the PCA mentioned
above. To verify these relationships seems to be a delightful task for empirical research projects.
Because of the totally different backgrounds of the PCA and the neurosciences, the high
compatibility of these two fields of research may be astonishing. Especially for that reason
their accordance argues for the quality of the theories of neurosciences as well as of the PCA.
From my viewpoint the PCA offers the most powerful meta-theory for an integration of
neuroscientific research findings into psychotherapy. Undoubtedly, progress in neurosciences
will go on. People interested in the PCA can await this full of expectation. Using the words
of Rogers: “The facts are friendly”!
I would like to thank Cathrin Wildwood, Antje and Hanns Becker, Renate Motschnig-
Pitrik, the anonymous reviewers, and the editor for helpful comments on earlier versions of
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