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Whitaker, Satir and Neuroscience: How Does that Work?

Carl Whitaker and Virginia Satir, influential figures in early family therapy, would never have described themselves as ‘hard scientists. Whitaker resisted explicating theory and technique which guided his work and said, “The process of family therapy revolves around people and relationships, not intervention techniques or theoretical abstractions. The therapist, as a human being, is pivotal”. Virginia Satir’s stated goal was to change global consciousness and described herself as “a combination of Jonny Appleseed and Paul Revere”. Popular in the 1960’s, experiential approaches came to be viewed as a ‘fad of their time’ and a rather embarrassing misfit for family therapy.

In light of this, it is surprising and enlightening to encounter a paper by Molly Bailey, ‘Science catching up: Experiential family therapy and neuroscience’ in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, exploring and explaining the success of the work of these pioneers through the lens of behavioural neuroscience. The article ‘provides an invitation to rethink classic experiential family therapy through the lens of modern neuroscience to highlight the modern relevance of the clinical approach pioneered by Virginia Satir and Carl Whitaker.’

The paper begins with an overview of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), previously applied to psychotherapy, and supported by research which has developed a ‘synthesis of neuroscience and psychological literature rooted in complex systems and applied it to the interpersonal sphere.’ IPNB has developed a comprehensive and coherent framework which describes brain and mind and how these are altered through experience, especially that of relationship. This naturally extends to the power of the therapeutic relationship to effect growth and healing. Key concepts include the idea of mind, integration, attunement, memory, and neuroplasticity and provide a framework to explain ‘how energy and information flows through the brain, nervous system, mind, and relationships.’

The author then sets these concepts against the work of Carl Whittaker and Virginia Satir. Core components of the work of Karl Whittaker include (a) personal integrity of the therapist; (b) spontaneity, creativity, and play; and (c) confrontation, confusion, challenge, and growth. These are set against the relevant neuroscience findings as explanations for their efficacy. Virginia Satire key tenets were (a) personhood, (b) patterns that disconnect, and (c) patterns that connect, and these too can be understood in terms of neuroscience. The work of these two practitioners demonstrates that experiential family therapy ‘uniquely harnesses the capacity for change provided by the relationship between therapist and family in combination with experiential techniques and allows therapists to intentionally promote multilevel change across systems—the family system, and as IPNB outlines, the neural system.’

The challenge this presents is integration into contemporary practice. Bower(note) the invariant protocols and practices developed at Bower Place offer direction. By providing the practitioner with clear unequivocal guidelines for the management of service delivery at every level the practitioner is freed to develop a unique attuned relationship that allows for creativity, spontaneity and key ingredients that have been demonstrated to be so effective in experiential therapy.


Bailey, M. E. (2022). Science catching up: Experiential family therapy and neuroscience. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 48, 1095–1110.

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