Conference Grant Report: Gretchen LaMotte

Gretchen LaMotte was selected to receive a Conference Grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. With this grant, she traveled to New York City to attend “Attachment and Trauma: The Neurobiology of Healing.” You can read Gretchen’s reflection below, read past grantee reflections here, and visit the PCSE website to learn more about all of our grant programs.

Thanks to the PCSE, in October 2017 I was able to attend “Attachment and Trauma: The Neurobiology of Healing.” This three-day conference, hosted by Italy-based International Instituto di Scienze Cognitive (ISC), was the first U.S. convening of a series of conferences on the topic previously held in Rome and London.

The conference was held in New York at the PlayStation Theater, right in the middle of Times Square—not the setting I would have chosen for a conference on trauma and psychotherapy. I arrived 20 minutes early that first morning thinking I would have time to settle in and get some coffee—but the line to get in the door wrapped around three city blocks! I felt like I was in line for a big concert or broadway show.

Inside, the atmosphere was quieter, though there were many more people than I expected. Feeling a little overwhelmed by the sea of strangers, I quietly found a seat in the middle of the crowd and took out my notebook.

I was motivated to attend this conference largely because I’m writing a thesis on somatic/body-based and creative arts approaches to therapy. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the chance to see video footage of therapists working with clients in a particular way, and hearing them then discuss it in person. As someone with a dance background I was excited to hear from Pat Ogden, developer of sensorimotor psychotherapy. We watched a video of her working with a man who was severely depressed and withdrawn, which manifested in his slumped, lethargic posture. Ogden gently encouraged the man to sit up just a little straighter, using the chair for support, and asked him to bring his awareness to how that felt. That little shift was enough to make a difference, even a subtle one, in how he felt—and for someone feeling stuck, that can be powerful. In her presentation, Ogden also discussed an approach in which the therapist and client actually exaggerate a posture further—perhaps really hunching over and slumping—and seeing what emotions and memories come up then. The underlying notion is that posture creates select emotions and behaviors; Ogden uses that to work with past experiences and emotional experiences in the moment.

The three-day conference consisted of 3-4 speakers each day, followed by a group panel to close the day—which was also the only opportunity to ask questions. Each presenter spoke for 90 minutes, so it was a lot of information to absorb! There is no way I can account for all of it here in this short post, though I wish I could. There was such a wealth of material presented, leaving me with many insights and inspirations for further reading, more questions, and some critiques!

The presentations varied widely: some were heavy on the neuroscience, as in Rachel Yehuda’s research on biological changes following trauma and, significantly, following psychotherapeutic treatment. Others were more grounded in the embodied experiential knowledge of the presenter, as in Robin Shapiro’s account of her practices with traumatized patients. For example, though she talked about specific methodologies including EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), she ultimately encouraged treatment professionals to learn all the therapies they can, and then use whatever works best for the particular person in front of them.

Another highlight for me was Daniel Siegel, who spoke beautifully about awareness as a state of connection to a plane of possibility, characterized by a vastness, openness, sense of connection, and deep love. He described the experience of being in this sea of possibility as pure uncertainty; the deep discomfort associated with that is often a barrier to being more connected. But, he said, nothing can take the plane of possibility away from a person—it is there to connect to. There was so much more detail in his presentation—I highly recommend checking out some of his writing and podcasts if you’re interested!

Overall, I feel incredibly lucky to have heard from so many major names in psychotherapy and neuroscience. I was definitely one of the youngest people there, as most attendees were already practicing therapists of some kind. I met some really wonderful people though, and I learned a lot from the people around me in addition to all of the professional speakers. A big thank you to the Patricelli Center for supporting this nourishing experience!