Counselors’ Perceptions of Ethical Considerations for Integrating Neuroscience With Counseling

Chad Luke, Eric T. Beeson, Raissa Miller, Thomas A. Field, Laura K. Jones

As with many advancements in science and technology, ethical standards regarding practice often follow innovation. The integration of neuroscience with counseling is no exception, as scholars are just beginning to identify important ethical concerns related to this shift in the profession. Results of an inductive thematic analysis exploring the perspectives of 312 participants regarding the ethics of integrating neuroscience with counseling are presented. This study is the first of its kind to explore mental health counselors’, counselors-in-training’s, and counselor educators’ perceptions of neuroscience integration. The researchers identified a continuum of concern ranging from no concerns to grave concerns. In addition, they identified four specific ethical quandaries: a) neuroscience does not align with our counselor identity, b) neuroscience is outside the scope of counseling practice, c) challenges with neuroscience and the nature of neuroscience research, and d) potential for harm to clients. Implications include four key considerations for counselors prior to proceeding with integrating neuroscience into practice.

Keywords: neuroscience, integration, counselor identity, ethics, counseling practice


The integration of neuroscience with the mental health professions continues, and with this expansion comes the risks associated with any nascent area of innovation (Luke et al., 2019). Neuroscience integration, as used herein, is understood using Beeson and Field’s (2017) definition of neurocounseling, a synonym for the integration of neuroscience with counseling:

A specialty within the counseling field, defined as the art and science of integrating neuroscience principles related to the nervous system and physiological processes underlying all human functioning into the practice of counseling for the purpose of enhancing clinical effectiveness in the screening and diagnosis of physiological functioning and mental disorders, treatment planning and delivery, evaluation of outcomes, and wellness promotion. (p. 74)

Counselors and the counseling profession, under code C.2.b of the American Counseling Association’s ACA Code of Ethics (2014), are charged with scrutinizing innovations and specialty areas prior to and throughout their use in clinical practice; this is a safeguard to protect clients from risky or poorly evidenced theory or practices. For example, some of these risks, as they pertain to neuroscience (i.e., the study of the brain and central nervous system) and neurobiology (i.e., literally, the biology of the neurons and the nervous system), include accuracy, embellishment, misapplication, and hype (Beeson & Field, 2017; Kim & Zalaquett, 2019; Luke, 2016).

The first and perhaps most salient ethical concern in terms of counseling values is that neuroscience integration is not a unilaterally benevolent addition to counseling (Luke, 2019). Although limited research has focused specifically on mental health counselors, several authors have closely examined the effects of using neurobiological language and frameworks to explain and understand mental health disorders in other mental health fields (Fernandez-Duque et al., 2015; Haslam & Kvaale, 2015; Lebowitz et al., 2015; Luke et al., 2019; Nowack & Radecki, 2018). Haslam and Kvaale (2015) summarized the literature on the effects of brain-based explanations of mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression. Their findings challenge long-held notions that biogenic and neurobiological explanations for mental health and psychopathology are singularly positive. The larger assumption in the profession has been that biomedical explanations can reduce self-blame and public shaming of individuals with substance use and other mental health disorders (Badenoch, 2008; Lebowitz & Appelbaum, 2017). Unfortunately, these biological explanations can at times carry unintended consequences that operate against this positive outcome. Clients may be less likely to invest in psychosocial treatments, believing that while on the one hand their biogenic (i.e., brain-based) condition (e.g., depression) is not their fault, it is also therefore out of their control (Lebowitz & Appelbaum, 2017). In other words, one risk of these biological explanations is that they may reduce outcome expectancy with counseling, while increasing the belief that only biological-based treatments (e.g., psychotropic medication) will work for them.

Mental health providers also seem to be similarly affected by these biased perceptions, at times experiencing less empathy for clients in cases framed as neurobiologically based (Lebowitz & Ahn, 2014). Lebowitz et al. (2015) demonstrated that these negative effects could be mitigated somewhat through training. However, Haslam and Kvaale (2015) asserted that it is imprudent to believe that training is sufficient, because “it is unlikely that all of the ill effects of biogenetic explanation can be reversed simply by educating laypeople about bioscience, or that the fundamental problem is their ignorance of neuroplasticity and epigenesis” (p. 402). It is notable that the research above did not include mental health counselors, so the extension of these concerns to counselors remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the concerns seem warranted regarding the allure of neuroscience conceptualizations (Beeson & Miller, 2019; Field et al., 2019; Luke, 2020). Fernandez-Duque et al. (2015) demonstrated how easily humans can be deceived based on the use of the “prestige of science” hypothesis (p. 926). In a series of experiments, the authors used superfluous neuroscientific jargon and images to fool participants into viewing the content as more veracious. Additionally, concerns about the encroachment of science-based reductionism on the humanistic ethos of counseling has begun to resound through the counseling literature (Beeson, Field, et al., 2019; Beeson & Miller, 2019; Field, 2019; Luke, 2019; Luke et al., 2018). Wilkinson (2018) offered a review of the threats of neuroscience to counseling by highlighting the perceived superiority of objective brain-based methods over the humanistic principles of the counseling profession.

Nowak and Radecki (2018) introduced a special issue in the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research focused on “neuro-mythconceptions.” The authors explored the many ways that neurobiology might be exploited by professionals to justify their current practices. Their concern centered on how plausible neuroscience-based claims can sound. Such plausibility results in professionals passing along dubious information to clients in the name of cutting-edge advances in optimizing human performance. The risk of neuromyths also have been cited in the professions of counseling (Beeson, Kim, et al., 2019; Kim & Zalaquett, 2019) and education (Dekker et al., 2012; Deligiannidi & Howard-Jones, 2015; Gleichgerrcht et al., 2015; Karakus et al., 2015; Macdonald et al., 2017; Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2017; Simmonds, 2014).

Purpose of the Present Study

The potential concerns identified above highlight the need to consider potential ethical implications of counselors integrating neuroscience within their practice. Although ethical concerns regarding the implementation of neuroscience have been referenced anecdotally in conceptual reviews (e.g., Beeson & Miller, 2019; Field, 2019; Luke, 2019; Wilkinson, 2018), no studies were found that explored concerns of the counseling community regarding the broader ethical assumptions about the integration of neuroscience with practice. Therefore, this research is the first to empirically address this critical gap by eliciting the counseling community’s perceptions of ethical concerns related to the integration of neuroscience and counseling. The research question guiding this study explored if counselors perceive ethical concerns pertaining to integrating neuroscience with their counseling practice, and if so, the nature of these concerns.


This study utilized a survey-based qualitative methodology to explore counselors’ perceived ethical concerns regarding the integration of neuroscience with their counseling practice (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). A single open-ended survey question was selected for qualitative data analysis in this study. This question was part of a larger survey examining counselor perceptions of neuroscience and neuroscience integration with counseling. Given the exploratory nature of the study and the current status of neuroscience literature in the counseling profession, a thematic analysis of a single item from a larger survey was chosen. This methodology was best suited to obtain a general, broad understanding of the concerns within the profession. Use of thematic analysis is consistent with other research in which a standardized measure of the construct (i.e., ethical integration of neuroscience with counseling) does not exist (Bengtsson et al., 2007; Donath et al., 2011). A total of 458 participants completed the larger survey, with 312 participants (67.9%) responding to the question, “What ethical concerns do you have regarding the integration of neuroscience into clinical practice (if any)?”


Integration of neuroscience with counseling practice affects multiple professional roles within the counseling profession. As such, the survey was developed for counselors, counselor educators, and counselors-in-training. We sought to gain responses from counseling practitioners, counselor educators and supervisors, and current master’s- and doctoral-level counseling students. Inclusion criteria for the study consisted of at least one of the following: (a) being licensed as a counselor, (b) belonging to a professional counseling organization, (c) being a current student in a counseling program, or (d) being a current faculty member in a counseling program. Participants who did not meet one of these four criteria were excluded from the study.

Participants varied in their educational attainment, with the highest percentage of participants having graduated with their master’s degree and not pursued doctoral study (35.3%, n = 110). This group was followed by master’s-level students (27.2%, n = 85), doctoral-level graduates (22.1%, n = 69), and doctoral-level students (15.4%, n = 48). Most of the sample (81.4%, n = 254) had attended programs accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Many participants (60.9%, n = 190) reported they were exposed to neuroscience in their graduate programs.

The majority of doctoral-level graduates (85.5%, n = 59) were full-time faculty members in counselor education programs. The other 10 doctoral-level graduates were either administrators of clinics, working in private practice, or retired. Of those 59 faculty members, 62.7% (n = 37) provided direct counseling services within the past year. In comparison, 81.0% (n = 205) of the non-faculty participants provided direct counseling services in the past year. When combined, the majority of the sample (77.9%, n = 243) provided direct counseling services within the past year.

The mean number of years of counseling experience was 10.13 years, with a large amount of variance (SD = 10.87). The range for years of experience was 0 to 40 years. Doctoral graduates had the most years of experience on average (M = 19.91, SD = 11.04). They were followed by master’s graduates who were not pursuing doctoral study (M = 11.70, SD = 10.42), doctoral students (M = 7.29, SD = 5.21), and current master’s students (M = 1.74, SD = 4.98). A subset of the sample comprised full-time counselor educator faculty (18.9%, n = 59). Faculty members in the study had more counseling experience (M = 17.83 years, SD = 11.00) than non-faculty participants (M = 8.33, SD = 10.04). No age differences existed by education level. The mean age for the sample was 42.55 years (SD = 13.66) with a range from 21 to 82 years.

Approximately half (54.5%, n = 170) of participants were currently licensed as counselors or psychologists. In addition, 31.1% (n = 97) held the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification. The majority of the sample (87.5%, n = 273) were members of counseling associations. Participants self-reported their gender identity, racial/ethnic identity, age, and number of years of counseling experience. The sample consisted of 73.3% (n = 229) females, 25.0% (n = 78) males, 1.0% (n = 3) non-binary, and 0.6% (n = 2) transgender. One person did not report gender identity. The survey gave participants the option to report multiple racial/ethnic identities. Fifteen percent of participants (n = 48) identified as multiracial, whereas 84.6% identified as Caucasian/White (n = 264, of which 45 were multiracial). Of the remaining participants, 8.0% identified as Asian or Asian American (n = 25, of which 19 were multiracial), 5.4% as African American/Black (n = 17, of which 13 were multiracial), 3.8% as Hispanic or Latinx (n = 12, of which 10 were multiracial), 1.0% as American Indian or Alaskan Native (n = 3, of which three were multiracial), and 0.3% as Arab/Arab American (n = 1, of which zero were multiracial). No participants identified as Pacific Islanders.


The question addressed in this article was drawn from questions used in a larger study that explored training and attitudes related to neuroscience and counseling. The question used in this study was included intentionally as a means to gain a better understanding of perceptions of the ethics of neuroscience integration, recognizing it as a stand-alone construct for the purposes of analysis. The full survey was constructed by the authors, following a thorough review of the literature around the integration of neuroscience in counseling. All survey questions were constructed to conform to Patton’s (2015) conventions and recommendations for qualitative questions, such as using open-ended and neutral questions, asking one question at a time, and avoiding “why” questions. The specific question analyzed and presented in this report was “What ethical concerns do you have regarding the integration of neuroscience into clinical practice (if any)?”

We utilized convenience and snowball sampling to recruit participants, which makes calculating response rate difficult. However, as the purpose of the project was exploratory and the method qualitative, the participants were not intended to be fully representative. The potential response bias inherent to this study could mean that participants were aware to some degree of the status of the profession with regard to integrating neuroscience into clinical practice, both positively and negatively. Following IRB approval, the authors electronically distributed the Survey Monkey–created online survey to the following: neuroscience interest networks in counseling, the counselor education listserv, CESNET-L, and direct emails to colleagues for distribution. A link to the informed consent and full questionnaire was included in the email. Interested participants clicked on the link and were asked to give their consent in order to continue to the survey. Three separate requests for participants were disseminated, with each request coming 2 weeks apart. Participants who completed the survey in full had the option of submitting their email in a separate survey to be included in a drawing for two signed copies of neuroscience in counseling texts.

Role of the Researchers

To limit unconscious bias in the research process, we engaged in discussions throughout survey development, data collection, and data analysis. Such conversations detailed our respective passions, assumptions, histories, and visions of the profession. Several prior assumptions emerged in this recursive process. These ethical concerns largely mirrored the issues raised in existing literature and described in the introduction section of this article. The primary assumption included the belief that incorporating neuroscience into counseling is a largely positive endeavor but that counselors should follow ethical guidelines outlined by professional counseling organizations to avoid ethical concerns related to integration. One author explicitly assumed that participants would generally default to the ACA Code of Ethics in their response, such that responses might begin with, “According to the ACA Code of Ethics regarding new specialty areas of practice. . . .” One author assumed that most participants would preface their response with “It depends on what you mean by ‘integration’” because integration was intentionally undefined in the survey. We continually challenged and actively reflected on these assumptions in order to understand the impact on the authors’ relationship with the data and subsequent themes (Hays et al., 2016; Hunt, 2011). We also engaged in reflective writing, particularly through writing memos (Hunt, 2011), in order to maintain awareness of worldviews and potential for bias in coding. Commonly referred to as reflexivity, this process aided in being transparent about assumptions rather than trying to behave as if any researcher would be able to be free from biases in approaching a set of data (Hays et al., 2016). Additionally, we established an electronic audit trail that enabled returning to the data, tracking the process, and checking that the coding remained close to the words of the participants. Lastly, two of the authors served as auditors for the results, having familiarized themselves with the data, but refraining from engagement in analysis and theme development.

Data Analysis

We selected thematic analysis, grounded in a pragmatist framework (Duffy & Chenail, 2008), to guide the inquiry into perceptions regarding the ethics of integrating neuroscience and counseling. Clarke and Braun (2017) defined thematic analysis as “a method for identifying, analyzing, and interpreting patterns of meaning (‘themes’) within qualitative data” (p. 297). We reviewed literature related to content analysis and thematic analysis and found that there was significant overlap (and sometimes merging) of the two approaches in published literature. Our best understanding of the two related approaches is that they exist on a continuum, with content analysis stopping at the manifest level of analysis and thematic analysis continuing to identify broader meanings. Although we stayed very close to the participants’ responses in coding, we did move beyond content analysis “categories” to extract some inductive-level themes across cases.

We followed Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-phase framework, utilizing an inductive and semantic approach to thematic analysis. Braun and Clarke described these connected approaches to analysis as “a process of coding the data without trying to fit it into a preexisting coding frame, or the researcher’s analytic preconceptions . . . themes are identified within the explicit or surface meanings of the data” (pp. 83–84). Given that the data were obtained through an open-ended survey question versus an in-depth interview protocol that could capture greater context and meaning, we aimed to stay close to participants’ exact words. In this way we resisted the urge to include guesses at participants’ motivations or assumptions as part of themes. The emergent codes and themes reflect an inductive, descriptive account of participants’ perceptions. We followed the subsequent steps in analyzing the data.

The first three authors served as members of the coding team for data analysis. We first familiarized ourselves with the data by reading all responses through several times and taking notes on general observations and personal reactions to the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Afterward, we met via videoconferencing and looked at all the responses together, line by line, to begin identifying initial codes. The average length of responses was one to two sentences; the range of responses was from one word to over 200 words (a paragraph).

We then searched for patterns in the data, noting frequently used words and phrases and commonly expressed ideas. Fourth, we identified connections and grouped codes into preliminary themes. In doing so, we further expanded the overarching themes into subthemes, capturing some of the nuance represented in participants’ responses. We discussed and resolved differences in coding data via consensus.

Fifth, we reviewed the preliminary themes in light of the raw data and the research question, paying particular attention to our own perspectives and values. The third author re-read each participant response and matched each response to one of the theme groups. Parts of responses at times fell into different theme groups. For example, one participant wrote, “Ethical concerns would be keeping into consideration what the clinician’s scope of practice is, the potential for any side effects or results of rapid growth and brain training, and what insurance companies will cover.” The first part was coded in theme 2 (scope of practice) and the second part was coded in theme 4 (potential harm).

The first and second authors worked with the codes and themes in a more abstract and creative manner, developing thematic maps and conceptual continua that reflected relationships between and among participant responses. This process led to combining some themes and changing the title of other themes to better reflect the descriptive accounts of participants. Lastly, in refining the theme list, we discussed theme definitions and final theme names, attempting to capture the nature and essence of each thematic group (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Clarke & Braun, 2017). Clarke and Braun (2017) noted that “each theme has an ‘essence’ or core concept that underpins and unites the observations, much like characters have their own psychological makeup and motivations” (p. 108). In examining these underlying core concepts in our data, we identified questions that seemed to be illuminated through participants’ expressed concerns. As an additional step, we calculated frequency counts to convey the saturation of each theme within the data. Because the purpose of tallying frequencies was to report the strength of qualitative findings rather than to specifically quantify the results, greater weight was given to qualitative data than quantitative frequencies.


In reviewing the conceptual maps of participant responses, it appeared that participants varied in their degree of ethical concerns. To make meaning of this variation, the authors placed responses on a continuum from “none” to “yes.” These items were coded based upon whether an ethical concern was reported and under what conditions the ethical concerns existed. Some participants (4.2%, n = 13) entered “n/a,” but it could not be determined if these responses indicated whether they had any ethical concerns.

Continuum of Ethical Concerns

During the initial review of the data, the authors observed a response range that led to a further analysis of the continuum of responses. Most participants (78.2%, n = 244) indicated some level of ethical concern regarding the integration of neuroscience in counseling. These responses had various degrees of certainty and conditions. Most responses (65.1%, n = 203) fell into the yes, with no conditions grouping. Example responses included: “Deeply concerned” and “There’s a lot of misinformation out there! It’s a complex subject and I have seen varying degrees of ability to explain things easily and correctly. Also I think sometimes people want it to provide answers that it can’t or read more into the research than is truly there.”

The second category identified was yes, if/only (3.5%, n = 11). One example response included in this subtheme was: “I would only be concerned if counselors use their knowledge of the brain to profess some magical or intellectual superiority in controlling a client.” The third category was none, but (3.2%, n = 10). For example, responses included in this subtheme were: “none—except more research is needed,” and “none other than the importance of competence.”

The fourth category we identified was just like any other (3.2 %, n = 10). Some participants indicated that they had ethical concerns that were no different than for other methods of counseling. For example, one participant stated they felt “the same as with any other evidence-based practice: counselors need quality training and an understanding of what it means to be ‘competent.’” A fifth category was unethical not to integrate (3.2%, n = 10). An example response included in this subtheme was: “At this point, it would be unethical NOT to formally integrate these studies” (emphasis in original). Nearly 20% of participants (19.9%, n = 62) believed there were no ethical concerns regarding the integration of neuroscience in counseling. Given the methods of the study, the “n/a” responses were kept separate from the no ethical concerns group, as the analysis aimed to stick close to the participants’ actual words rather than infer their intention. Therefore, “n/a” could have been listed for any number of possible reasons that could not be determined in the current study. These responses were further divided into the following groups: (a) participants who believed there were explicitly no ethical concerns (13.8%, n = 43), (b) participants who believed there were no ethical concerns at the current moment (3.8%, n = 12), and (c) participants who believed there were no ethical concerns as long as certain conditions were met (2.2%, n = 7). This continuum provided a richer understanding of the emergent themes, as discussed below.

Themes of Participant Concerns

     Most participants (78.2%, n = 244) identified ethical concerns. From the continuum above, these are the responses from the following groups: unethical not to integrate; no ethical concerns but; ethical concerns if/only; ethical concerns with no conditions; and ethical concerns just like any other. The analysis of these responses produced a total of four themes and ten subthemes and are summarized in Table 1. The four major themes were: neuroscience does not align with our counselor identity, neuroscience is outside the scope of counseling practice, challenges with neuroscience and the nature of neuroscience research, and potential harm to clients. For each subtheme, response frequencies are reported to provide a contextual understanding of how commonly the theme occurred. Subthemes all were deemed equally meaningful, regardless of the response frequency.

Theme 1: Neuroscience Does Not Align With Our Counselor Identity

     The first theme was reflective of participants’ concerns that integrating neuroscience into counseling might be inherently inconsistent with or even violate counselors’ identity. Specifically, participants emphasized the loss of humanistic principles by either directly using the word “humanistic” or using terms consistent with humanistic principles (e.g., holism, human-first, subjective data, process, compassion, relationship, and wellness). Two subthemes related to the overarching theme were as follows: Subtheme 1.1) overemphasis and/or overreliance (n = 27), and Subtheme 1.2) reductionism and/or determinism (n = 25). These connected, yet discrete, subthemes reflected participants’ particular areas of apprehension. These areas of concern centered on either giving too much weight to biological, brain-based conceptualizations at the cost of clients’ subjective worlds (e.g., “undervalue subjective experience”) or reducing human experience in a way that neglected human agency (e.g., “reducing human experience to just science”).

Theme 2: Neuroscience Is Outside the Scope of Counseling Practice

The second theme was reflective of participants’ reservations that neuroscience was within counselors’ scope of practice based on educational backgrounds, training, knowledge, and/or skills. Three subthemes were identified as follows: Subtheme 2.1) training and education (n = 59), Subtheme 2.2) lack of standards for training and practice (n = 21), and Subtheme 2.3) competence (n = 69). Sample responses from this theme included feeling “woefully untrained.”  Some participants focused more on academic background and elements of training (e.g., continuing education, supervision) as indicative of scope, whereas other participants highlighted counselors’ understanding of neuroscience concepts, focusing more on knowledge and application skills. A smaller group of responses emphasized the absence of current training and/or practice standards (e.g., “inadequate training standards”). This line of responses included concerns around an absence of qualified trainers, certification opportunities, and/or general laws and regulations.

Theme 3: Challenges With Neuroscience and the Nature of Neuroscience Research

The third theme captured participants’ varied reservations about the general field of neuroscience and the accurate translation of neuroscience research into clinical work. Participants expressing concerns in this area seemed to be asking, “How can we be sure this is done right or well?”  Subtheme 3.1, ever-changing and evolving (n = 14), included responses related to challenges counselors might face in staying current with neuroscience findings. These concerns were centered around the vastness of the field and the fast pace at which research is emerging. Subtheme 3.2, quality of research (n = 23), included more critical commentary on the type of research being conducted in the neuroscience field (e.g., relevance of lab-based research to clinical practice, insufficient applied research). Subtheme 3.3, interpreting and applying research (n = 52), emphasized concerns with counselors overstating, speculating, misrepresenting, and misinforming clients of neuroscience research and concepts. Participants voiced concerns with “overhyping findings,” “unknown practical use,” and the “ever-changing and not fully understood” research base.

Theme 4: Potential for Harm to Clients

The fourth theme reflected participants’ concerns that integrating neuroscience into counseling could put clients, and potentially counselors, at risk. A total of 18 participants used the exact phrase “potential harm” or the related idea of informed consent. Fourteen participants referred to concerns with potential harm, and four people noted concerns with informed consent. In Subtheme 4.1, neuroscience information may be intentionally misused in a way that harms clients (n = 21), participants feared counselors deliberately using “embellishment” and “manipulation.” Subtheme 4.2, unintended potential negative side effects (n = 18), reflected ways that integration could inadvertently harm clients or harm counselors These concerns included giving false hope and creating problems with insurance claims to issues with liability and malpractice.


Table 1

Summary and Frequencies of Themes and Subthemes

Theme Subtheme Description Frequency Sample Statements
Theme One: Neuroscience does not align with our counselor identity Sub 1.1 Overemphasis and/or overreliance The integration of neuroscience in counseling may lead to counselors giving preference to non-humanistic aspects of the client and/or the treatment process (e.g., psychopharmacology, science, the brain). n = 27


• Too reliant on brain
• Science over compassion
• Defaulting to neuro
• Brain obsession
• Undervalue subjective
Sub 1.2 Reductionism and/or determinism The integration of neuroscience in counseling may lead to counselors moving away from holistic conceptualizations and limiting human agency.  


n = 25



• Oversimplification
• Takes away focus on
• Reducing human experience
to just science
• Cultural bias
Theme Two: Neuroscience is outside the scope of counseling practice Sub 2.1 Training and education Counselors do not have sufficient training and/or educational backgrounds to ethically integrate neuroscience into counseling practice.  

n = 59


• Insufficient training
• Woefully undertrained
• Not having qualifications
• Scope of training
• No formal supervision
Sub 2.2

Lack of standards for training and practice

There are insufficient standards for guiding the training and practice of neuroscience integration. n = 21 • Lack of laws, regulations, and
• Standards for qualifications
• Qualifications of trainers
Sub 2.3 Competence Counselors are integrating neuroscience into counseling practice without sufficient knowledge and/or skills. n = 69


• Lack of knowledge
• Scope of competence
• Not being informed
• Skill level of clinician
Theme Three: Challenges with neuroscience and the nature of neuroscience research Sub 3.1
Ever-changing and evolving
The field of neuroscience is continuously evolving, serving as a barrier to counselors staying sufficiently up to date to ethically integrate principles into counseling practice. n = 14


• Ever-changing and not totally
• Staying current
• Constantly evolving
• Keeping up to date
• Vastness of the field
Sub 3.2 Quality of research Neuroscience research is often too complex, poorly conducted, and/or insufficient for counselors to apply to their work. n = 23


• More research needed
• Poor research
• Generalizability of research
• Lack of scientific foundation
of knowledge
• Unknown practical use
Sub 3.3 Interpreting and applying research Neuroscience research is being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or inaccurately applied to clinical practice. n = 52


• Accurately interpreting and
• Overstatement
• Misrepresenting science
• Giving incorrect information
Theme Subtheme Description Frequency Sample Statements
Theme Four: Potential for harm to clients Sub 4.1 Manipulation Neuroscience information may be intentionally misused in a way that harms clients.  

n = 21


• Manipulation leading to
• Misuse of knowledge
• Controlling the client
Sub 4.2 Unintended potential negative side effects The integration of neuroscience into counseling may have unintended negative consequences on clients and/or counselors. n = 18


• Jargon alienates – feeling
• Clients misperceiving
counselor identity/role and
not attending other

Note. N = 312



Counselors, counselor educators, and counselors-in-training reported a wide range of ethical concerns regarding the integration of neuroscience with clinical practice. These concerns largely reflected existing ethical guidelines (ACA, 2014) and existing literature related to neuroscience and counseling (e.g., Beeson & Miller, 2019; Field, 2019; Luke, 2019; Wilkinson, 2018). We developed four primary themes through the data analysis process. In reviewing these themes, we identified questions that participants seem to be asking through their expressed concerns. Each of the themes shared a meaningful connection, through implication and association, with major sections of the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014). These connections are discussed below.

Theme 1: Neuroscience Does Not Align With Our Counselor Identity

Humanistic concerns in this theme reflect counselor concerns that the integration of neuroscience may shift the profession away from wellness and focus on pathology. As already noted, other scholars have shared this concern (Wilkinson, 2018). However, other authors have alluded to the possibility for neuroscience to expand rather than reduce the client experiences and actually enhance counselor identity (Beeson, Field, et al., 2019; Beeson & Miller, 2019; Field et al., 2019; Ivey & Daniels, 2016).

Humanistic concerns are consistent with criticisms in the literature regarding essentialism (Schultz, 2018). Essentialism, in particular Schultz’s neuroessentialism, is the process of reducing individuals down to mere brain function. This position reflects the positivist, materialist approach to science in general and neuroscience in particular. All human experience is based in neurobiological process (Kalat, 2019), which can feel deterministic and therefore diminish the hope that counselors are called to instill (Schwartz et al., 2016). This theme aligns with several ACA ethical codes, including counselor professional identity and values (Beeson & Miller, 2019). However, influential scholars in the counseling profession have elevated how neuroscience is an extension of the wellness perspective, akin to the professional identity of the counseling profession (Cashwell & Sweeney, 2016; Ivey et al., 2017; Russell-Chapin, 2016). Whereas this theme indicates that some counselors believe neuroscience poses ethical risks to professional identity, the reality remains unclear.

Theme Two: Neuroscience Is Outside the Scope of Counseling Practice

Concerns regarding the requisite knowledge or expertise of counselors aligns well with two specific ACA ethical code standards in this regard: C.2.a. Boundaries of Competence and C.2.b. New Specialty Areas of Practice. This theme assumes that there is a standard of competence that exists. In order for a counselor to be competent, there must be a standard to which they are compared. However, what qualifies a counselor to be competent integrating neuroscience is unclear. There are a few neuroscience-related standards outlined in the American Mental Health Counseling Association (AMHCA) Standards for the Practice of Clinical Mental Health Counseling (2020) pertinent to biological bases of behavior and CACREP practice standards (2015) pertinent to neurobiology. However, these standards are not widely known among counselors and lack recommendations for implementation (Beeson, Field, et al., 2019). This lack of explicit direction is similar to concerns regarding the implementation of other counseling standards, such as the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (Ratts et al., 2016).

Theme Three: Challenges With Neuroscience and the Nature of Neuroscience Research

The third theme highlighted the concern that understanding and applying the body of literature that undergirds integration are essential (Field et al., 2019; Luke, 2019). Neuroscience literature is ever-changing, ever-evolving. This rapid pace of change creates two challenges for counselors. First, counselors could have difficulty staying abreast of the state of the art of integration, leading to the potential for using outdated information in practice. Second, counselors might integrate early findings too quickly before there is enough evidence to support their integration. The quality of neuroscience-related research also appears to be a barrier to integration in that counselors may struggle to discern high-quality research from low-quality research (Gruber, 2017; Kim & Zalaquett, 2019). Related to this, counselors face the challenge of accurately interpreting and applying relevant research for practice. Results indicate a primary concern related to issues of accuracy, leading to misapplication, overstating implications, and misinforming clients. This concern is elevated by other research warning against presumed superiority in neuroscience research, given the potential for neuroscience to seduce, allure, and enchant consumers of literature (Coutinho et al., 2017; Lilienfeld, 2014; Weisberg et al., 2008). Concerns regarding the accuracy of neuroscience knowledge among counselors also have been cited (Kim & Zalaquett, 2019). However, counselors in at least one study indicated more accurate neuroscience knowledge and average endorsement of neuromyths when compared to educators, undergraduate students, and coaches (Beeson, Kim, et al., 2019).

These concerns align with several ACA ethical codes, including Section C: Professional Responsibility (2014). When counselors practice based on emergent literature with which they are only superficially familiar, they risk miscommunication with clients and damaging the veracity and integrity of the profession as it relates to client care. This finding is consistent with previous research (Bott et al., 2016; Luke, 2016) that highlights the risk of using information without great care.

Theme Four: Potential for Harm to Clients

The fourth theme has the highest salience for the profession, as safeguarding client safety and welfare are paramount (Kaplan et al., 2017). Results indicated that manipulation is a real concern among participants. Manipulation can occur through misuse, misrepresentation, embellishment, and controlling of clients through invoking neuroscience (Bott et al., 2016). Respondents reported that the actions leading to client harm may be overt. For example, in a desperate attempt to instill hope in a client, a counselor might overstate the concept of neuroplasticity. Similarly, in an effort to present as more competent than perhaps they feel, a counselor might use neuroscience-laden language with clients, resulting in alienation (Lebowitz et al., 2015). Harm may also occur through unintended consequences of integration. Clients may experience negative side effects such as false hope, deflected responsibility, and forgoing medical consultation. Similar concerns have been found in recent literature (Haslam & Kvaale, 2015; Lebowitz & Applebaum, 2017). These authors note that although on the surface integration seems positive, harm is possible. This underscores the purpose and importance of the ACA Code of Ethics regarding new specialty areas: “Counselors practice in specialty areas new to them only after appropriate education, training, and supervised experience. While developing skills in new specialty areas, counselors take steps to ensure the competence of their work and protect others from possible harm” (ACA, 2014, C.2.b).


As with any qualitative data analysis, transferability is limited. The authors obtained the data from an online survey, using a convenience and snowball sampling method. Therefore, respondents may have had strong opinions regarding neuroscience and not necessarily be representative of the profession. Another limitation was the use of a single, open-ended question that did not allow for an in-depth follow-up. We made conservative inferences regarding the meaning and intent of the data in the discussion. However, interviews would have allowed for more context into participants’ answers. This has long been viewed as a threat to trustworthiness and transferability (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2018). The structure of the survey in general and the question also could have influenced this result. For example, there was insufficient information available from the responses to know respondent motivation for “n/a” or “none” responses. Although it is likely that respondents did not feel they had enough information to identify ethical concerns, other reasons for such a response are also possible. White females also were overrepresented in the survey sample. This representation is consistent with surveys of CACREP-accredited graduate programs, in which White females are also overrepresented in student and faculty composition (CACREP, 2017). The findings from this study may have been different had the sample been more diverse. The voice of counselors-in-training may be overrepresented in the data. This may also reflect the increasing interest in new counselors-in-training and counselor educators–in–training of neuroscience-informed counseling (Beeson, Field, et al., 2019; Kim & Zalaquett, 2019).

Implications for Practice and Research

This research highlights the need for continued debate and evolution of who we are as counselors and what role neuroscience integration plays in our professional identity, training, and practice. Remaining silent runs the risk of counselors indiscriminately, and perhaps unethically, integrating neuroscience without adequate consideration to counselor professional identity (Luke, 2020). Forgoing these discussions also introduces the risk that counselors may not ensure that such integration enhances rather than detracts from our professional identity. Failing to do so would further support concerns described in 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling (Kaplan & Gladding, 2011). The concerns highlight the consistent trend that best practices tend to be “dictated to counselors by other mental health professions” (p. 371).

A second implication is the need to clarify counselors’ scope of practice with regard to neuroscience. Only one comprehensive set of standards related to neuroscience currently exists (AMHCA, 2020). Yet even with these standards there is little awareness or training around application. Understanding scope will support preventing client harm by ensuring the previous themes are addressed. In this way, counselors will better understand the strengths and limitations of integrating neuroscience information with practice. Further, counselors should continue to practice humility regarding neuroscience evidence. In doing so, they will ensure that they also will be maintaining values (e.g., humanistic orientation) that are hallmarks of the counseling profession.

The results of this study highlight the need for more training in accessing, interpreting, and being current in neuroscience research. This focus includes the need to increase resources to support high-quality neuroscience-based studies in counseling. As scholars have asserted (e.g., Myers & Young, 2012), neuroscience provides a unique strategy to evaluate the outcomes of counseling services. The challenge, as we demonstrate in this article, is how the profession moves forward in view of these ethical standards. It is one thing to assert that counselors operate only within their scope of competence. It is another thing to articulate and circumscribe the limits of competence in an emergent area like neuroscience.

Determining ethical concerns regarding the integration of neuroscience in counseling requires several professional milestones to be met. This could begin with consensus building in the profession regarding neuroscience and counselor scope of practice. To accomplish this step, counselors need to define what it means to integrate neuroscience with practice. As noted in the current study, participants relied on their own operationalization of the integration of neuroscience. The resulting data seemed to indicate that most viewed this integration as neuroeducation (Miller, 2016) or technical applications (e.g., neurofeedback). Many have expressed more broad integration of neuroscience (e.g., Field et al., 2019) as a means to conceptualize client experiences and guide the selection and timing of various techniques.

Next, once integration is defined, there needs to be a clear standard for the training and practice of all master’s-level students (e.g., how much neuroscience does a master’s-level counselor need to know?). In addition, standards for advanced practice postgraduation also require consideration. It is unrealistic to think that master’s-level programs can prepare counselors to be experts in any area of practice, including neuroscience. As such, the profession also needs to define how much training is enough to ethically practice technology-based (e.g., neurofeedback) and non–technology-based (e.g., using to guide case conceptualization and treatment planning) integration. In doing so, counseling will create the scope of practice that can be used as a gauge of competence and limit risks to practicing outside of one’s scope.

Lastly, the counseling profession needs to develop an intentional research effort to validate training standards and therapeutic outcomes related to integration. Additional research is needed before we can appropriately discern future directions of integration. The current paucity of neuroscience literature in the counseling profession is concerning. Of particular concern is the lack of empirical and outcomes-based articles. The lack of training in how to design and evaluate research using emerging paradigms, such as the National Institutes of Health’s Research Domain Criteria, further isolates counselors from participating in national discourse regarding the future classification of mental functioning and mental health diagnoses. As the profession accomplishes these tasks, we will promote ethical care, limit the potential for harm, and ultimately advance the profession as a whole.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Chad Luke, PhD, NCC, MAC, ACS, LPC/MHSP, is an associate professor at Tennessee Tech University. Eric T. Beeson, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPC, CRC, is a core faculty member at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Raissa Miller, PhD, LPC, is an assistant professor at Boise State University. Thomas A. Field, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, ACS, LPC, LMHC, is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Laura K. Jones, PhD, MS, is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Correspondence may be addressed to Chad Luke, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Tennessee Tech University, P.O. Box 5031, Cookeville, TN 38505,

Neuroscience for Counselors: Recommendations for Developing and Teaching a Graduate Course

Deborah L. Duenyas, Chad Luke


In recent decades, professional counselors have increasingly focused on neuroscience to inform their case conceptualization and treatment planning with clients. With the additional lens of neuroscience, both the counselor and client can gain new understandings of the client’s issues and improve the quality of the therapeutic relationship. The benefits of integrating neuroscience into the profession of counseling (i.e., neuroscience-informed counseling) are being documented in the scholarly literature; however, information on integrating neuroscience-informed counseling into the counselor education curriculum is sparse. This article describes one teaching approach for a neuroscience-informed counseling course. The structure of the course, methods for effective instruction, and ethical and cultural considerations are discussed.


Keywords: neuroscience, counselor education, teaching, neuroscience-informed, instruction



Neuroscience-informed counseling is a growing force in the counseling profession (Beeson & Field, 2017). The integration of neuroscience into the profession of counseling has been evident over the past two decades. Examples include the development of neuroscience interest networks by the American Counseling Association (ACA), the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES). There have been numerous books published that focus on neuroscience for counselors (Field, Jones, & Russell-Chapin, 2017; Luke, 2019) and an increased amount of scholarly literature focused on integrating neuroscience into counseling practice (Beeson & Field, 2017; Lorelle & Michel, 2017; Luke, Redekop, & Jones, 2018; Makinson & Young, 2012; Miller, 2016; Myers & Young, 2012).


Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system (Kalat, 2019). Neuroscience-informed counseling involves integrating principles from the structure and function of the brain and nervous system to counseling practice (Russell-Chapin, 2016). This integrative work in counseling is being used to treat behavioral and mental health challenges (Field et al., 2017). According to Beeson and Field (2017), neurocounseling is a


specialty within the counseling field, defined as the art and science of integrating neuroscience
principles related to the nervous system and physiological processes underlying all human
functioning into the practice of counseling for the purpose of enhancing clinical effectiveness in the
screening and diagnosis of physiological functioning and mental disorders, treatment planning
and delivery, evaluation of outcomes, and wellness promotion. (p. 74)


Three methods for integrating neuroscience into the counseling profession have been identified in the scholarly literature, including neuroeducation (Fishbane, 2013), neurofeedback (Myers & Young, 2012), and the use of a metaphor-based approach (Luke, 2016).


The first method, neuroeducation, is defined by Miller (2016) as “a didactic or experiential-based intervention that aims to reduce client distress and improve client outcome by helping clients understand the neurological processes underlying mental functioning” (p. 105). Neuroeducation is essentially psychoeducation about the brain and nervous system. Neuroeducation can be used as an intervention to help clients understand the neurological processes that underlie their symptoms and development (Miller, 2016). Miller described various methods for integrating neuroeducation into counseling practice through the use of information on neuroplasticity, brain structures and functions, and memories.


     Plasticity is an object’s or organism’s ability to stretch and to be resilient. As applied to the brain and central nervous system, this is called neuroplasticity or neural plasticity, and involves “changes in the activity and connectivity of the various circuits within the nervous system [that] enable learning, encode memory, and drive behavior” (Li, Park, Zhong, & Chen, 2019, p. 44). Information on neuroplasticity and self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior may help demystify change processes.


Informing clients about the various brain structures and functions (e.g., brain stem, limbic, and cortical regions) can help with understanding the brain from a developmental perspective—that the brain is built to change and to be resilient (Luke, 2019). Educating clients about how their memories are encoded, stored, and accessed, drawn from the groundbreaking work of Eric Kandel (1976), can help clients gain a better understanding of their own brain and behavior (Miller, 2016). This knowledge can instill hope that although events of the past cannot be changed, the meaning of the memories associated with those events can be changed (Sweatt, 2016). Furthermore, the relational context in which change takes place can help clients’ brains overwrite rigid rules and threats about relationships learned from earlier dysfunctional relationships (Kandel, Dudai, & Mayford, 2014; Schore, 2010; Siegel, 2015).


A second method, neurofeedback, has been recognized as an effective treatment for reducing symptoms of various mental health concerns (Russell-Chapin, 2016). A specialized form of biofeedback, neurofeedback changes brain wave patterns to aid in the treatment of conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, autism spectrum disorders, and personality disorders (Russell-Chapin, 2016). Neurofeedback is just one method that counselors can use with clients to help them understand and change the function of their brains. Additional examples include basic biofeedback tools and methods like those found on many “smart” watches and fitness trackers.


The third method for integrating neuroscience-informed counseling is described by Michael and Luke (2016) as using a metaphor-based approach to teaching the neuroscience of play therapy. This approach is an extension and application of that described in Luke (2016), wherein neuroscience concepts are used both as metaphors for the human experience, as well as understanding brain function. Tay (2017a) has identified the therapeutic value of metaphor and its utility in understanding language and the body. Relatedly, the practices of mindfulness and meditation often use imagery, a form of metaphor, to engage practitioners in engaging more fully in the experience (Tang, Hölzel, & Posner, 2015). As neuroscience-informed counseling continues to become integrated into the work of professional counselors, counselor educators must adapt in order to keep their coursework relevant.


Counselor Education and Neuroscience-Informed Counseling


Beeson and Field (2017), along with others (Field et al., 2017; Luke, 2017; Miller, 2016) have called for more training for counselors who seek to integrate neuroscience into their practice. They also have identified the challenges associated with infusing neuroscience into counseling courses. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2015) standards now require competency in “the biological, neurological, and physiological factors that affect human development, functioning, and behavior” (p. 10). CACREP standards, along with growing momentum in the field, support the development of a course designed specifically for integrating neuroscience for counselors. The AMHCA clinical training standards include recommendations for competence in understanding and applying the biological bases of behavior. The AMHCA standards outline basic knowledge and skills, which include integrating research into practice, as well as clinical interventions.


Field et al. (2017) laid a foundation for incorporating neuroscience-informed counseling across the CACREP curriculum. This approach addresses neuroscience in pre-existent courses, yet there is limited availability of literature on how to teach a graduate content course in neuroscience-informed counseling. In the absence of established models for teaching a course in neuroscience-informed counseling, counselor educators and others can feel at a loss for how to proceed. The purpose of this article is to provide recommendations for developing a neuroscience-informed counseling course designed for graduate students. This includes the course structure (e.g., content and resources), methods for effective instruction (e.g., teaching approach and assignments), and ethical considerations.


Course Structure: Content and Resources


The Neuroscience for Counselors course builds on prior core counseling courses, including counseling theories and the fundamentals of counseling. As such, it represents an extension of counseling theory and fundamentals and is not intended to be a substitute or replacement. Neuroscience-informed counseling explores how different counseling theories and interventions influence and change neurobiology and help facilitate client wellness.


The Neuroscience for Counselors course was offered to master’s students enrolled in a CACREP-accredited counseling program at a mid-size university in the northeast region of the United States. The course was offered as an elective that fulfilled three graduate credits toward degree completion. The course was designed as an introduction to neuroscience research and clinical interventions for counselors. Specific attention was given to reviewing the structures, systems, and functions of the brain. Psychodynamic, behavioral, humanistic, and constructivist counseling theories were explored in relation to neuroscience research. The neuroscience of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, stress, and addictions and substance use, were explored.


Course assignments included developing a neuroscience-informed guided metaphor; completing a brain resource book on structures, systems, and functions; dyads to practice using neuroscience-informed counseling interventions; reflection in a neuroscience process analysis log (N-PAL); and activities exploring neuroscience-informed technology. A final paper included a case conceptualization based on the 8-factor meta-model (Luke, 2017, 2019) of case conceptualization to explore their client’s presenting concerns.


The assigned textbook for this course was Luke’s (2016) Neuroscience for Counselors and Therapists: Integrating the Sciences of Mind and Brain, which focuses on client conceptualization, brain anatomy, various theoretical approaches, and an array of commonly diagnosed mental health concerns. The text also provides case vignettes highlighting how a student might use neuroscience-informed counseling interventions with a diverse population of clients. The first chapter of the text discusses ethical and philosophical issues related to integration. Chapter 2 presents an overview of the basic brain structures, systems, and functions, including neurons and synapses. Chapters 3 through 6 cover the major categories of counseling theories: psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic-existential, and postmodern and constructivist. Chapters 7 through 10 describe conceptualizing and treating anxiety, depression, stress-related disorders, and substance use disorders. The text is written for counselors and counselors-in-training who have little or no background in the physiological bases of behavioral and mental health concerns.


     The course instructor provided supplemental material, including magazine articles, peer-reviewed journal publications, apps, videos, websites, and links to neuroscience interest networks. For example, students were provided a link to the Neuroscience News website, which is an independent science news website that offers free cognitive science research papers, neuroscience resources, and a science social network. Also included were links to the Dana Foundation, an organization that supports brain research via grants, publications, and education, and the ACA’s Neurocounseling Interest Network. The supplemental material was selected as a method to broaden student understanding and support knowledge acquisition in neuroscience.


Methods: Teaching Approach and Assignments


Experiential education is not a new approach in higher education. Educational psychologists in the past, such as John Dewey (1938), Carl Rogers (1969), and David Kolb (1984), have laid the groundwork for the development of contemporary experiential education. Kolb (1984) defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (p. 41). The Association for Experiential Education (AEE; 2019a) defined experiential education as a teaching philosophy “in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities” (para. 1). In essence, experiential education is the process of learning through experience and reflection.


Methods of instruction in the Neuroscience for Counselors course were consistent with the 12 principles of practice outlined by the AEE (2019b). For example, class assignments provided students with the opportunity for reflection, critical thinking, and personal application. The instructor’s teaching roles included “setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process” (AEE, 2019b, para. 9). Sakofs (2001) cautioned that experiential activities can be misused by educators as a form of entertainment with no real educational value. The following six assignments were designed with the intention to deepen students’ understanding of neuroscience concepts as they relate to the profession of counseling.


Six Neuroscience Course Assignments

     Developing a neuroscience-informed guided metaphor. Historically, neuroscience has been considered the realm of the medical professional or psychiatrist who has studied the complex inner workings of the brain. Developing a neuroscience-informed guided metaphor provides counseling students the experiential opportunity of taking an unfamiliar concept or idea (i.e., using neuroscience-informed counseling) and making it more accessible by relating it to ideas they are already familiar with (Jamrozik, McQuire, Cardillo, & Chatterjee, 2016; Lawson, 2005). For this assignment, students were assigned to read the article “The Birth of the Neuro-counselor?” (Montes, 2013), in which the term neurocounselor was first used. The article introduces and encourages students to begin thinking about what it means to use neuroscience-informed counseling in practice and how it influences their professional identity as a counselor.


After reading the article, students illustrated a guided metaphor that could be used to inform their model of neuroscience-informed counseling practice. Students were provided with the prompt, “Neuroscience-informed counseling is _________” and then asked to fill in the blank with a noun. Students included a paragraph explaining their choice in metaphor and how they came to make that decision. Students were asked to share their metaphors with their peers in class. A student’s illustration could be a visual representation, in writing, or a combination of both. Metaphor is, simply put, the practice of describing one thing in terms of another (Tay, 2017b). More specifically, the use of metaphor increases understanding of a less well-understood concept or idea by describing it in terms of something that is better understood. In the assignment described above, students generated metaphors such as “neuroscience-informed counseling is the first mission to the moon,” “neuroscience-informed counseling is a penlight in a dark maze,” and “neuroscience-informed counseling is a puzzle” to be solved. Lawson (2005) extolled the virtues of metaphors in counseling, noting that they “can help the counselor connect to the client’s world” (p. 135). The use of neuroscience metaphors, whether generated by the client or the counselor, can aid in promoting empathy and therefore trust (Luke, 2017) and can aid in learning neuroscience concepts (Michael & Luke, 2016). For example, in the wildly popular “I Had a Black Dog, His Name Was Depression” World Health Organization video on YouTube (over 9 million views as of this writing), depression is compared to a black dog that affects every facet of an individual’s life (World Health Organization, 2012). The metaphor works by comparing an abstract concept like depression with something concrete like a black dog. It enables the client to experience their depression as something happening to them, not emerging from their core self. When incorporated with relevant neuroscience information, the metaphor takes on increased significance. This black dog hijacks a person’s will, leaving them with diminished options for meaningful action.


Developing metaphors for the counselor’s roles when using neuroscience-informed counseling can clarify and strengthen counselor identity. When introducing this assignment, it is important to note that neuroscience-informed counseling is not its own therapeutic orientation. Whereas many graduate counseling programs have courses focused on advanced therapeutic orientations, such as solution-focused therapy or motivational interviewing, a course in neuroscience for counselors can strengthen a counselor’s current theoretical framework (Luke, 2017). For example, counselors practicing cognitive behavior therapy who learn about Hebb’s rule (1949), which states that “neurons that fire together wire together,” along with the concept of neuroplasticity, have another avenue of support for clients working to make positive behavioral changes. In this example, neuroscience can help the client gain awareness of the neurological structures that reinforce their behavior and also provide hard evidence that change is possible (Li et al., 2019). Neuroscience-informed counseling is one of many tools in the counselor toolbox. In addition to conceptualizing neuroscience-informed counseling as part of their professional identity, students also learn content knowledge of the brain’s structures, systems, and functions.


     Brain structures, systems, and functions book. This assignment required students to research the basic structures, systems, and functions of the human brain and design their own book. The instructor provided students black and white images of various structures of the brain discussed in the class textbook. Images included lateral and dorsal views of the brain, the two hemispheres of the brain, the three divisions of the brain (i.e., forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain), the four lobes of the brain (i.e., frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal), the anatomy of a neuron, and a stem chart of the nervous system tasks, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system functions. This approach is supported by works such as the Wammes, Meade, and Fernandes (2016) investigation of the neural processes of storing and retrieving memory. The authors found that drawing important words and phrases improves one’s ability to remember important concepts. Students were asked to use various mediums, including colored pencils, crayons, and markers, to label and highlight the different neuroanatomy. Students also were asked to use their class textbook to write descriptions of the functions of these parts of the brain within their assignment.


Mental health diagnoses can be intimidating for clients, as can the symptoms of a disorder. Anchoring a client’s experience in their neurobiology can increase their understanding of what is happening. Basic neuroscience information can empower them to learn more about, and in some ways objectify, their experience. In other words, knowledge of the underlying brain function can encourage clients to reflect on mind and body and how they interact. For example, depression is a result of brain function, but the choices an individual makes in response can be a function of the mind. In practice, clients can be led through the process of identifying brain function and mind function.


The brain structures, systems, and functions book assignment helps to empower students by providing them with the language and imagery surrounding neuroanatomy. Once counselors feel confident in their knowledge of basic brain regions and systems they can use it to empower clients by providing them a physiological explanation of their experiences. For example, knowledge about the autonomic nervous system can help a client struggling with generalized anxiety disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control, with symptoms that might include restlessness, feeling on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty with concentration, muscle tension, and sleep disruptions. Clients struggling with generalized anxiety disorder can feel as if they are in a constant state of emergency. Understanding how the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for emergencies can help a client understand what they are experiencing at a physiological level. This can make them more receptive to interventions that activate their parasympathetic nervous system functions and move them from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” Once students in the course obtained content knowledge regarding the brain’s structures, systems, and functions, they applied that knowledge in dyads.


     Dyads. Experiential learning takes careful planning, structuring of lessons, and intentionality in teaching practices (AEE, 2019). Experiential activities such as dyads can help students learn the material through the act of “doing.” Tollerud and Vernon (2011) described the benefits of experiential learning as “promoting interest in a topic, supporting student retention of the material, and involving students in their education” (p. 285).


Luke (2017) outlined neuroscience concepts that can be used as interventions with clients
(e.g., memory systems, Hebb’s rule, left and right brain processing, mirror neurons, attention, and mindfulness). In the neuroscience course, students practiced discussing neuroscience concepts in dyads where they took turns acting as counselor and client. The neuroscience concepts coincided with Chapters 3–10 in the textbook. This provided practice for students using the neuroscience concepts with specific theoretical approaches (e.g., contemporary psychodynamic, behavioral approaches, humanistic approaches, and constructivist approaches), but also could align with a particular mental health diagnosis (e.g., anxiety, depression, stress disorders, and substance use disorders). For example, discussion about Hebb’s rule may apply to counselors working from a behavioral approach or counselors working with clients struggling with specific issues such as substance use.


The instructor provided a dyad prompt for students relating to the chapter material for that class session. For instance, the prompt for Chapter 3, Contemporary Psychodynamic Approaches and Neuroscience, was, “Tell me more about your early memories pertaining to key relationships (i.e., parents, siblings, guardians)” and “How do you feel these early memories influence your key relationships today?” The discussion prompt provided the student counselor an avenue to discuss the neuroscience concepts identified in the chapter (i.e., relationships in the brain/interpersonal neurobiology, consciousness, and memory systems) with their mock client. Students were graded on their ability to use the neuro-concepts and attend to their fundamental counseling skills (e.g., unconditional positive regard and empathy).


The dyad activities also highlight the positive benefits of right hemisphere to right hemisphere connections validated through neuroscience. According to Badenoch (2008), right hemisphere to right hemisphere connections are at the root of change, as interpersonal connections are rooted in the neural processes of the right hemisphere. Practicing mock counseling sessions provides students the opportunity to develop healthy relationships with their peers in class. This experience can later become a parallel process by which they use the positive experience in class with their future clients.


In counseling, two approaches parallel the class experience. In the first, counselors can apply the same material described above with their clients, using process-based psychoeducation. For example, the counselor can present information on the neurobiology and role of early memories, relationships (past and present), and consciousness/unconsciousness in the client’s depression. They can then ask the questions described above directly to the client. The second approach involves a Gestalt technique wherein the client’s depression, their brain, and the client themselves all sit together in the room. The client is guided through a discussion with these constituent parts in order to better understand the role that each plays in the living of the client’s life. As students completed each dyad, a system was created for them to reflect on their experience as described below.


     The N-PAL (Neuroscience-Personal Analysis Log). According to Faiver, Brennan, and Britton (2012), the purpose of a personal analysis log (PAL) “is to help students track their progress over the semester in terms of self-awareness and comfort level with the counseling process” (pp. 292–293). Students completed nine neuroscience personal analysis logs (N-PALS) throughout the course. Entries were made in class after each dyad. Students were given the opportunity to analyze and express their feelings in relation to the dyad activities and course material. The purpose of the N-PAL was to help students reflect on their counseling work while integrating neuroscience concepts into the mock counseling sessions with their classmates.


N-PALs consisted of five questions: (a) On a scale from 1–10, how confident do you feel applying the assigned theoretical approach for this dyad? (b) On a scale from 1–10, how confident did you feel using neuroscience concepts in this dyad? (c) What were some new areas of growth and development during this dyad? (d) Assess your own performance during this dyad and provide specific examples, and (e) What is your reaction to the course material (i.e., assigned reading, class lecture, videos, discussion)? The N-PAL’s structure is consistent with the experiential education principle, which states that experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative and make decisions and be accountable for results (AEE, 2019). The questions were developed to encourage students to reflect on their dyadic experiences and think critically about their neuroscience-informed interventions while being held accountable for areas of growth and development.


     Exploring neuroscience-informed technology. With the increased focus on neuroscience in popular culture and media, there has been an influx of new neuroscience-informed technology. Students were asked to find three technological tools that could inform their neuroscience-informed clinical work. The tools were to fall into three distinct categories: one app (e.g., mindfulness, anxiety, or brain information app), one video (e.g., YouTube, TedTalk), and one technological application (e.g., pulse oximeter, biofeedback equipment, EEG reader). After identifying the neuroscience-informed technology tools, students posted on an online discussion board describing how they would use their identified tools in a counseling session.


There is an abundance of neuroscience-informed technology on the market today. Counselors recommending meditation apps or assorted TedTalks to their clients may be using this technology without awareness of their neuroscientific implications. Counselors do not have to work from memory alone but can take advantage of the growing number of resources available today (e.g., journal articles, books, apps, videos). Counselors who take advantage of resources also must be savvy consumers. For example, prior to recommending apps or videos to clients with neuroscience-related material, counselors should check the source to confirm it is reputable and use the material themselves. Whereas the neuroscience-informed technology discussion post helped to build awareness of technological tools, the final case conceptualization paper served to showcase the content students gained throughout the course.


     Case conceptualization. As a summative assignment, students completed a three-part case write-up that demonstrated their ability to conceptualize client issues and apply neuroscience-informed interventions. The instructor provided students with a fictional client case vignette, including biopsychosocial information. The first part of the assignment required students to use an 8-factor meta-model (Luke, 2017, 2019) to conceptualize their client’s case. This 8-factor model is a holistic model identifying eight components that every counselor must consider when working with clients: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, environments, experiences, biology and genetics, relationships, and the socio-cultural context in which the client lives.


Students were asked to include neuro-concepts in their discussion of each of the factors. For example, if the student identified that the client was experiencing anxious thoughts, they would include a description of how the amygdala modulates the client’s reactions to events perceived as dangerous or scary. This part of the assignment demonstrated the counseling student’s mastery of case conceptualization in conjunction with their understanding of how neuroscience concepts can influence the client’s symptoms.


The second part required students to review their conceptualization and write a phenomenological description of the client across the eight factors of the model. A phenomenological description provides an opportunity for students to consider, beyond the prescribed clinical note, what it might be like to “walk in this client’s shoes.” Writing a phenomenological description uses right-brain processing skills of creativity and intuitiveness. Although the description is the student’s interpretation of the client’s experience, the exercise can strengthen skills in empathic awareness and creative thinking. Thinking about the phenomenology of a client (i.e., what would it be like to walk in the client’s shoes?) can deepen therapeutic rapport, strengthen conceptualization skills, and help build empathy.


The third part of the assignment was for students to select a theoretical approach, along with a rationale for their choice, and create a transcript of a session with the client. The transcript had to include a brain-based counseling intervention (e.g., discussion about Hebb’s rule, neuroplasticity, or memory storage). Neuroscience is an essential tool for helping clients understand what is happening to them. For example, a client who has suffered a trauma and is struggling to understand why they cannot remember events clearly may find respite in knowledge regarding how traumatic memories are stored in their brain. Knowledge about neuroscience can help normalize and validate clients’ experiences.


In summary, six assignments were described above: neuroscience-informed guided metaphor; brain systems, structures, and functions book; dyads; the N-PAL; exploring neuroscience-informed technology; and a case conceptualization paper. The assignments were developed to build students’ understanding of the material and improve their ability to integrate neuroscience into their case conceptualization, treatment planning, and counseling skills. With the growth of neuroscience integration into the counseling profession, best practice dictates that ethical and cultural considerations are addressed.


Ethical Considerations


With nascent developments in the counseling profession, such as neuroscience-informed counseling, come potential risks to clients’ well-being. The ACA Code of Ethics (2014) states that “Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience” (Standard C.2.a). Scholarly literature has recognized the need for professional counselors to work within their scope of practice (Luke, 2019). As the counseling profession continues to integrate neuroscience into practice, the boundaries of that practice are not always clear. For instance, at what level of integration must counselors be educated in neuroscience explicitly? Who governs the practice of integration and ensures that counselors are following best practice, especially when best practice has not been established?


Each of the three areas described above—neuroeducation, neurofeedback, and metaphor—present distinct ethical challenges. Neuroeducation, like psychoeducation, can become too didactic and place counselors in the role of content expert, as opposed to process expert. It may be easy for counselors to share brain information with their clients, becoming dependent on sharing facts instead of sharing a process. Studies have demonstrated the potential for harm in the helping relationship when clients view helpers as aloof related to neuro-speak, as clients may feel powerless to change their neurobiology (Kim, Ahn, Johnson, & Knobe, 2016; Lebowitz & Ahn, 2014).


Neurofeedback can require advanced knowledge in technological interventions. For example, neurofeedback often requires the use of technological equipment to read and equalize brainwave activity. The Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (n.d.) offers a training program specifically for neurofeedback certification. With certification comes a level of oversight and guidance that promotes proper training of practitioners. However, certification is not a legal requirement to use neurofeedback in counseling practice. Therefore, what is a counselor’s ethical responsibility to acquire education in the use of neurofeedback equipment with clients? How much education is enough to be considered competent? Also, in terms of counselor identity, can neurofeedback be considered counseling or is it an adjunct to counseling?


Given these concerns, the use of metaphor may be a reasonable middle ground wherein counselors are still integrating neuroscience into counseling, but not to the extent that it becomes something different. The use of metaphor is less about teaching clients and more about coming to a mutual understanding of the client’s experience using terms that make sense and matter to the client (Tay, 2012). However, this approach requires the counselor to understand brain function and to stay current in the literature to ensure that the metaphor is accurate and apropos to the client situation. For example, memory has been likened to a video recording of events, yet the function of memory has been demonstrated as far more constructed than a recording of facts. In this case, memory is more like a movie wherein the recordings have been edited to tell the story based on the movie-maker’s experience and desire. It is imperative for professional counselors to consider standards of ethical practice in order to meet the ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence. Similarly, counselors also have a responsibility to be aware of cultural considerations when integrating neuroscience into their counseling practice.


Cultural Considerations


There is a power differential in the therapeutic relationship, in part because of the needs and vulnerabilities that can accompany clients when seeking counseling. Clients might feel disempowered in the counseling relationship because of intersections of race, gender, age, spirituality, and social and economic status (Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2016). In addition, if counselors use language about the brain that may be perceived as intimidating or unsafe by clients, it could harm the therapeutic relationship. Integrating neuroscience into the counseling profession requires counselors to develop self-awareness surrounding neuroscience terminology and power inequalities in the counseling relationship. It is vital for counselor educators to consider the ethical and cultural implications of teaching a neuroscience-informed counseling course in order to help students learn how to facilitate a therapeutic environment where clients feel safe to process their experiences.




Given the benefits of neuroscience-informed counseling to treat behavioral and mental health concerns, counselor educators must begin to integrate neuroscience-informed counseling into the curriculum. Developing a neuroscience for counselors course using the aforementioned recommendations for course structure and methods for instruction is one approach to meeting this need. Assignments included a neuroscience-informed guided metaphor; development of a brain structures, systems, and functions book; dyads to practice using neuroscience-informed counseling interventions; N-PALs for reflection; a neuroscience-informed technology discussion post; and a summative case conceptualization paper. Integrating neuroscience-informed counseling into the counseling curriculum, while simultaneously addressing ethical and cultural considerations, has the potential to improve graduate students’ case conceptualizations, treatment planning, and counseling skills.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.






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Deborah L. Duenyas is an assistant professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Chad Luke is an associate professor at Tennessee Technical Institute. Correspondence can be addressed to Deborah Duenyas, OMA Wing – Room 412, P.O. Box 730, Kutztown, PA 19530,