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Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory

By: , Posted on: July 22, 2014

A semi-weekly series of blog posts by Warren W. Tryon, Ph.D, ABPP

Cognitive Neuroscience and PsychotherapyPsychology has an explanatory problem! Its functional theories lack causal mechanism information, which means that psychologists can only offer interpretations rather than genuine scientific explanations (Teo, 2012). This lack of causal mechanism information constitutes the first of two anomalies that will require a paradigm shift to fix. For now it is important to note that the resulting theoretical disunification has led to an explosion of psychotherapies. Some of these therapies have empirical evidence that they work, others don’t, and none of their authors or practitioners can explain how or why they work. Interestingly, the one thing that the “Big Five” clinical orientations (cognitive, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, pharmacologic) have in common is that they all lack causal mechanism information.

My book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, and this blog series will aim to provide psychotherapy integration via core and corollary explanatory principles. These principles provide a way to explain psychology that unites the “Big Five” clinical orientations and thereby promotes psychotherapy integration. The unified theoretical orientation that I will present explains why our current effective theories work regardless of the theoretical orientation from which they were derived.

Eisner (2000) estimated that there are around 500 psychotherapies. Lilienfeld (2014) recognized that there are approximately 300 recognized diagnosable conditions. Together these two facts imply that clinicians have something on the order of 500 x 300 = 15,000 treatment by diagnostic conditions to worry about. The prospect of creating an empirically supported treatment with manual for each of these conditions is a nearly impossible task. If ever successful, there would be no way to train existing or new clinicians to a level of clinical competence on this many treatments. It seems highly unlikely that all 15,000 treatments would work for completely different reasons. Something is seriously wrong here.

Psychotherapists have long known that there are common factors that partially explain why psychotherapies work. See Grencavage and Norcross (1990), Stricker (2010), and Weinberger (1993, 1995) for details. But these common factors have never been sufficient to explain why some of these diverse treatments work and others don’t. What are people in need of psychotherapy to do? How can they make a responsible choice? Psychotherapy integration would be very helpful. Clinicians have long recognized that each of the Big Five clinical orientations mentioned above have something useful to offer. All authors agree that the very best way to achieve psychotherapy integration is through theoretical unification because clinicians are much more likely to agree on how a particular patient should be treated if they operate from the same or similar theoretical orientation.

The prospect of theoretical unification, however, has persistently eluded psychologists. Some authors like Rychlak (1968; 1981a, 1993) have argued that theoretical unification will never occur because enduring philosophical schisms preclude it from happening. Clinicians have uniformly shared this pessimistic view. For example, Goldfried (1980) stated how unlikely psychotherapy integration via theoretical unification is. Levy and Anderson (2013) concluded that a unified theory capable of integrating our psychotherapies is nowhere in sight. In his presidential address, Castonguay (2011) despaired of ever finding a theoretical basis for psychotherapy integration. Resigned to the presumed impossibility of psychotherapy integration based on theoretical unification, Castonguay and Beutler (2006) followed the advice of Goldfried and Padawer (1982) and proposed practical principles to guide psychotherapists. The problem here is that these principles do not carry explanatory power and therefore are unable to provide the required theoretical unification to achieve meaningful psychotherapy integration. In my next blog I provide a positive response to this seemingly impossible situation.

About the Author

Warren TryonWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy. In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is


Castonguay, L. G. (2011). Psychotherapy, psychopathology, research and practice: Pathways of connections and integration. Psychotherapy Research, 21(2), 125–140. http://dx.doi. org/10.1080/10503307.2011.563250.

Castonguay, L. G., & Beutler, L. E. (Eds.). (2006). Principles of therapeutic change that work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eisner, D. A. (2000). The death of psychotherapy: From Freud to alien abductions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Goldfried, M. R. (1980). Toward the delineation of therapeutic change principles. American Psychologist, 35, 991–999.

Goldfried, M. R., & Padawer, W. (1982). Current status and future directions in psychotherapy. In M. R. Goldfried (Ed.), Converging themes in psychotherapy (pp. 3–49). New York: Springer.

Grencavage, L. M., & Norcross, J. C. (1990). Where are the commonalities among the therapeutic common factors? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21, 372–378.

Levy, K. N., & Anderson, T. (2013). Is clinical psychology doctoral training becoming less intellectual diverse? And if so, what can be done? Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 20, 211–220.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014). The Dodo Bird verdict: Status in 2014. The Behavior Therapist, 37 (4), 91-95.

Rychlak, J. F. (1968). A philosophy of science for personality theory (1st ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Rychlak, J. F. (1981a). A philosophy of science for personality theory (2nd ed.). Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger.

Rychlak, J. F. (1993). A suggested principle of complementarity for psychology: In theory, not method. American Psychologist, 48, 933–942.

Stricker, G. (2010). Psychotherapy integration. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Teo, T. (2012). Psychology is still a problematic science and the public knows it. American Psychologist, 67(9), 807–808.

Tryon, W. W. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience and psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Weinberger, J. (1993). Common factors in psychotherapy. In G. Stricker, & J. R. Gold (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychotherapy integration (pp. 43–56). New York: Plenum.

Weinberger, J. (1995). Common factors aren’t so common: The common factors dilemma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2, 45–69.

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage located at  


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