In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neuroscience and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Resources
  • Textbooks and Book Chapters
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Origins of Neuroscience in Social Work Practice
  • Policy
  • Teaching
  • Training and Education for Social Workers
  • Children and Families

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

  • Rare and Orphan Diseases and Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Practice with Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth
  • Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Social Work Neuroscience and Social Work
Sarah Serbinski, Robert J. MacFadden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0133


Social work has historically embraced a biopsychosocial perspective, but in teaching, practice, and research there has been much less emphasis on the biological side of this professional stance. Recent advances in neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, education, interpersonal neurobiology, and related fields have provided an exciting new paradigm to explore the issues that are central to social work, such as coping, adjustment, mental health, child and adult development, attachment, learning, emotion, and relationships. Social work is at the earliest of stages in translating the meaning and significance of this emerging knowledge for its own professional purposes, as recently highlighted within the special edition of Smith College Studies in Social Work in 2014. As has been the tradition, social work will continue to benefit from knowledge developed from cognate professions, such as psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and education. At the same time, neuroscience itself is at an early stage in the development and refinement of knowledge relevant to the understanding of the brain, mind, emotions, thinking, and behavior. However, even in this early stage of knowledge, neuroscience and related fields are providing some insights for social work.

Introductory Works

There are several texts that provide background information useful to understanding neuroscience and neurobiology. Additionally, a few authors have focused specifically on how this new knowledge can inform social work practice and education. Applegate and Shapiro 2005 offers one of the best introductions to how neurobiology is relevant to social work practitioners and educators through an emphasis on attachment. Iacoboni 2009 introduces the discovery and significance of mirror neurons. Johnson 2004 explores addictions and neurobiology, with an emphasis on their relevance to social workers and nonscientists. Joseph LeDoux is a leading neuroscientist in the study of fear; LeDoux 1996 focuses on the fundamental nature of emotion and how this relates to cognition and behavior. Nunn, et al. 2008 presents information about the brain, its components, and its functions through the metaphor of an English village. Panksepp and Biven 2012 provides a comprehensive introduction to feelings and emotions. Siegel 1999 (revised in 2012) offers a seminal look at how the brain is involved in attachment and in the development of self. Van der Kolk 2014 offers a comprehensive overview of trauma and the brain, along with recovery from it. Zull 2002 presents an educator’s view of how the brain learns, including the implications of this for educators.

  • Applegate, Jeffrey S., and Janet R. Shapiro. 2005. Neurobiology for clinical social work: Theory and practice. New York: Norton.

    The emphasis in this book is on the neurobiology of attachment and its implications for knowledge building and clinical social work practice. The book is written for clinical social workers and social work educators and emphasizes neural integration and emotional regulation.

  • Iacoboni, Marco. 2009. Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York: Picador.

    This book provides an introductory history to mirror neurons. It offers insights into how mirror neurons influence intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. It also explores mirror neurons within various sectors of society, such as social work, business, and politics, as well as content areas such as brain disorders and substance misuse.

  • Johnson, Harriette C. 2004. Psyche and synapse: Expanding worlds. 2d ed. Greenfield, MA: Deerfield Valley.

    The first edition of this book (published in 1999 and titled Psyche, Synapse, and Substance: The Role of Neurobiology in Emotions, Behavior, Thinking, and Addiction for Non-Scientists) presents basic information about neurobiology and discusses the relevance of this content for social workers. Mental health and addictions are particularly emphasized with many illustrations and “fill in the blanks” sections to reinforce learning. This second edition offers an expanded range of topics, including a more expansive exploration of the biological and social approach to social work assessment and treatment.

  • LeDoux, Joseph. 1996. The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    This is a classic and engaging text written by an eminent neuroscientist. Focuses on topics relevant to social workers, including how the brain generates emotions and feelings, especially fear and anxiety. LeDoux points out that the emotions were our earliest form of decision making and that many emotions are products of evolutionary wisdom. In addition, he argues that emotion cannot be separated from reason, since emotions are part of the very edifice of reason.

  • Nunn, Kenneth, Tanya Hanstock, and Bryan Lask. 2008. Who’s who of the brain: A guide to its inhabitants, where they live, and what they do. London: Kingsley.

    Given that many social workers may not have a biology background, this text uses the metaphor of a small English town, with key inhabitants reflecting the central functions of the brain. It is a well-illustrated book that may help social workers both understand and remember brain biology.

  • Panksepp, Jaak, and Lucy Biven. 2012. The archaeology of the mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: Norton.

    This book provides a comprehensive and scientific discussion about how emotions—SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RACE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy)—are created within the brain. A wealth of examples are provided for each of the identified feelings, as well as empirical research.

  • Siegel, Daniel J. 1999. The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford.

    In this seminal work on attachment, emotions, and the brain, Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist and attachment researcher, makes fundamental connections between how the brain develops and its relationships to attachment, communication of emotions, and the developing self. This is a very densely written book, but the fundamental insights it offers are worth the effort. Siegel, in the second edition of this foundational book (published in 2012), enlarges his discussion of topics such as mindfulness, neuroplasticity, epigenetics, and consciousness and includes more diagrams and illustrations and a detailed glossary in this updated version.

  • van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2014. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.

    Social workers often encounter clients who have experienced trauma. This book provides a comprehensive overview of modalities used throughout the years to heal trauma. It provides an overview of trauma, the impacts of trauma on the brain, and how recovery happens.

  • Zull, James. 2002. The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

    This is a well-written text for educators that connects learning and teaching with the brain. The basic structure and functions of the brain are discussed in clear, nontechnical language and then related to how students learn. The author is a biologist and teacher in higher education, and he provides rich examples from his experience that highlight teaching as the art of changing the brain.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.