So You Want to Be a Neuropsychologist? - Jenni Ogden

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A curious mind and a caring personality make a good clinical neuropsychologist.

First Posted Nov 03, 2011 on Psychology Today - Original Link - Reposted with the author's permission

I had never heard of neuropsychology when I began my Master's degree in Psychology at the University of Auckland, NZ, back in 1979. I was a young mother with four children and I'd planned to work with children as a clinical psychologist. I took the Clinical Neuropsychology course because it was a pre-requisite for the postgraduate clinical psychology programme. It was the most difficult of my four courses—not only because my knowledge of neuroanatomy was sketchy, despite having my Bachelor's degree in zoology and psychology, but also because our lecturer, one of the world's most eminent neuropsychologists in mild head injury and concussion, was a hard taskmaster. Every week we wrote extensive reports on a neuropsychological case study, and we were required to give seminars, write essays, assess a real patient, and pass a test on neuroanatomy as well. We all complained about the workload. But when time came for course evaluations Clinical Neuropsychology came out on top for student satisfaction, as well as "the course that taught me the most."

I fell in love with everything about clinical neuropsychology. Early on I wrote up a case study on a woman who had suffered a stroke in the right hemisphere (side) of her brain. She had a strange disorder called hemineglect where she ignored people and objects appearing on her left side, drew only the right sides of pictures, and ate only the food on the right side of her plate, then complained she was hungry! I decided to research hemineglect for my doctoral thesis dissertation. Six years later, after a stint at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was running Auckland University's clinical psychology programme and teaching the Clinical Neuropsychology course.

Clinical neuropsychology research is often carried out on large groups of brain-damaged patients who are compared to groups of healthy people. This is a very important method of discovering how the brain and mind work, and how different neurological disorders affect people. But it misses many of the important aspects of clinical neuropsychology. For example, individual differences can be lost in group studies where results are averaged. Quantitative data including test results, the age and sex of the patient and so on, can be analyzed in group studies, but a lot of rich qualitative information is missed. Qualitative information can include everything from the head-injured patient's complaint that despite achieving good scores in school homework projects, they take much longer to do them than before their head injury (and they feel exhausted by the time they finish), to their frustration when they can't complete a neuropsychological test.

Two important aspects of being a clinical neuropsychologist make this an exciting career choice: 1) the clinical aspects of working with neurological patients, and 2) the detective work required to parse out exactly what neuropsychological abilities have been affected and which abilities are still intact. If you want to be a clinical neuropsychologist, you must first be a good clinical psychologist. This will allow you to build a good rapport with your clients, enabling them to perform to their best ability on the tests you give them and feel comfortable talking about their lives and how their neurological symptoms have affected them. Second, you need to be curious about how the brain and mind work. Our brains are the most complex systems on earth, and no two brains are identical-not even twins' brains! Both the environment and our responses to the environment influence our neural development. As a clinical neuropsychologist, every patient you assess presents a new opportunity to discover the mind's secrets.

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