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Imagination and Experiments in Psychotherapy

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Sigmund Freud stated in his Interpretation of Dreams that therein lay ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. Yet as dreams were not always available in the consulting room, he would then devise another ‘royal road’ of inner travel via his method of ‘free association’ where patients would be encouraged to relax and lie on the couch, thereby ‘tuning out’ of their cognitive ruminations to make way for the fragments of hitherto unconscious/ pre-conscious memory to emerge, without ‘thinking about’ them until later when they would be interpreted by the analyst.

Although psychoanalytic psychotherapy has of course since developed beyond Freud’s model (particularly with the advent of attachment theory and neuroscience) this digestion of what the British analyst Wilfred Bion called ‘beta’ to ‘alpha’ elements is still an essential part of psychoanalytic treatment today. Despite Freud’s influence on the arts (most memorably perhaps on the surrealists), it is still arguably still Carl Jung whom we tend to associate more with the imagination and creativity. One crucial reason for this (and of course Freud and Jung’s split) was due to their difference of opinion on the unconscious.

Freud believed the unconscious was a rather unreliable container of repressed wishes and drives. In Jung’s model, below the ‘personal unconscious’ (which bore some similarity to Freud’s) lay a deeper ‘collective unconscious’ where the ‘archetypes’ reside: archaic and typical hereditary psychic manifestations; a source of pathology but also of creativity. Freud of course thought absurd.

Jung, like Freud though, understood that in order to make a profound connection with the unconscious, this could only be done through a state of reverie on the couch. Jung though called his method of ‘deliberate concentration’ ‘active imagination’ which he practised both alone and with his patients. Again, a relaxed yet concentrated enough mind was required to make contact with these archetypal images, though importantly these phenomena could be animated through paintings, writing, sculpture or embodied through movement or dance. Jung clearly demonstrated his great reverence for the unconscious and the archetypes by listening to what they had to say (instead of interpreting them right away) and created a dialogue with them. He also encouraged his patients to do the same. Jung believed this process created harmony between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the personality.

Jung’s link with mysticism continued with his interest in Daoism.

It can be argued that the means of Jung’s active imagination was not too far away from the visionary artistic processes of William Blake or artists of the Victorian era such as Hilma af Klint and Georgiana Houghton who would use methods such as séance to produce their works: the former also used ‘automatic writing’ as part of her artistic process, predating the surrealists by decades. This of course makes the common, and perhaps unwelcome, link between Jung and mysticism – which was something he of course refuted strongly. Nonetheless, whatever their means, Jung and the aforementioned artists were clearly profoundly in contact with their imaginal selves and were able to draw upon them for creative expression and which led to some extraordinary work which arguably may not have been possible without their profound contact with their own imaginations and methodology which transcended the boundaries of corporeal reality.

Jung’s link with mysticism continued with his interest in Daoism where he began to experiment with the use of the I Ching. For Jung, consulting the I Ching could potentially give meaning to what may be otherwise attributed to coincidence within the confines of causality, and this ‘meaningful coincidence’ Jung called ‘synchronicity.’ The I Ching employed what composer John Cage (who used the oracle for composition) called ‘chance operations’; not necessarily used only as a means of accessing the unconscious mind, but in the case of Jung and Cage respectively, as a source of psychic and creative liberation from the well trodden path of linear, Western determinacy. Indeed feelings of constraint in any setting not only may cause psychopathology but also close down creative expression for which the unpredictability of ‘chance operations’ can offer new perspectives .

Composer Brian Eno has his own version of ‘chance operations’ called ‘Oblique strategies’. This consists of a deck of cards, each card containing instructions such as ‘Honour thy error as thy intention’ or ‘You don’t have to be ashamed of using your own ideas’. Eno’s cards foster a sense of playful optimism as well as challenging compositional ideas of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In Eno’s cards making a mistake becomes, if not a virtue, a potential creative resource. As with Cage, there is also something of the Dadaists’ spirit in Eno’s creative playfulness: The Dadaist art movement placed play, curiosity and experiments at the heart of their philosophy and this it shares with some psychotherapies, notably Gestalt psychotherapy which employs the use of ‘experiments’ such as two-chair technique where the therapist facilitates a dialogue between the client and an empty chair to address an interpersonal issue. Here again of course the use of the imagination is key. Gestalt therapy also advocates playfulness and curiosity as antidotes to the rigidity of ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts’. Play, curiosity, creativity or ‘seeking’ type behaviours have now been identified with ‘feel good’ opioids such as oxytocin and dopamine through the research of neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp.

Aside from the aforementioned constructed experiments of course ‘accidents’ and chance elements have been a feature in the consulting room since Freud’s ‘slip of the tongue’: a sometimes rather shame-inducing example of a dynamic unconscious at work (if that is what you believe.) To this day it is the ‘awkward’ moments that psychotherapists who work psychodynamically are trained not to ignore but also to handle with great care; for when we are working with the unconscious we work with what is unexpected and unpredictable and it is thus the role of the therapist to contain this. The same goes for any experimentation, which needs to be very carefully thought about.

Despite the sense of ‘awkwardness’ that a ‘slip of the tongue’ or an over long silence may induce, such events may also be regarded as part of a ‘liminal space’, where vulnerability may hold the key to what Henry Corbin called ‘Mundus Imaginalis’. Composers such as Joanna Brouk were aware of the value of the ‘liminal’: in her work ‘the space between’ it is between the notes that there is not only retreat from noise but additionally, if we can allow ourselves to be with the vulnerability of the moment, this can help to awaken our imaginations without rushing to ‘think about’ what note might sound good next.

The imagination is one of the best natural resources we have. Yet I do not believe that there is not a place too for the pre-frontal cortex and for thinking about what our imaginations are telling us and ascribing meaning to it. That’s highly important in terms of making sense of our world. Yet I do think that all too often we rush towards quick fix cognitive solutions where we might instead take time to look in the space between.


Special thanks to John Kearns, Phil Legard, Rasmus Hjortshøj Steffensen and Keiron Phelan for their helpful comments and suggestions in researching this article. 

Alex Monk is a musician and HCPC registered integrative arts psychotherapist based in London. He has extensive experience of working in NHS mental health services for both inpatient and community settings and in private practice with clients providing treatment for a range of difficulties including anxiety, depression and trauma.  He is also an Associate Psychotherapist for Consultant psychiatrists Private Psychiatry. Alex has a particular interest in researching how the imagination and creativity can be used for therapeutic purposes. To learn more about him, visit his website. You can follow him on Twitter @Alexmonkpsych 



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