Guided Imagery, Art Therapy, Traumatic and Recovered Memories

October 16, 2007

Guided imagery and art therapy are methods often used to treat trauma and post traumatic stress. An article in the October/November 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine discusses how these same modalities can be misused and misunderstood.

The article discusses how guided imagery and art therapy were used to encourage a psychiatric patient to remember memories that probably never took place and to become aware of alternative personalities that may have been constructed during the course of the treatment. It seems clear from this article that some therapists do misunderstand the use of these modalities to tragic ends for theirs clients.

One example of such a misunderstanding is to misinterpret the imagination into ordinary, concrete, reality. When an event is experienced or an image develops in the mind during art therapy and guided imagery, this should not be misunderstood as a representation of external reality. Such experiences happen in the present moment and may not represent past events at all. When addressing those kind of painful experiences through the use of the imagination it is important to deal with them in the here and now, without interpretation as to meaning or even relationship to ordinary reality, as a potential opportunity for release and transformation. The reality accessed by the imagination is that of the personal and collective unconscious.

As posted earlier on knowingimagination.com, the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, posited four functions of knowing- thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. He discussed these as a system, each having its own way of knowing- its own logic. To emphasize one form of knowing over another, upsetting the balance of the four, will cause a distortion in one’s ability to discern a balanced reality. It is common for our culture to emphasize and value the function of thinking over the others as having more validity and more utility. Intuition, the function that makes use of the imagination and imagery, is surely the least valued.

To commit the potentially grave misunderstanding of the imagination through the logic of the thinking function is to distort the information. The imagination knows what it knows through its own logical system, not the logical system of the thinking function. As the anthropologist Gregory Bateson writes about this in his essay, “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art”, from the book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, he points out that the logical system of one form of knowing is not equivalent to another and that the application of one to another will result in an inability to access that original knowing. Just as one’s feelings or hunches are not a valid way of rational knowing, similarly, applying rational logic in the domain of the imagination is also not valid.

Hence, to make the meaning that images that arise in the imagination, in dreams, art therapy, and guided imagery, are memories of real events or, in the instance of multiple personalities, literal beings in one’s unconscious are erroneous and misleading. The imagination, operating in the present moment, organizes with the use of pattern and metaphor, where, often, one thing stands for another. Often, the patterns of imagery and other material emerging from the unconscious that can be observed clarify and validate meaning but should not be confused with memory. Even if there is some influence from past experience, and there often is, the functioning of the unconscious and the imagination is to use this as raw material in the construction of a reality- not the reality. The constructed reality may have little or much to do with ordinary, consensual reality but must be understood as a construct and not mistaken for fact.

The use of the imagination in psychotherapy must, in my opinion, respect the distinction between these different modes of knowing. The application of art therapy and guided imagery can help to facilitate change through the use of the imagination to release or transform negative images. It is rare that one would mistake dream reality for ordinary reality, although a relationship is often present. Just so, the use of the imagination in therapy must be understood and treated as psychic experience or psychic reality, but not as fact.

One Response to “Guided Imagery, Art Therapy, Traumatic and Recovered Memories”

  1. John Says:

    I found this article insightful and helpful. Thanks for posting!


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