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Home arrow Psychology arrow Using Mental Imagery in Counselling and Psychotherapy: A Guide to More Inclusive Theory and Practice
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Bridging the divide

In general, there has been few robust attempts to provide an account for the efficacy of mental imagery that bridges the divide between the empirical and phenomenological perspectives. This is not surprising given the radical epistemological differences between these two views. However, there is one important exception, Ahsen’s (1984) tripartite image/somatic/meaning model (ISM).

Ahsen followed a now familiar trajectory for pioneering clinician-theorists working with mental imagery. He began by rediscovering its therapeutic potential in his clinical practice, which he then went on to formulate into a body of techniques and procedures he has termed ‘eidetic’ psychotherapy (Ahsen, 1968). This approach consists of a highly systemised intertwining of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. What is unusual in his work is the way in which he draws on both humanistic and cognitive behavioural approaches. His empirical leanings are obvious both in his commitment to developing an evidence base for work with mental imagery and also in the similarities between eidetic psychotherapy and CBT practices: eidetic psychotherapy procedures are directive and follow set structures and formulas with an emphasis on diagnosis and identifying the source of maladaptive cognitions and behaviours.

However, despite Ahsen’s empirical leanings, he perceived limitations in the cognitive-behavioural perspective (although it is important to note that his view was informed by an earlier and more narrow CBT understanding of mental imagery) stating:

There is an unfortunate emphasis on the limited notion of image as representation, which reduces the mental image to the status of being a mere inert picture or copy rather than a process. Such definitions, in fact, minimise the important role of the concreteness of the image, a dynamic which leads to interaction and not just representation.

(1993: 27)

Ahsen’s (1968) emphasis on process led him to a more integrative perspective on both the theory and practice of working with imagery. This can be seen in the way that some aspects of eidetic psychotherapy resemble humanistic approaches where therapeutic processes are facilitated through the client focusing on and experiencing their own arising imagery. Ahsen went on to propose a model that could explain why working with clients’ mental images could lead to a re-experiencing of the precipitating events. The basic premise of his ISM model is that every important experience is impressed in memory in the form of a semi-permanent representation which he termed an ‘eidetic’. Furthermore the mental image operates as a container for all the elements involved in this eidetic. When the mental image surfaces, the memory contained within it is available for instantaneous playback. This totality is captured in his three-dimensional model of imagery; the core component is the visual representation and the other two elements comprise the somatic aspect and the associated meaning. Not all three are necessarily present at the same time. Ahsen views the self as a vast multiplicity of ISM states rather than a unified structure. Presenting issues are related to particular ISM states that require surfacing and re-experiencing in order to transform dysfunctional ways of being.

Although Ahsen’s transtheoretical model of imagery is rarely referenced in the counselling and psychotherapy literature, elsewhere it has been widely accepted as an important model by writers on imagination as a healing modality including Achterberg (2002) and Sheikh (2002). It is worth noting that one of Ahsen’s clinical specialisms is substance misuse and this is likely to have driven his theory-making towards an attempt to explain the interlinking between psychological and physiological conditions.

Singer, another influential American psychologist, has also placed a great deal of importance on integrating the empirical and phenomenological positions in relation to mental imagery practice. Singer’s seminal work in this field needs very little introduction: during the 1970s, his co-edited book The Power of Human Imagination (Singer and Pope, 1978) helped to establish the academic respectability of mental imagery. His commitment to the centrality of imagination-based processes in talking therapies is evident in his following statement:

Although many features of psychotherapy call for verbalization, clarity of communication, questioning of assumptions, or identification of misguided attributions, almost all treatment approaches do rely on patients’ awareness of the reality and potential of their imagery capacities.

(Singer, 2006: 86)

This commitment informs his interest in developing transtheoretical perspectives in the practice of mental imagery. Although his work does not focus specifically on explaining the efficacy of mental imagery, his thoughts regarding the commonalities and distinctions in mental imagery practice between psychodynamic/humanistic practice on one hand and cognitive behavioural on the other are instructive. He notes how the ways different therapeutic schools use imagery is informed by their theoretical positions; historically, the empirically informed CBT school has tended towards using imagery as reparative interventions whereas other phenomenologically informed schools place more emphasis on clients’ imagery narratives. He draws our attention to a central task in psychotherapy: how to help clients effectively integrate the two radically different modes of processing and encoding experience, i.e. the rational and imaginal perspectives (Singer refers to these using Bruner’s [1986] terms ‘logical/ paradigmatic’ and ‘narrative’). Due to this centrality, he observes that in practice therapists, despite their school affiliations, are increasingly integrating methods that draw on both modes of thought. He then proposes ways in which a wider range of techniques can be incorporated into both schools that begin to close the gap.

In the following and final section I consider how disciplines outside the field of counselling and psychotherapy can contribute to our understanding of how mental imagery works. It will focus in particular on how the theory of conceptual metaphor has the potential to integrate different views on the nature of imagery.

 
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