Imagination and Psychotherapy – the neuroscience is friendly

The imaginal function is important to psychotherapists because it connects us directly to what is  not yet know. Psychotherapy is not about what is known. Any therapist who purports to be able to tell you what is ailing you and what you should do about it is one to run a mile from. No, psychotherapy is about the unknown, the mysterious, the unconscious.

Where does imagination come from? Traditional psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches tend to have a reductionist answer to this – the unconscious is viewed as the repository of repressed memory, and imagination (the kind of metaphors and parallels and narratives which are brought in to therapy) is viewed as nothing more than a rehashing of this repressed material. In such psychoanalytically biased therapy dreams are worked with as representations of mere associations of past memories, the transference is explored as a rehashing of early positioning in family relationships, the subtle movements of the felt sense are interpreted as pointers to early repressed material which is being re-enacted.

For sure this is part of the story – we do indeed carry memories which need to be explored. But it is only part of the story. Dreams are not just associations from the past, but pointers towards ways of being which are so much more than we can be at the moment.

In 2014 a team of scientists (Brock Kiwan, Stefania Ashby and Michelle Nash) published a paper in the Journal Cognitive Neuroscience, showing that memory and imagination are not the same thing. Although both memories of what is past, and imaginings of what is future both activate areas of the hippocampus, they activate different parts of it. The function of memory and imagination are different. This is very important for psychotherapy – we can say that our imagination, i.e. our dreams and symbols, our imaginal world, contain ‘unknowns’ which are not governed only by our past – which do not consist just in a rehashing of repressed memory. As psychotherapists, whilst some of our job is to help people untangle the aspects of imagination which ARE to do with repressed memory, we can now be clear that some of the ‘unknowns’ are from elsewhere. From imagination. The link to a report of the paper is here

So how do we understand imagination and its function? Mystics have not needed to wait for the neuroscientists to catch up. Imagination has been understood by Henry Corbin as a distinct realm, the mundus imaginalis, with its own clear role – to transform the person in to the thing imagined. In other words, the transformational process operates through images. The heart perceives forms in the mundus imaginalis – and by receiving those forms in to oneself at an embodied level, those forms can be brought through in to being.

In this way of understanding, spirit reveals itself in images in the world of the creative imagination – the mundus imaginalis. We can then encounter those symbols and be ‘carried back’ by them to their source that is, we can come to know what they mean, but such knowledge is not the discursive knowledge of the mind, but the subtle knowing of the heart. Images reveal themselves to us in secret. This process is called ta’wil. To work with symbols, images, and narratives in this way allows the revelation of what is not known.

Carl Jung’s work was founded on the practice of active imagination. In this practice the imaginer takes themselves in to their imaginative capacity and explores what is present, in the service of becoming more whole – the service of individuation.

Dorit Netzer has developed a way of working with imagination which she calls ‘imaginal resonance’. She draws on the work of Rupert Sheldrake, who has written on the notion of resonance – a resonance is when there is some form of attraction or sympathetic response to an already existing quality. It is an attraction to shared consciousness. Thus consciousness can be shared, from one person to another, or one state to another. Netzer has explored this in relation to the experience of reading mystical poetry. My own research explores this in relation to being present in a garden. Essentially, the imagination is allowed to resonate with the other – the poem, the garden, or it could be with another person, or with a situation, or importantly with inwardly felt sensations and knowings. The expanded consciousness which is possible with this allows the person access to creative possibility beyond the circumstance they were in.

So imagination is more than memory. It is more than the mere gathering of associations from a personal troubled past. It is a way of knowing more than you could ever conceive of alone.



5 Replies to “Imagination and Psychotherapy – the neuroscience is friendly”

  1. Absolutely loved this – thank you. Came across it quite per chance (it was a suggested post on Facebook) but is just what I needed to be reminded of! I lead singing and mantra (‘sound images’) which I believe have the ability, “to transform the person in to the thing imagined” – love that! Thanks again.


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