Many would not believe it, but you can accomplish a great deal with inner pictures. The power of the imagination can be harnessed to improve performance in sport or at work. It is also used very successfully to treat mental health problems and can even provide support with serious illnesses such as cancer.
Today, we take a more solution-oriented approach rather than focusing on the problem. This is a general trend in psychology. Previously a lengthy analysis was conducted in order to find out where and how a problem came into being. But often only knowing why you are how you are is not enough. Psychotherapy is a service business. No one buys it now without the promise of a solution. That’s why it’s become the norm to agree a specific objective at the beginning of the therapy.
Inner pictures can spur us on to success but also cause us harm. They have such a profound hold over us because man is a visual being. Athletes are driven by images of themselves standing on the winner’s podium. When we think back to our school days, we often picture the school building or classrooms. We recall dreams as images. Sounds or smells simply come to mind less when we are remembering or visualising things. That’s why we at the Mind Institute SE in Berlin place so much emphasis on working with inner pictures.
What kind of things have the most powerful effect on our memories? Neuroscience is still in its infancy and we are only now beginning to understand the fundamentals of how the brain works. In the past 20 years seemingly established theories have been turned on their head. We believe that our memory is most strongly influenced by events that happened very early on in our lives, were very unusual, occurred very frequently or were associated with powerful emotions.
The issue of whether there such a thing as innate pictures – impressions that we have been carrying around with us from the beginning – is complex. If you define the beginning as birth then yes, definitely. Children start to store experiences as symbols while still in the womb, long before they have a chance to learn a language. But there are also indications that inner pictures can even be inherited. The circle as a symbol for completeness is an example. In addition, experiments have shown that new born rats are innately able to perform tricks that their parents had been taught to do.
Dreams are messages from our subconscious. For those of us working in psychology there is no right and no wrong. If, for example, a client is troubled by a particular event in their lives, what actually happened is not so important for us, but rather how the client remembers it. In the interpretation of dreams, it is the job of the therapist or coach to lead the client to the correct interpretation. The meaning found by the client is always right for him or for her. That’s all that matters.
Of course the only reality we have is the present, an infinitely small moment in time. Everything that has gone before or will happen in the future is something that we can only see in our mind’s eye: “Remember yesterday when I celebrated my birthday with friends?”, “What will tomorrow be like when I have to give this speech?” The processing that goes on in daydreaming helps us to turn the unknown into something that seems familiar, and this makes us feel more secure.
Visualisation is also able to bring about physical changes, for example to body temperature. Our nervous system and the brain in particular link mind and body. Thanks to mirror neuron research we now know that the same neurons are triggered when we perform a physical activity as when we only think about doing the activity or watch another person doing it. It’s why we flinch when we see someone burn themselves on a hob. Changing our body temperature by thinking about hot or cold environments uses the same connections.
The influence of inner pictures on how we determine, or expect to see, reality is considerable. In our book we cite the example of a situation where a professor announces to his students that he is about to open a bottle with an unpleasant smell. The students thought they could smell something even though there was nothing in the bottle. Simply announcing the smell and putting the thought in their minds was enough. We have much less free will than many people believe. There are lots of experiments in psychology that show similar effects. We cannot turn off what we see in our mind’s eye. Nor can we switch off the emotions and sensations that are triggered by it. However, we can learn to handle these inner pictures differently and turn them to our advantage. In that respect, we are not completely powerless.
If the imagination can be used to heal, it might be supposed that people would have to know their own anatomy well. In fact, successful case studies in the field of body psychotherapy suggest that the way clients picture their own anatomy is often far removed from reality. But that doesn’t actually matter. The healing takes place in the mind, and the mind projects the healing onto the right region of the body. We often come across people in our practice whose physical afflictions can be traced back to mental disturbances. When the burden is taken from the mind, there is greater scope for physical healing to take place.
The power of the imagination can even have a healing effect on severely traumatised people. However, positive thinking alone is usually not enough. Trauma therapy is a wide field, and research indicates that while positive thinking is useful in treatments, it is often not sufficient on its own. Trust between the therapist and client needs to be built up over a long period of time so that pictures of inner security can be established. At some point the client will be ready to view the traumatic event from a safe distance as part of a daydream and reassess its meaning.
The role of the therapist, in helping to train patients to use their mind’s eye, is also very important. Essentially the client develops his or her own inner pictures: the therapist or coach induces a state of relaxation (using techniques similar to autogenic training) and makes sure that the client is tracking what they see in their mind’s eye while being neither fully awake nor asleep. This is done using simple questions such as “What is that?”, “What does that look like?” and “What do you want to do now?”. In patients with specific disorders the therapist plays a key role in guiding the patient through this process. In everyday practice, however, anyone can create inner pictures unaided.
The question of whether it’s possible to actively use the imagination to communicate with the subconscious mind is largely academic. We cannot communicate directly with our subconscious. In the moment that the communication occurs it automatically becomes conscious, of course. However, we are able to make something that was previously subconscious conscious so that we can then communicate with it. Anyone can do this.
Imagination is especially effective for psychosomatic disorders, such as breathing problems, back pain, rashes and gastric and intestinal complaints, for which the doctor is unable to find any physical causes, and for mental health issues in general and anxiety and personality disorders in particular. We also included the treatment of cancer patients in the book, because the imagination has helped with the healing process in many cases and because lots of people are interested in this aspect. The imagination is absolutely not a method for treating cancer, of course, but rather a complementary therapy that supports traditional medicine.
We also discuss Katathym Imaginative Psychotherapy (KIP), which was developed around 60 years ago by Hanscarl Leuner. It’s a well-established method which has been used a great deal in practice. ‘Katathym’ means ‘relating to the emotions’. In this form of therapy feelings are perceived as images. We are not looking to reinvent the wheel here. Our aim with the book, with its journalistic style, is to make psychotherapeutic practices understandable to the wider public and in doing so to perhaps take away some of people’s fears about using them.
Emotions are often the key to the success of a therapy. However, most clients find it difficult to talk about their feelings. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s often that they are simply unable to. Most of them could talk for hours on end about their jobs, but when asked how they feel, they only give vague and superficial answers. But if they are told to imagine those feelings to be make-believe creatures, landscapes or symbols, there’s no stopping them. That’s why KIP produces faster results than many other techniques. We use KIP with great success as an alternative form of psychotherapy and in our coaching sessions for business clients. Good results are often achieved in only 20 hours, and in rare cases less than ten hours. It is deemed to be a success when clients have achieved their objectives and are able, strengthened by inner resources, to shape their lives without any external support.
Thomas Kretschmar is the managing director of Mind Institute SE Berlin, where he uses inner pictures and the imagination to treat patients and coaching clients. He is also a researcher and trainer in the field of imaginative interventions. Prior to this, Thomas worked as a founder and CEO of the SDAX company Hypoport, a professor for organisational studies, and as business consultant with a psychological focus. He has training in several psychological intervention methods and is licensed for psychotherapy in Germany. Thomas studied business administration in Gottingen and psychology with a psychoanalytic focus in Berlin.
Martin Tzschaschel is a journalist and has been the editor of P.M., a popular German scientific journal, since 1981. In addition, he has written three books, and his book about a new version of knowledge we learn in school is now in its fifth run. Martin is devoted to making complicated scientific findings understandable for the public. Prior to this, he studied social pedagogy in Munich and worked as a journalist for several journals. Martin lives in Hamburg, Germany.
Their book, The Power of Inner Pictures: How Imagination Can Maintain Physical and Mental Health, has recently been published by Karnac.
Reviews and Endorsements
‘This imaginative book brings to life its subject matter with a delicate blend of theory, case studies, methodology and a rich exploration of our inner world of images. It offers the reader new insights into how our internal world creates images, and how these can be harnessed in diverse settings to improve our wellbeing, inspire creativity and overcome emotional problems, physical pain and other challenges. I recommend this book for therapists and counsellors, and also for coaches and managers who wish to explore innovate ways of harnessing the dormant creativity that exists in every workplace. The authors offer new insights into a phenomenon that is found in all cultures and has been known to humans since ancient days. It offers us exciting new ways of unleashing the power of inner pictures that are very relevant to our times.’
— Dr Simon Western, CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching, President-Elect of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations, and Adjunct Professor, University College Dublin