Spiritual bypassing and religious abuse: The Reason Why Everyone Needs to Be Trauma-Informed

“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”

~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43

Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma. 

About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.

Source: 7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily. 

There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues. 

At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected. 

Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged. 

Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.

Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these. 

In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval. 

To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?! 

Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining. 


Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.

"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."

~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)

Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies. 

"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."

~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look

Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture. 

Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others? 

In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.

References

7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

Aletheia Luna. (2021, February 2). What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types) ⋆ LonerWolf. LonerWolf. https://lonerwolf.com/what-is-spiritual-bypassing/

Brown, J. (2019). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press.

Cox, C. (2019, February 25). Types of Delusions. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/delusions-types

Dan Brown Quote: “Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not underst…” (n.d.). Quotefancy.com. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from https://quotefancy.com/quote/1018478/Dan-Brown-Since-the-beginning-of-time-spirituality-and-religion-have-been-called-to-fill

Gabor Maté. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts close encounters with addiction. London Vermilion.

Gettis, A. (1987). The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 26(2), 131–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505915

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger – healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster — Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Psychoanalysis and Castration

Castration of male genital has long a history in mythology, religious rites, and as a means of controlling slaves. In contrast, Freud believed castration anxiety was an experience all boys went through. Like most psychoanalytic babel, the so-called universal experiences of infantile sexuality have no scientific basis and when the “evidence” to support them, i.e., mythology and ancient rites, is examined, Freud’s interpretations are illogical. In sum, mythological and religious depictions of castration demonstrate that penis’ are a vulnerability that some men are better off without.

Freud’s castration anxiety theories centres around a mental process he called the Oedipus Complex. In the case of men, Freud asserted that all boys experience sexual desire for their mother but this is repressed and displays itself in adulthood as ‘a sense of guilt for which he can discern no foundation’*. Supposedly the sexual desire in boys is so strong that they want to possess their mothers and irrationally fear that if their father were to find out he would take away what they love most, their penis; hence, all young boys develop castration anxiety.

In girls, the Oedipus complex is considered to be a reversal of a boy’s experience. While a boy wants to do away with their father and have their mother to themselves, a girl wants to be rid of their mother so they can have all of their father’s attention. The situation becomes more complex when a girl realises that she does not have a penis like her father, so she therefore becomes envious and resents her mother for her castrated state. Her only hope for reducing the tension brought about by penis envy is to substitute her desire for a penis with a desire for a baby.

Mythology

Two prominent castration myths stand out and are commonly referred to in psychoanalysis: The Egyptian story of Osiris and the Greek myth of Uranus and Aphrodite’s birth.

The basic outline of the Egyptian story is that a god named Seth was jealous of his brother Osiris being King so he kills him and takes the throne. When the Queen, Isis, finds out her husband is dead she is grieved and sets about finding Osiris’ body. Once located, she begins the process of bringing him back to life, however, she is interrupted. Seth steals Osiris’ body, cuts it up into fourteen pieces, then hurls the pieces throughout Egypt so Isis cannot bring him back to life. Isis transforms into a hawk kite and flies over Egypt collecting all the pieces but she could not find his penis because it was eaten by a fish. Therefore, Isis makes a substitute penis out of gold and uses her magic to become pregnant. Because Osiris is incomplete, he cannot stay alive and he descends to the underworld where he rules over the dead.

In the Greek myth, Uranus (the personification of heaven) is told of an oracle that predicts one of his children will overthrow him. Consequently, whenever his wife, Gaia (the personification of earth) has children he imprisons them. Gaia is not happy. A plan is set and put into action: Gaia’s youngest child, Cronus, castrates Uranus in an opportunistic moment and casts his genitals into the sea. Blood from the severed members become giants and Aphrodite rises out of the water from Uranus’ disembodied parts. Read on a symbolic level, Uranus’ castration gave birth to stupidity (giants are generally depicted as stupid) and the embodiment of beauty and sexual desire (Aphrodite’s characteristics). Alternately, the moral of the story could be interpreted as: “Don’t piss off your wife or she’ll chop your balls off”.

Cultic castration

Some devotees of Osiris cults castrated themselves in reverence for their deity, however, the Cybele cult is probably better known for this practice. The cult of Cybele focused around the Great Mother (Rhea in Greek). Priests of the order were eunuchs and some male followers also castrated themselves. The practice is speculated to be symbolic of a ‘Sacred Marriage’. There are differing accounts of how the festival-based ritual of removing male genitalia was performed. Sometimes the act was performed by the individual and other times it was done with assistance. While being a Roman cult, it has links to Greek mythology in which Cronus was instructed to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), by his mother, Gaia (Earth). In some instances Cybele cult clergy only removed their testicles and in others they completely removed all male genitalia.

Early Christianity

The practice of castration as a suitable means of avoiding unlawful sexual intercourse was expressed by many, including Philo of Alexandria (first century Jewish scholar) who said “it is better to make oneself a eunuch than to rage madly for unlawful sexual intercourse”#. Thus, cultural acceptance of castration combined with the following motivational verse from Saint Matthew’s gospel encouraged some early christians to perform the act:

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 

Matthew 19:12 (KJV)

In Christianity castration is mostly associated with religious asceticism. For instance, Origen (c.184 – 253CE) who was born into Christian family in Alexandria was zealously devoted to Christianity and is reported to have self castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. Presumably, he wasn’t the only one because when Christian leaders meet in the third century Catholic to discuss and establish standardised codes of conduct (the Council of Nicaea), self castration was one of the hot issues on the agenda. It was decided, moreover, it became cannon law, that self castration was to be prohibited. Prominent figures like Saint Augustine objected to the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, albeit, Augustine still popularised the notion that sexual intercourse was connected to sin.

A depiction of Origen’s self-castration
Source: Wikipedia commons

Intermingled with the long history of castration practices is the concept of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from the penis, which is hypothesised to be a tradition that evolved from expressing religious devotion via castration. Circumcision has been part of Judaism ever since the time of Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise all male babies on their eight day as a sign of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people (Genesis 17:10–14). The tradition then extended into Christianity and Islam. The connection between circumcision and castration is complicated by Abrahamic religions supporting circumcision but having no tolerance for castration: ‘No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the LORD’s people’ (GNV; Deuteronomy 23:1).

In 530 Emperor Justinian declared orders of celibacy for Christian clergy, however, these were not consistently followed. Priests were not officially forbidden to marry till 1139. Catholic priests today still take vows of celibacy on the grounds of it symbolising a commitment to God, while other Christian denominations (e.g. Lutheran, Protestant, and Anglican) allow priests to marry.

The prohibition of self castration did not eliminate its practice. In Russia, in the eighteenth century, a sect known as “Skoptsy” revived the tradition. The initiation process involved the testis being removed first, or in the case of women, the nipples, then the next stage was complete removal of the phallus or breasts.

Psychoanalysis

In Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety is concerned with so-called instinctual impulses (the id) of an incestual nature, in which a boy must give up his sexual desire for his mother out of fear that an internalised Godly father figure (the superego) will castration him. The wanting to repress sexual desire out of Godly wrath may be viewed as having an alignment with the conscious decision making behind some religious attitudes and practices, (e.g., some Cybele, Osiris and early Christian devotees), however, this is not sufficient evidence to claim all young boys unconsciously experience castration anxiety. If myths, ancient texts, and religious practices are to be used as evidence (as psychoanalysis does) then it could be conjectured that all young boys experience unconscious castration desires because they want to demonstrate devotion to their internalised God figure and be more like their mothers.

In the case of girls, who Freud thought of as castrated beings with a weaker superego, rather than viewing myths as projecting connotations of inferiority, female deities could be viewed as powerful beings who are capable of restoring order when men act foolishly, as can be interpreted in the behaviour of Rhea (Cronus’ wife) and Isis. Subsequently, having a penis can be viewed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. 

Overall, Freudian theories blur several factors such as mythological representation of castration and historical practices of castration, with young children’s curiosity about their own and other people’s bodies. The combining of these two factors is not conducive to understanding psychology. On one hand an appreciation can be given to the history of castration in mythology and ancient texts that express a broad range of attitudes, beliefs, and associated behaviours that are founded in cultural norms and customs. On the other hand, children, when learning about their bodily functions, require guidance to learn autonomy and social norms. 

After thoughts

From a contemporary perspective, the historical acts of castration as a religious practice may be viewed as having overlaps with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) proponents. However, this consideration can’t be taken too liberally. Actual acts of sexual promiscuity, rape, and other sexual violence that may have occurred within ancient cultures may have been an incentive for castration (religious or other), however, this is challenging to comment on due to the lack of reliable records.

*Quote taken from page 2: Freud, Sigmund, Lecture Twenty-One: development of the libido and sexual organization, https://azkurs.org/from-lecture-twenty-one-development-of-the-libido-and-sexual-o.html (accessed 27 November 2020).

# Quote taken from page 402: Caner DF. The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity. Vigiliae Christianae 1997; 51: 396–415.

Bibliography

Anwar MS, Munawar F, Anwar Q. Circumcision: a religious obligation or ‘the cruellest of cuts’? Br J Gen Pract 2010; 60: 59–61.

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/10/origen-christianity-philosophy (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Francis AG. On a Romano-British Castration Clamp used in the Rites of Cybele. Proc R Soc Med 1926; 19: 95–110.

McLeod SA. Psychosexual stages. Simply Psychology, https://www simplypsychology org/psychosexual html (accessed June 19, 2017), https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html (2008).

Mordeniz C, Verit A. Is circumcision a modified ritual of castration? Urol Int 2009; 82: 399–403.

Niehoff MR. Circumcision as a Marker of Identity: Philo, Origen and the Rabbis on Gen 17: 1—14. Jewish Studies Quarterly 2003; 10: 89–123.

Owen HL. When did the Catholic Church decide priests should be celibate. History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/696 (2001).

Teitelbaum S. Castration. In: Leeming DA, Madden K, Marlan S (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Boston, MA: Springer US, pp. 126–128.

Wade J. The Castrated Gods and their Castration Cults: Revenge, Punishment, and Spiritual Supremacy, https://digitalcommons.ciis.edu/advance-archive/12/ (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

Whitaker RJ. From virgin births to purity movements: Christians and their problem with sex. The Conversation, 2019, http://theconversation.com/from-virgin-births-to-purity-movements-christians-and-their-problem-with-sex-118327 (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology

According to the NASA website, the Big Bang Theory of how the universe started stipulates that in the beginning there was a very small single point that grew. Below is cut and paste of the process as theorised by Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble in 1927 & 1929 respectively.

When the universe began, it was just hot, tiny particles mixed with light and energy. It was nothing like what we see now. As everything expanded and took up more space, it cooled down.

The tiny particles grouped together. They formed atoms. Then those atoms grouped together. Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

The first stars created bigger atoms and groups of atoms called molecules. That led to more stars being born. At the same time, galaxies were crashing and grouping together. As new stars were being born and dying, then things like asteroids, comets, planets, and black holes formed!

Now what would you say if I told you that Lemaître’s and Hubble’s ideas were far from original? What would you say if I told you that the Ancient Egyptians said the same thing at least 5000 year ago? Well guess what, they did. Except the Egyptians used different wording.

According to the Egyptians, the void of nothingness at the start of time had four pairs of qualities. The names of these qualities were Naunet and Nu who represented the primeval water; Hauhet and Huh who represented infinity; Kauket and Kek who represented darkness, and; Amaunet and Amun who represented the hidden unknowable nature of the void. In case you didn’t guess it, each of these qualities was personified as a Goddess or God. Moreover, each pair had a female and male component – to use a modern analogy, it was kind of like pairs of female and male electrical circuitry; nothing was literally feminine or masculine, we humans just sometimes use a boorish of way describing things that interlock with each. (Imagine the joy your mobile charger gets when its studly male part makes love to the sexy female socket every night while its charging, and you’ll get the idea that thinking of the Egyptian deities as literally having it on, is humorous.)

The Egyptians expressed their version of the time before the ‘big bang’ wonderfully in their pictorial writing style of hieroglyphics.

Erroneously, some people, e.g., Jordan Peterson, refer to this description of the beginning of time as chaos, moreover, a feminine chaos. There are many reasons why this assumption is wrong, one of which is that it neglects etymology. The original meaning of the word ‘chaos’ was void.

Etymology

Etymology is the study of the history of words. Language is constantly evolving which means the meanings of words is not static – like all of the universe, meanings are constantly expanding. Sometimes the meanings of a word get so big that they break into pieces and new words and new meanings are formed.

Common examples of words that have changed include ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ which used to be synonyms that referred to fearful respect, i.e. ‘awe’ for God. Each word has slowly developed over the past few hundred years to point in which awesome means something wonderful and awful means something terrible.

Colloquially, ‘totally sick’ means something is great, but historically, a person would only use the term if someone was extremely ill.

Not so long ago, ‘gay’ meant happy or joyful, now it means homosexual. Imagine reading an Enid Blyton book and thinking the children were homosexual because you didn’t know the old meaning of the word. That is exactly the same situation we have with ‘chaos’.

Up until the 1600’s chaos had nothing to do with confusion or disarray. Hence, associating that meaning with the primeval waters of life is equally ridiculous. To use modern language, the primeval waters were a void.

Now, as the tiny particles, i.e. Naunet, Nu, Hauhet, Huh, Kauket, Kek, Amaunet, and Amun, got the jiggy on, excitement began to build. Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble phrase that this part of the process as leading to the creation of a big BANG. Personally, I think the Egyptian’s had a bit more class, they called it RA!

BANG or RA, or whatever you want to call it, it was BIG! And a great light appeared!

The Egyptians poetically describe this beautiful new light as blooming on a lotus flower. He sat there, ever so quietly, with His finger posed lightly upon His lips, in silence. Alas, the energy of this light was so powerful that it began to expand, and as it did Ra got excited; so excited in fact that He masterbated! Holy moly, the great God miraculously produced two offspring called Shu and Tefnut. Ra was new to this parenting thing; moreover, He was a single dad and wasn’t sure what He should be doing (I’m tempted to say Ra was a little bit Chaotic and struggled to find Order but I don’t want to get ahead of myself). So anyway, we’ll forgive Ra for not watching what the children were doing (some versions of the story say He lost an eye, so we’ll give the the poor man some empathy). While Ra was trying to get a hang on this parenting thing (if only He had some sex education before He masterbated!), there must have been a few moments where He wasn’t watching what the kids were doing because, lo and behold, the next thing you know, Shu and Tefnut are having kids with each other! Their offspring were called Nut and Geb. Please don’t judge Shu and Tefnut too harshly, they may have been siblings but their children were made with love, nonetheless. Besides, its not their fault Ra was an absent father figure who did not give any moral guidance (actually, I don’t think morals had been created yet – they came latter when the Goddess Maat arrived on the scene – bloody typical, the universe was immoral till a woman took on that leadership role). Family trauma set in quick. Nut and Geb had to be separated to stop the shenanigans. Nut was placed in the sky and Geb on the earth. The story goes on a bit with siblings having kids with each other (awkward, I know), and this keeps on going until Isis abstracts some of Ra’s power and begins the process of sorting out this family mayhem. Fortunately, after Isis has a child with her brother Osiris the incest theme dies down a bit. (The story of Isis is really cool, so I’m going to save the details for another time.)

Now I realise this Egyptian narrative is a bit raunchy and may not be appropriate for young children, so we’ll say the same thing in Lemaître’s and Hubble’s stiff upper-lipped scientific tone: Everything expanded and took up more space and then it cooled down. The tiny particles grouped together (that’s the incest part of the Egyptian story). They formed atoms (grand-kiddies were born!) Then those atoms grouped together (family tree was growing!) Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

I’m sorry, is it just me, or is the Egyptian version way more exciting? I know which drama enactment I’d buy tickets to see … I love learning but if the lesson is too boring then my attention is gone … just saying.

So there you have it. The Egyptian Big Bang theory. Presented to you in Renaissance Wellbeing’s style.

On a serious note, I have used some gender-stereotypes in my storytelling which are not necessarily part of the ancient Egyptian versions. Further, my stereotypes are not fair to real women or men. I mean no offence by my satirically expression. The point I’m making is that mythologies are an amalgamation of sociocultural influences and key concepts that have been personified. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different versions of the same myths. (FYI there are many variations of the Egyptian creation myth – what I’ve written here is a harmonisation of themes from serval versions.) Storytellers of different times and places imprinted upon narratives social codes and conventions that correlate to the cultures in which they are presented. Same thing happens in contemporary mediums of storytelling like novel writing and Hollywood movie scripts.

Overall, interpreting any ancient mythology needs to be approached with care and consideration of its themes and context. Creativity also needs to be duly acknowledged. For these reasons, myths cannot be completely generalised to have universal meanings, however, there is the caveat that common themes, like world beginning with a void, and theological beliefs, like the four elements, that can appear across a number of cultures. The reason for this is that there was a lot of sharing of stories, especially at ancient libraries. For example, Philo (20BCE – c. 50CE) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who harmonised Greek and Jewish themes into his writing. Likewise, Ovid (43BC – c.18CE) was Roman scholar who harmonised Greek and Roman mythology. And Iamblichus (245 – c.325CE) brought together Egyptian, Chaldean, and Assyrian beliefs. The extent that storytelling was shared between groups of people prior to written records is unclear. Although, there is evidence cross-cultural influences did occur, for example Egyptian artefacts have been found in Crete that date back to at least 1500BCE.

When mythology is viewed in appropriate sociocultural contexts, psychoanalytical theory that proposes myths have universal symbols looses validity. Psychoanalysis interpretations of mythology do not present genuine understandings of ancient stories nor do they reveal any unconscious truths about so-called archetypes. Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis is nothing more than surface level interpretations of mythological themes that reflect Victorian era values. They are not applicable to antiquity and they are not applicable to today’s societies. Moreover, the psychological effect of believing myths are literal truths about gender and behaviour can harmful to mental wellbeing. As individuals we are not doing ourselves justice if we compare ourselves to personifications of concepts. There are no ultimate masculine or feminine traits that anyone needs to affiliate with based purely on whether they are women or men. We are all human. We are all in a state of expansion, development, and creation, just like the universe.

To end, I’d like to thank Kathy for inspiring me to write this blog based on a social media comment that she made:

I wouldn't want to get lost in the idea that chaos is feminine when it is both. Much in nurturing is calming and bringing order. Nurturing has been stereotyped as a feminine role. So, that in itself is a contradiction to chaos as feminine.

Bibliography

chaos | Origin and meaning of chaos by Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). http://Www.Etymonline.com. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/chaos

NASA. (n.d.). What Is the Big Bang? | NASA Space Place – NASA Science for Kids. Spaceplace.Nasa.Gov. https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/big-bang/en/#:~:text=The%20Short%20Answer%3A

The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics

Human beings are visual creatures. Generally, we rely upon our eyesight more than any other sense. On a daily basis we look around our environments detecting colour, motion, shapes, contours, and gauge distance. We interpret body language, admire beauty, and we respond to the things we look at in a myriad of ways. When doing so, our mind is also constantly interpreting symbols. Even right now, while you are reading this blog, the letters that make up words are symbols that need interpreting. And the words themselves represent sounds and pictures which symbolise concepts that your mind can translate into meaning.

The definition of symbols is quite broad. To summarise, I’ve chosen the most concise and inclusive description from Cambridge online dictionary, along with a few examples:

  • something that is used to represent a quality or idea, for example:
    • Heart shape for the symbol of love
    • Water, a symbol of life, recurs as an image throughout her poems
    • The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of the Cold War
    • She’s a symbol of hope for people living with this condition
    • The private jet is a symbol of wealth
    • The symbol © shows that something is protected by copyright
    • Symbols for mathematics ➕➖➗✖️, science μx, music 𝄢 🎶 etc.

Symbols aren’t always easy to decipher. To help, I find Charles Peirce’s (1839–1914) three levels of reference useful:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is;
    • For example, a bird means a bird
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things;
    • For example, a bird brings to mind flying, tweeting sounds, nests, other animals, etc.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels;
    • For example, a bird brings to mind abstract concepts like nature, beauty, freedom, peace, and so forth.

If you want to develop a deeper sense of how the three levels of reference build up in the mind to form of semantic networks, then I highly recommend you check out Small World of Words. It is an online research platform in which you can type in a word and ‘visualize’ via a graphic presentation the common associations people have with that particular word. If you’re bilingual, an extra cool feature is that you can alter the language settings and compare word associations from one language with another. For example, in English, the word ‘dog’ is commonly associated with walking, barking, cats, friends, love, and more. In contrast, in German, the word ‘Hund’ (dog in German) has associations with mouse and wolf, which are not found in English associations of dog.

In art education, the skills associated with interpreting symbols is called visual literacy, and in a world saturated with visuals from advertising, social media, and other digital entertainment, comprehending what we see is more important than ever.

In a nutshell, thinking and communication are based on symbols. That’s pretty much the basics of why symbolism is important to mental wellbeing – the brain is constantly using and interpreting symbols. There is a lot of great science out there about symbolism, but unfortunately, thanks to Freud, there is also a lot of psychological myths about so-called universal symbols. I won’t harp on about him right now, but if you want the full deal on why I think he was wrong just about everything, you can read my peer reviewed paper Freud’s Oedipus Complex in the #MeToo Era: A Discussion of the Validity of Psychoanalysis in Light of Contemporary Research.

Bibliography

Cambridge Dictionary. (2019, November 20). SYMBOL | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge.org. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/symbol

Science Direct – Visual Literacy. (n.d.). Visual Literacy – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. http://Www.Sciencedirect.com. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/visual-literacy

Terrence William Deacon, & International Society For Science And Religion. (2007). The symbolic species : the co-evolution of language and the brain. International Society For Science And Religion.

The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts

Ancient philosophers often referred to a hierarchy of the cosmos as fire, air, water, and earth. References to this framework can be found throughout many ancient texts such as those written by Plato (c.425 – c.347BCE) and Aristotle (c.384–322BCE). 

Empedocles (c.494 – c.434BCE) is sometimes credited as being the inventor of the four elements, however, it’s more probable he is just the oldest, clear Greek record of the theology. Pythagoras (c.570 – c.495BCE) predates Empedocles and there are subtle references to the elements in his work. Likewise, we know from Aristotle that Anaxagoras (c.500 – c.428BCE) knew of the four elements. (Aristotle insists that there are five elements but I’ll leave that story for another blog). 

Zoracasterian’s claim they have references to the four elements that pre-date the Greeks, hence, it is from the Persians that the Greeks became aware of the “sacred” elements. Given that the Babylonians had devised the Zodiac by 1500BCE, and the twelve constellations are subdivided into the four elemental groups this is more than likely to be the case. 

Nevertheless, it is in Empedocles’ poem On Nature that we have an eloquent expression of earth, water, air, and fire as the roots of life. Below are a couple of quotes: 

And first the fourfold root of all things hear! — White gleaming Zeus, life-bringing Here, Dis, And Nestis whose tears bedew mortality.

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 6

I will report a twofold truth. Now grows The One from Many into being, now Even from the One disparting come the Many, — Fire, Water, Earth and awful* heights of Air

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 22

* In this context the term awful is best interpreted in the antiquated definition of: “Inspiring awe; filling with profound reverence, or with fear and admiration; fitted to inspire reverential fear; profoundly impressive” (Merriam, 1913)

To conceptualize Empedocles’ hierarchy, here is a visual: 

Empedocles further indicates that the root elements of earth, water, air, and fire relate to everything in the world, which can be described in the harmonised terms of form, life-force, soul, and spirit, and in turn, these relate to minerals, plants, animals, and humans:

From the bottom-up, minerals represent form that can exist in non-living material, examples being sand, dirt, and rocks, i.e. minerals of the physical earth. In living forms, minerals move up to the next root level in which minerals are blended with a life-force, e.g. plants and trees. Animals are forms that have a mineral and life-force component, plus a soul. Human beings are at the top of the hierarchy because their composition includes minerals, a life-force, soul, and spirit – spirit also represents mind, therefore, human cognition is the distinguishing feature between humans and animals. 

According to creation mythology – as reflected in Empedocles (Verse 22) where he describes the One as creating the Many –  the hierarchy began top-down with spirit creating soul, then the dyad of spirit and soul created life-force, and the triad of spirit, soul, and life-force created form. 

Empedocles specifies that Zeus, Hera, Nestis (aka Persephone), and Aidoneus (Hades first name) are representatives of the root elements fire, air, water, and earth respectively. I.e., Zeus is fire/spirit/intellect – the all powerful creator god, Hera is air/soul/emotion, Nestis/Persephone is water/life-force/energy – the essence of form, and Aidoneus/Hades is earth/form/physical matter – form. By following this code, mythologies can be read on a symbolic level. 

The Greek language, and many others, is gendered, hence, it is logical that categorisations of symbolic codes developed around dualities of the spoken word.

The tradition of personifying spiritual concepts is evident across mythologies, as notable in the Greek influences of first century poet, Ovid. (43 BC – 17/18CE). Ovid was a Roman scholar who blended Greek and Roman influences by writing poems that included the names of Gods and Goddesses from both traditions). His description of the elements echo Empedocles sentiments that were written nearly five hundred years earlier:

It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 5

The fiery element of convex heaven leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight, and chose the summit arch to which the air as next in quality was next in place

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 21

From the above quotes, it is evident that Ovid identifies a similar train of thought to Empedocles in which all the elements are reported as coming from the One, as expressed in ‘all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap’. Followed by the ‘fiery element’ emerging first, then the ‘air as the next quality’. However, rather than referring to Zeus as a ruling force of fire, Ovid refers to Jove as having this power. Likewise, other Roman deities replace some of the Greek characters.

In both Empedocles’ and Ovid’s (and other Greeks like Plato and Aristotle) descriptions, fire/spirit are represented as masculine and air/soul as feminine, thus it can be asserted that these were standard methods of defining spiritual theology in narrative contexts. Gendered descriptions of water/life-force and earth/form are a little more nuanced and ambiguous. 

The concept of the four elements can be identified beyond Greek and Roman spheres in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Aquinas, 1947; Habashi, 2000; Mirsky, 2004; Murata, 1989). Interestingly, an element of secrecy surrounding the four elements has been maintained for thousands of years. Subsequently, lack of understanding of the beliefs and structure behind ancient texts has led to many misinterpretations of the elements, from being interpreted as literally representing fire, air, water, and earth, through to their personifications as Gods and Goddesses being viewed as evidence to support patriarchal values.

Neglecting creative figurative speech in ancient verses has lead to the forming of institutionalised beliefs in of so-called archetypes which misrepresents the original philosophies. Psychoanalytical principles are a bit like saying all dogs are male (like in German, der Hund) and all cats female (die Katzte; German). Just as there are male and female dogs and cats, so too the masculinity and femininity in Spirit and Soul does not relate to biological men and women. On the whole the genderizations of spiritual concepts are arbitrary; Fire, Air, Water, and Earth don’t have real genders.

In sum, the secret to interpreting ancient myths does not lie in trying to decipher outer features of symbolism, rather, meaning is best inferred by recognising the underpinning theology. The four elements (or five as Aristotle and others assert) is an underlying belief system within Ancient Greek mythology. This concept can be extended to other theological systems, however, generalization needs to be conducted with care so as to avoid overlooking subtle differences between religions, cultures, and timeframes. 

Bibliography

Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Heavens by Aristotle. Classics.Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/heavens.html

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Soul by Aristotle. Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.2.ii.html

Empedocles, & Leonard, W. E. (1908). The fragments of Empedocles; In Internet Archive. Chicago : The Open Court Publishing Company. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028975923/cu31924028975923_djvu.txt

Habashi, F. (2000). Zorocaster and the theory of the four Elements. Bull. Hist. Chem, 25(2). http://acshist.scs.illinois.edu/bulletin_open_access/v25-2/v25-2%20p109-115.pdf

Kenney, E. J. (2019). Ovid | Roman poet. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ovid-Roman-poet

Merriam G. & C. (1913) “awful” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, http://www.websters1913.com/words/Awful, Accessed 10 November 2020.

Mirsky, Y. (2004). Feminine images of God. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/9090667/Feminine_Images_of_God

Murata, S. (1989). Masculine Feminine Complementarity in the Spiritual Psychology of Islam. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/27941952/Masculine_Feminine_Complementarity_in_the_Spiritual_Psychology_of_Islam

Ovid & Moore, B. c.15CE/1922/ 2017. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1 – Theoi Classical Texts Library. Theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html
Translated by Brookes More, 1922.

Plato. (360 B.C.E.). Plato, Republic, Book 1. http://Www.Perseus.Tufts.Edu; The Annenberg CPB/Project provided support for entering this text. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D1

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.

‌Schweizer, E. (1988). Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 18, 20. Journal of Biblical Literature, 107(3), 455–468. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267580

Waxman, O. B. (2018, June 21). Where Do Zodiac Signs Come From? Here’s the True History Behind Your Horoscope. Time; Time. https://time.com/5315377/are-zodiac-signs-real-astrology-history/

No Peterson, Chaos is not a universal feminine trait found across mythology.

I am not a fan of Jordan Peterson (I’ve written about him before here). In brief, he states half-truths as scientific facts. I find it frustrating to listen to him talk because one moment I’ll be agreeing with what he says and then the next I’ll be cringing at his inaccuracies. Essentially, the problem lies in his support of psychoanalytical theories which translate to personal opinions based on poor research practices.

Psychoanalysis is a belief system akin to religious doctrines. Its fundamental creed is that symbols in ancient mythologies have unconscious universal meanings. Freud was the inventor of the “holy scriptures” and his cult endures through personalities like Peterson.

Today I am inspired to say a few words in response to the YouTube: Jordan Peterson – Why is Chaos symbolised as feminine?

I’m going to keep my rebuttal short and sweet: the Greek personification of Chaos is MASCULINE or NEUTRAL. (In Latin, Chaos is neutral.) In creation mythology Chaos creates Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night).

My knowledge of Greek linguistics isn’t fantastic but from my research it appears that χάος (chaos) is a masculine and χάους (chaos) and is the feminine. In early texts (Homer and Hesiod) Chaos is represented as a male deity and it is only in later texts (Orpheus and Aristophanes) that it is suggested that Chaos might be feminine.

Coincidentally, in the older Greek eras when stories were told by word of mouth, prior to 700BCE, there is evidence of matriarchal and/or egalitarian Greek societies. Whereas Orpheus and Aristophanes’ writings are dated later (c.600-400BCE) when Greece had become a patriarchal society. In other words, sociocultural structures influenced the presentation of themes presented in creation myths from one era to another.

This is not unusual. The identification of cultural codes and conventions in media productions is a well recognised aspect of contemporary analyses of narratives. All Peterson needs to do is google “Media Codes and Conventions” and he’ll find an abundance of academic literature about the subject.

Psychoanalytical theory loves to suggest metaphors are based on universal truths but this simply is not the case. The representation of concepts as personifications is complex, and nuanced by various factors of sociocultural considerations that should be addressed in case to case circumstances.

Peterson tries to support his arguments by promoting masculine mythological characters as representations of order, as he does in Jordan Peterson – Men as order and Women as chaos. Again, he is picking and choosing “facts” to suit his arguments.

In Greek mythology, Veritas is a goddess of truth, Eunomia is a goddess of law and legislation (her name literally means ‘good order’), Aletheia is a goddess of truth and sincerity, one of Athena’s virtues is practical reason, and Themis is a goddess of order, justice, wisdom, and good counsel. In contrast, Perses is a god of destruction, Ares is a god of war and violence, Apollo is responsible for plagues, and Dionysus is associated with drunken chaos.

Moving onto Egyptian mythology, Seth is a god of chaos, likewise Apep is a god of chaos and an opponent of Ma’at who is the goddess of truth and order. Thmei is also a goddess of truth and Merit establishes cosmic order with her music.

In Hindu mythology, Durga Devi is a goddess of moral order and Vritra is male demon (represented by a snake or dragon) who causes adversary. And let’s not forget that Christianity has Satan as it’s masculine representative of chaos.

Granted, there are some feminine deities who represent chaos, e.g. Eris (Greek), Kali (Hindu), and Kek (Egyptian; to be precise, Ancient Egyptian mythology refers to eight deities, four male, four female, that represent the primordial waters of chaos). Masculine deities who represent order include Weneg (Egyptian), and Vishnu (Indian), and Zeus (Greek; Zeus is also known to cause some chaotic situations, e.g. the story of Demeter and Persephone, but I’m putting him down because I’m having troubles finding a Greek god specifically dedicated to order – creating order and harmony appears to be a role dominated by Greek goddesses).

As for Taoism, which Peterson bases his arguments upon, an alignment of masculine as order and feminine as chaos can be read into the philosophies of yin and yang. However, generalisations of symbolic codes and conventions for concepts is not universal across all ancient belief systems.

Moreover, the spiritual psychology of yin and yang is not as simple as Peterson proposes. Personally, I find Sachiko Murata’s discussions much more thorough and detailed but I’ll avoid going off on a tangent and discuss Murata’s work in a future blog.

In sum, interpreting mythology is not always a simple, straightforward task. Generalising is thwarted with challenges and the results are prone to error if sociocultural considerations of when, where, why, and how stories are told are not taken into account. Further, the polarisation of concepts distracts from what myths are often trying to convey, that being the variability and shades of grey between black and white, male and female, good and bad, chaos and order.

Confronting misinterpretations of ancient myths is an important step forward in developing sound psychological theories. Likewise, psychoanalytical mythology and misogynistic stereotypes disguised as “science” need to be recognised as being nothing more than Freudian fables.

More about Chaos and Order in ancient myths: The Big Bang theory and Egyptian mythology

UPDATE 11/1/22: I’ve written an article about Eris. She is mostly associated as being the manifestation of strife and discord which, in a way, could be interpreted as causing chaos: Exploring Ancient Myths: Defining Beauty, According to Homer’s Helen of Troy.

Reflections on learning how to hold a pencil inspired by Quilty’s work with Syrian refugee children

In 2016, Australian artist, Ben Quilty, travelled to Syria to work in refugee camps. The project involved supplying children with quality paper and pencils and encouraging them to tell their stories through pictures. The drawings were complied into a book, titled Home. The images and stories are moving to say the least. If you’d like to know more, I’ve included a link to a short video about the project at the bottom of this blog.

I was fortunate to hear Quilty talk directly about the project in a live interview at Brisbane’s Powerhouse in 2018. In that interview, he mentioned that some of the children who came into the camps had never seen pencils before because pencils had been banned by the Taliban. Therefore, the first thing Quilty and his assistants needed to do was show the children how pencils could be used for mark making. As an art teacher and art therapist, I was fascinated to hear about the learning process the children went through in order to be able to creatively express themselves.

According to Quilty, the children who had never seen pencils had no idea how they should be used; they would literally pick one up and not know what to do with it. Therefore, the first step was giving instructions on how to hold a pencil – I’m not too sure how this was done but I’ll get back to some thoughts about this a bit later. In process, some of the assistants taught the children how to draw a love heart with an arrow through it. Consequently, the children repeated the symbol over and over again because that was all they knew. Gradually, as they learned more mark making skills (either by direct instructions or watching other children draw), their drawings became more unique and complicated; moreover, they learnt how symbolic marks can be used as a language of self expression.

I imagine most of us went through the process of learning how to hold a pencil and make marks when we were so young that we have forgotten the steps we had to go through to get there. Even rudimentary drawing skills, such as stick figures are, nonetheless, drawing skills and it is from this base knowledge that visual self expression can become possible. Further, it is from simple symbolic gestures that our creative minds can connect ideas in individualised ways.

Now, getting back to learning how to hold a pencil. In my first few years of primary schooling, I remember being taught the “correct” way, which was to use the middle finger, index/pointer finger, and thumb to grip around the pencil. It is a rigid clasp that locks the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, thus providing a means to make controlled movements that are necessary for forming the shapes of letters. I also remember my teacher walking around the classroom shaming anyone who was not holding their pencil in accordance to precise instructions. I always wanted to be a “good girl” so I made sure I always held my pencil correctly and never received harsh reprimand. Subsequently, the muscle memory in my hand became second nature. For nearly two decades, I believed that I was doing the “right thing” and it took dedicated practice to teach myself how to hold a pencil differently so as I could draw more freely. Drawing requires a loose hold, one that allows easy movement of the the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, and it has a different visceral feel to holding a pencil for writing. Children often do this instinctively, i.e. they explore different ways of holding a pencil and move their whole body when making marks. To see how holding a pencil for drawing can differ to writing, watch the following video:

Over the years, I’ve meet many people who have told me they cannot draw, to which I advise they explore different hand grips when mark making. Contrary to popular belief, learning how to draw is not an innate skill which some people possess and others don’t, it is set of skills and techniques that can be improved through practice. Playing with lines, shapes, colour, texture, tone, and space, is all that is needed to spark the creativity impulse which, in turn, leads to more skill development and a greater means of self expression. Quilty’s experience with refugee children provides anecdotal evidence of just how powerful this process can be for the artist and those who view their work.

Interview with Ben Quilty and the making of the book Home

The Art of Perception: sight and mental health

The process of seeing involves light entering our eyes and influencing the physiological mechanisms for sight in our brains. At the back of our eyes is our “retina” which is largely composed of “cones” and “rods” that interpret visual information. The cones and rods send communication signals via nerve impulses to our visual cortex and other parts of the brain. Interpretations of what is seen is a combination of direct information provided by our sensory organs (the eyes) and internal processes that apply meaning to what we see. In other words, what we see is based upon what is in front of us and our memories, prior knowledge, associated feelings, cognitive interpretations, and so forth. 

Our cones are predominantly responsible enabling us to see colour and deciphering spatial qualities. We have three types of cones and each one has different sensitivity levels to light wavelengths. If someone is colour blind then that basically means they have more cones that allow them to see certain colours (red/green colour blindness is most common) and fewer cones that allow them to see other colours. Ultimately, we are all different and therefore, sight can vary from person to person – if you’ve ever had an argument over the colour of a dress, now you know why! Rods, on the other hand, are photoreceptors that enable us to see things in low light and do not distinguish colours. 

Cones do most of their work during the day then “switch off” at night time when rods become more active. Observing this sensory change can be done with a simple experiment of observing the sun set. Provided there is no interference from artificial light sources, the switching of vision functioning is quite amazing and profound. 

Now some people might be wondering how are the mechanisms of sight related to mental health? Basically, what we see can affect how we think and feel and what we are thinking and feeling can influence what we see and/or how we interpret what we’re seeing. Exploring this connection in a non-threatening activity is a great way to develop self awareness. 

A few weeks ago I performed the sun set experiment myself. The following is a write up of my experience. If any readers decide to the experiment, please write a comment on this blog. I would love to hear others’ experiences! 

Were the eye not of the sun, 

How could we behold the light? 

If God’s might and ours were not as one, 

How could His work enchant our sight?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1810

The notion that human beings have two organs for vision – outer physical eyes that behold light and inner “spiritual eyes” that enchant sight – can be traced back to antiquity. In the above verse, Goethe poetically references this phenomenon with curious questioning of how the functions of these two organs interrelate. A few evenings ago, I conducted a heuristic investigation of my inner and outer vision faculties as “the world” – my world – changed as the light changed at sunset. 

My session commenced at 7:30 pm, under a murky, overcast sky. Seated on a suburban back verandah with paper, pen, and chalk pastels I recorded my experience in visual and written form. In the quietness of the night, I began by looking inward. I was full of angst due to having received some unsettling news in the afternoon. As my restless mind struggled to focus on the task, I wondered how my inner world was influencing my outer vision and vice versa? Focusing my awareness outwards towards an enclosed yard, I noted how unorderly the overground grass appeared and I acknowledge a sensation of entrapment created by the fences and buildings; did my yard always look and feel like this? 

I started sketching to assist the process of focusing on what I could see before me (Fig. 1). Initially, I consciously ignored the brilliance of the colours that were illuminated by the sunlight. What a marvellous instrument the brain is to be able to direct nerves impulses received from the eye to different functions within cortex simply with thoughts! I worked quickly and haphazardly to capture the lines and shapes of the trees, fences, and other objects. Under different circumstances I was quite certain that I would have been more careful and precise with my rendering. As I made marks, I observed being aware of the “reality” of what was before me and the “imaginative” elements from my mind’s eye that I felt an urge to indicate on my paper. For example, I could see elegant tree limbs gently bowing back and forth in a subtle breeze; however, the inner turmoil of my thoughts and emotions encouraged exaggerates gestures and abrupt lines. 

As easily as I had willed my focus to dim colour, I was able to will it back. There were so many shades of green! I felt disappointed by my mediocre collection of pastels; there was no way I could give justice to the spectrum of analogous emerald-toned photons entering my retina. With my attention absorbed by the colours of my outer world, my inner world focus shifted from my woeful thoughts to awe of my visual sensations. 

I looked around hoping to spot a natural prism but this was not my fortune. Then, as I turned my attention to the shadows, I reflected upon Goethe’s adamance that Newton’s colour theory was wrong. I withheld personal judgment and simply appreciated that contemplating the theories of philosophers enriched my current subjective experience. 

I reached for my purple pastel to darken some areas, then paused – was it really purple that I saw in the shadows? Or was I seeing what my mind’s eye expected to see? For a moment I thought it was purple but then I was sure it was black. Black resonated with my emotional tone far better than purple; however, it was also possible that the light had reduced and my cone-mediated vision was switching to rods. I looked more intently in the shadows and for a fleeting moment I saw both purple and black, then another moment later it was definitely black. To solve the puzzle of what was real or imaginary in my vision, I looked to the grass and noticed that I could no longer identify an array of greens: twilight was settling in. I put down my picture, unfinished. 

It wasn’t complete darkness, I could identify shades of grey in between high contrasting dark and light highlights. Much to my surprise, I noticed a bright red flower in my neighbours yard projecting out of the dimness. I could not identify a light source to explain the phenomena. I looked around to see if any greens, blues, or yellows were as strikingly visible as the red. Alas, there was none. Hence, I wandered about the nature of my photon receptors. Perhaps there is something special about red receptors? Or was it just the wiring of my vision? 

Staring into my bleak, monochromatic yard, I noticed the lines of my verandah fence, the branches on the tree, and other lines within my vision were more prominent. The shapes of the leaves on the tree seemed sharper too. If I were able to do a drawing in the dark then it would have been one of lines and shapes. While my inner world knew the colours were still there and I could imagine them with my inner sight, my outer sight organs were defiantly reliant upon an external source of illumination. 

As my vision faded, so did my energy. The rhythm of the day, as dictated by the light, instigated a desire for sleep. In the final moments of my experiment, I reflected once more on the interrelationship between my inner and outer sight. When my awareness of perception was focussed outwards, this influenced my thoughts and feelings in a distracting manner, and when my awareness of my inner thoughts and feelings was focussed inwards, this influenced interpretative perceptions of my sight sensations. 

Satisfied that the experiment was complete, I went inside at 9:30 pm, turned on a light and looked at what I had drawn. It was a terrible drawing, yet oddly “realistic” of the blended experience of what I perceived outwardly and inwardly felt during that particular sunset: it had been a terrible day. I will repeat the experiment another day when I am in a better mood and compare how my sight and perception of my yard differs. 

Figure 1. Drawing conducted during sunset experience 

Bibliography

Tantillo, A. O. (2002). The will to create : Goethe’s philosophy of nature. University Of Pittsburgh Press.

Crone, R. A. (2000). A history of color : the evolution of theories of lights and color. Kluwer Academic.

Keller E.F., Grontkowski C.R. (1983) The Mind’S Eye. In: Harding S., Hintikka M.B. (eds) Discovering Reality. Synthese Library, vol 161. Springer, Dordrecht

Margo, C. E., & Harman, L. E. (2019). Helmholtz’s critique of Goethe’s Theory of Color: more than meets the eye. Survey of Ophthalmology, 64(2), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.survophthal.2018.10.004

Meyertholen, A. (2019). “Zum ersten Mal sah ich ein Bild”: Goethe’s Cognitive Viewing Subject as Scientist and Artist. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, 55(3), 203–228. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/732087/pdf

Moore, E. K., & Simpson, P. A. (2007). The enlightened eye : Goethe and visual culture. Rodopi.

Serov, N. V. (2019). Conceptualizing the Predicates of the Goethe–Newton Controversy about Color. Automatic Documentation and Mathematical Linguistics, 53(4), 203–215. https://doi.org/10.3103/s0005105519040083

Hysteria to PTSD: Freud’s hypnotism still has some people in a trance

“… [the victim] needs to stop thinking about themselves as nice and harmless because it is the nice and harmless person that is exploitable by the malevolent psychopath and that’s not moral virtue, that’s just weakness, that’s all it is. It’s naivety, it’s the maintenance of a child-like viewpoint of the world that’s past its expiry date … “

JORDAN PETERSON, 2017

Jordan Peterson* is a controversial fellow and it’s not too difficult to work out why. In a nutshell, I appreciate some aspects of his intellect but he misses the mark completely when it comes to understanding emotional aspects of being human and trauma. This is can be seen in comments like those above when he is discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found it quite shocking to hear him speak of someone struggling with trauma as being weak, naive, and childish. My encounters with people with PTSD indicate that they are strong, resourceful, intelligent people who live in a state of hyperviligance. They are constantly in fear that they will meet malevolence around every corner. Further, they don’t think of themselves as nice and harmless. Many are riddled with self-blame and low self-esteem. Peterson’s attitude that trauma victims should toughen up and move on is old fashioned and scientifically unsound. It is highly alarming to see a professional, high-profile psychologist perpetuating myths about PTSD.

Peterson also promotes the view that malevolence can be placed on a scale from relatively insignificant through to extreme. Accordingly, lesser traumatic experiences should be dismissed (Peterson uses the example of child being sexually assaulted by their sibling) and only “extreme” traumatic experiences are of any real significance. Such opinions ignore fundamental aspects of the traumatic experience and promote dissociation.

In the past thirty to forty years, a lot of breakthroughs in research have lead to amazing insights about PTSD. Peterson is in the psychology industry, how could he not be aware of the latest studies? Why is he dispensing out dated psychoanalysis ideas? I can understand why the general public aren’t aware of new research but Peterson has no excuse.

Suggesting PTSD is a sign of weakness, an inability to let go, an indulgence of emotions, or any other belittling connotation can be dangerous because doing so diverts people from getting the support that they really need. Moreover, it constitutes victim-blaming. It appears that Peterson is basing his approach on out-dated information; his views may be seen as aligning with erroneous Freudian psychology.

“Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma.”

Many history books bestow Freud with the glorified title of “father of modern psychoanalysis”. Some even go so far as to praise Freud as the “father of modern psychology”. Both titles suggests that he was intelligent man who should be looked up too. This perception is very misleading. Putting it bluntly, Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma. Nevertheless, his influence was great and many people don’t realise the potential negative consequences of his contributions. The aim of this blog is to explore Freud’s theories so as the errors can be identified and relinquished by community (and Peterson) consciousness.

Firstly, it needs to be explained that Freud never spoke of PTSD. He spoke of hysteria. The term PTSD first became an official diagnosis in 1980 when it was published in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)**. Prior to 1980, individuals who presented with symptoms associated with what we now call PTSD were referred as having hysteria, neurasthenia, shell shock or battle fatigue***. Hysteria is the oldest term and it has an extensive history.

Clarifying what is PTSD

Before getting into the heart of the discussion, it’s useful to give a brief overview of PTSD. Traumatic occurrences that can lead to the condition include events, such as rape, assault, war, domestic violence, abuse, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, or smaller, repeated stressful events, such as being bullied, called names, ostracised, neglected, and witnessing others experience trauma (vicious trauma). Other forms of traumas includes physical illness, birth trauma (i.e. significant medical intervention), intergenerational trauma (i.e. negative experiences passed from parent to child via DNA), and collective trauma (i.e. racism, sexism, climate crisis issues, etc.). More information about trauma can be found here.

PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person, however, the following is a general outline of common traits: confusion, irrationality, anxiety, fear; withdrawal from others; mood swings; heightened startle response to stimuli; low self esteem; feeling hopeless, helpless, guilt, shame, numb, and overall sadness. The impact of PTSD can be crippling and it lowers quality of life tremendously.

Regardless of whether a person has several smaller traumatic events or if they have experienced large ones, the effects of PTSD on the body and mind can be equally difficult. Judgments about what the trauma was from are irrelevant; the impact that trauma has on an individual is what matters.

Brief History of Hysteria to PTSD

The word hysteria stems from the Greek word ‘hysterikos’ which refers to a woman’s uterus. The Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates, believed that a woman’s uterus could wander around her body, thus was the cause of heightened and excessive emotional behaviour. Whenever I read this explanation of hysteria I want to laugh. I’m certain that it must be an ancient joke and us modern people are too daft to see the proverbial tongue in cheek. Surely, it’s the same as contemporary satire about men having two brains: one their head and the other in their sexual organs? The Greek philosophers were phenomenal thinkers of mathematics, science, politics, the arts, and yet they believed that a woman’s womb could wander around her body and that sex was required to keep it in the right place! Hmm, maybe this proof that some men think more with their lower brain than the higher one in their head 🙂

Hysteria’s stigma of being a women’s disease has prevailed for millennium. Notions of “crazy” women who are too “weak” to control their emotions often come to mind. (Peterson’s views echo this notion.) The Middle Ages added to the negative connotations by suggesting hysteria was a sign of demonic possession. Links between witchcraft and hysteria have been identified by some historians.

The Renaissance period was an era in which westernised cultures reflected back upon Ancient Greek philosophers. Therefore, a renewal of the connection between hysteria and the sexual behaviour of women had a resurgence. The moral codes of the renaissance differed from that of Ancient Greek, therefore, the apparent need for women to excrete their sexual juices in order to prevent hysteria caused some dilemmas. Nevertheless, hysteria was predominantly viewed as a woman’s issue that was associated with too much or too little sexual activity.

During the seventh century, some significant developments concerning the understandings of hysteria took place. In particular, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), suggested that there was a connection between the mind and the body which caused symptoms. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) suggested the nervous system played a role, and Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) suggested that the male equivalent of hysteria was hypochondria. Perhaps if psychology had continued to follow these lines of investigation we may have arrived at our contemporary understandings of PTSD sooner? Alas, this did not occur.

“Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can be summarised in his Oedipus theory.”

In the late nineteenth century, the unconscious mind and hypnosis dominated psychology and steered understandings of hysteria back to antiquated premises. It is during this era that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became a prominent figure.

Freud, identified hysteria as being caused by traumatic experiences in one’s childhood which resulted in emotional distress in adulthood. Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can correlates with his Oedipus theory. This theory suggest that all children between the ages of 3-6 unconsciously desire their opposite-sex parent (girls supposedly have the additional problem of penis envy) which causes jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. The tension of these lustful impulses is, according to Freud, traumatic and can lead to adult hysteria. Closely associated with the Oedipus theory is the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which Freud suggests that erectile dysfunction is caused by a man’s desire for a nurturing figure but when they encounter this in a real women they are reminded of their mothers, so therefore need to degrade her to a whore level. To support his views, Freud referred to mythological stories as evidence. Freudian theory goes on to presume absolute authority on how symbols in mythology are to be interpreted and how themes of myths are mirrored in an individual’s life which, of course, is mostly of a sexual nature. Anyone else see any problems with these theories? I’ll unpack some of my interpretations shortly.

Freud’s work then continues with his development of the “talking cure” known as psychoanalysis. The process of psychoanalysis involves allowing a client to talk freeing, in particular, about their dreams and childhood memories whilst the therapist looks for reoccurring themes and/or evidence of a sexual-based dilemmas. The process is founded on the premise that making unconscious desires and lusts conscious through “free association” is cathartic. Interestingly, Freud developed psychoanalysis techniques so as he could help clients who he was not able to hypnotise.

Freudian ideas about psychoanalysis were challenged by his peers but many people still supported them. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Freud, few can argue that his work was highly influential. The spreading of Freudian ideas throughout society occurred through artistic movements such as surrealism, movie references, and the notion of a “Freudian slip of the tongue”. Subsequently, while science rejected most of Freud’s work, pop-culture enabled him to become an icon of how the unconscious mind supposedly works.

“The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology”

As the twentieth century progressed, many other individuals made significant contributions to various aspects of psychology, including Carl Rogers, Burrhus Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov, John Dewey, Donald Winnicott, Aaron Beck, and more. Theories concerned with behaviour, attachment, social issues, developmental factors, education, and cognitive functioning spread the field of psychology into new domains. Intertwined with psychology research were significant changes in politics, culture, and social values. The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology; when returned service men displayed emotional dysregulation like that traditionally only seen in hysterical women, theories of mental health issues were investigated from new perspectives.

Other factors that contributed to developments in psychological research included the consolidation of scientific procedures, the creation of mood and thinking based measurement scales, the invention of brain scanning technology, the discovery of pharmaceuticals that can alter mental and emotional states, and the application of higher ethical standards in research protocols.

A particularly significant development in psychology occurred within the field of neuroscience. This formally began in the 1960’s when the use of the term “neuro + science” was first used. In brief, neuroscience is a specialised area of psychology that focuses on the nervous system and its related influence on the body, brain, and human behaviour. Its findings have shed much light on mental health conditions which previously mystified professionals. Insights into PTSD have been obtained from sources such as brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrocephalogram (EEG) technology.

The human nervous system is a pathway of nerves which runs throughout every part of the body; energy impulses travel along the nervous system and convey messages back and forth between our senses and our brain. The major conduit of this process occurs via what is called our ‘vagus nerve’. The vagus nerve runs down our spine and spreads out like tree branches throughout our abdominal; finer branches spread throughout our limbs. The vagus nerve connects to all major organs, i.e. in our abdominal it connects to our heart, lungs, and stomach, and in our head it connects to our brainstem. Nerve impulses travel throughout our brain which is divided into three main parts; the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The signals between sensory organs and the brain operate via two-way messaging. In other words, sensory organs send messages to the brain and parts of the brain can send messages to parts of the body. PTSD disturbs the functioning of the nervous system.

Contemporary Psychology

While studies of hysteria were prominent around the turn of the nineteenth century, the main focus of contemporary psychology could be said to be trauma. These may be viewed as one and the same thing with the caveat that hysteria was traditionally a woman’s diagnosis whereas PTSD diagnoses are gender neutral. PTSD may slightly differ in how it presents in men and women; however, the cause, discomfort, and curative approaches are the same for all genders.

Many experts such as Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Gabor Matè, Diane Heller, and Brene Brown are actively raising society’s awareness about the implications of unhealed trauma as presented in PTSD symptoms. While each of these aforementioned people approach trauma and healing from slightly different angles, collectively, they are educating society about trauma and the need to address it in a compassionate manner. Further, it is becoming universally accepted that it is not specific aspects of traumatic events that lead to PTSD, rather, it is the imprint that these experiences leave on the physical body.

“Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes”

Contemporary psychology, as supported by neuroscience, views PTSD as a normal response to traumatic experiences. When traumatic or stressful events go beyond an individual’s capacity to cope and/or they don’t have the necessary support to help them recover, then long term PTSD symptoms may develop. Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes – and the energetic charge needs to be released.

Contemporary PTSD treatments are often based on somatic understandings of mind-body connections. In other words, in order to heal trauma symptoms, the physical attributes of a dysregulated nervous system needs to be addressed through embodied approaches so as to improve cognitive functioning. Simultaneously, cognitive processes need to be addressed so as to support the processing of nervous system sensations. Emotions are the key player of the halfway point between bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom trauma therapies.

A person’s ability to overcome adversity without developing PTSD is dependent upon many factors; most prominently, their access to empathetic support. Invalidating a person’s experience and making judgments about them being physically and/or mentally weak, does not help the condition. Moreover, such attitudes are counterproductive and can lead to perpetrating symptoms by promoting shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Freud’s Legacy

On the whole, contemporary psychology research undermines the validity of Freudian theories, from his suggestions of what causes hysteria through to his psychoanalysis practices. It could be argued that contemporary psychoanalysis’ do not follow Freud verbatim, and that attacking Freud when many others have thought along similar lines to him, is a little harsh. In due respect of these considerations, the problem lies in people not taking the time to thoroughly investigate what psychoanalysis is really about (as I didn’t till recently) and the snippets of information that are given constitute a kind of social conditioning that leads to misinformed thinking and behaviour.

It is not possible for Freudian ideas about hysteria and modern theories of trauma to both be correct. They are opposing hypothesises. Ultimately, there is more scientific evidence to support mind-body theories of PTSD.

In the broad scheme of things, I can see how Freud’s theories came about and that they may have even been a necessary step in the process of understanding a PTSD. I can happily give him credit for identifying for that hysteria is based on traumatic childhood experiences that impact adult behaviour. I also appreciate that he saw a link between some physical ailments and the mind and emotions. My homage to Freud ends there. He was only a quarter right in his research and after those points he made several to mistakes and oversights. I therefore question why he is still considered to be such a great man? And do others realise how much he got wrong? Or is Freud’s circle of influence so vast that many great thinkers have accidentally been lead astray? There are many people (including some professionals, like Peterson) who don’t seem to understand how, when, and why Freudian theories are invalid.

Freud’s theories are predominantly based on clinical records of female clients as detailed in a book titled Studies of Hysteria. Despite the fact that there was talk amongst Freud’s academic peers that hysteria could be identified in men, and that Freud himself is reported to have expressed an understanding that hysteria was not exclusively a female condition, his studies were, nevertheless, solely based on women. Putting it simply, Freud’s research is contaminated by a bias population sample. By today’s rigorous scientific standards, his case studies would be rejected and condemned for having weak inductive arguments.

Freud’s premises for the curative elements of his talking cure are highly questionable. In the process of psychoanalysis, the therapist takes on a “superior” role to the “naive” patient so as to explain to them the “reality” of their world in which they are too “sick” to see. The process is based on hypnotic principles of suggestion and submission. (The notion of therapists having “superiority” over “naive” clients is reflected in many of Peterson’s remarks.)

Freud’s adamance of the accuracy of psychoanalysis was primarily based on his personal beliefs, not empirical findings. Such can be seen in Freud’s expressed frustration at his client’s who were, to his mind, not always forthright with admitting their “passions”. Rather than accepting that his clients might be telling their truth and that his theories may be wrong, thus looking for other variables and explanations, Freud maintained the belief that sexual urges were the cause of hysteria regardless of client’s responses. Further, when his client’s reported sexual abuse and incest, he routinely dismissed their claims as being fantasy.

The notion that dreams and projective drawings hold universal insights into the subconscious mind via objective meanings has been critically evaluated in studies and found to hold little merit. (As an art therapist, I’ve gone to extreme lengths to research whether or not such theories hold merit and have come to the conclusion they do not.) While symbols, signs, and motifs may have significance, it is the individual’s interpretation of such that is deemed most important^^. Personal experiences, cultural considerations, social conditioning, religious standing, and several other factors mean that subjective interpretations of unconscious material is predominately more accurate than so-called “objective” projections given by the therapist. (These findings also reflect doubt on Carl Jung’s theories of there being a universal collective consciousness in which there are absolute meanings behind archetypes^^^.)

In my research, I was further surprised to discover that Freud had a serious cocaine habit and he regularly promoted the substance to his clients, which lead to the death of one – they overdosed by following Freud’s prescribed intake because Freud incorrectly believed that humans had a high tolerance level to the substance. In a compassionate mind-frame, I wonder if perhaps Freud’s drug habits are reflective of him self-medicating to address undiagnosed personal trauma? Be that as it may, as I shift between being highly critical of the man and trying to retain an open minded, the bottom line is that I don’t believe Freud is a very good role model. There are too many points to question the accuracy of Freud’s work for him to be entitled to the celebrity status that is bestowed upon his legacy.

“Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies”

Okay, so Freud was a man of his time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing any better. But why are the Jordan Peterson’s of the world still quoting Freudian ideas as facts when there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise? Ironically, it almost appears as though Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies.

Peterson’s approach to psychology echoes Freudian theories and is therefore prone to errors. Specifically, Peterson’s solution to PTSD being that people should simply be less naive and accept that there is malevolence in the world is unjustifiable. His suggestion of preventing PTSD by having individuals toughen up is blatantly disregarding ethical and evidence-based practice. Interestingly, at no point does Peterson recommend that people who are inclined to be malevolent should change, rather, he glorifies malevolent behaviour as being intelligent and suggest the ultimate solution is for “naive” and “child-like” people to change their perspectives. Somatic considerations of PTSD and the challenges of processing of difficult emotions are not mentioned either. I concur with Gabor Mate^ in agreeing that Peterson’s lacks a comprehensive understanding of trauma and his advocation of repressing emotions is unproductive. Sorry to say this Peterson, but I think you are a victim of Freud’s hypnotism.

Conclusion

Prior to investigating the history of PTSD, I had limited understanding of Freud and the potential negative impact that his work has had on shaping contemporary society. Like many, I knew of him as the father of psychoanalysis/psychology and, therefore, assumed the praise he is often given must be substituted. Further, as a lover of surrealistic art styles, I have appreciated his influence in enabling the development of great works like those done by Salvador Dali, James Gleeson, Jeffery Smart, and others. Now, however, my critical evaluation of his work leads me to wonder if he would be better known as the greatest hypnotist of the twentieth century?

Personally, I would like to see some other psychologists get a bit more public attention. In regards to historical characters, I’d vote for Carl Rogers (1902-1987).

“… [Rogers] believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy.”

Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is known as humanistic or client-centred. He believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy. His promotion of building a positive relationship between consumer and therapist has been clinically proven, time and time again, to be the single most important factor underpinning all successful therapy. Further, it aligns perfectly with what is known about the nervous system and human social engagement. Rogers’ theories sit at the heart of trauma-informed practices.

Rogers’ is most renowned for promoting the importance of giving unconditional positive regard to all individuals. Now that is the type of father figure I’d like to look up to!

In reflecting back over the past hundred years of western society I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if psychology, education systems, medical models, politics, media messages, and so forth, echoed more of Rogers’ theories and less of Freud’s? Unconditional positive regard to individuals has the twofold potential of helping people with PTSD recover and preventing some cases of trauma from occurring in the first place.

* Jordan Peterson: How to Heal from PTSD/Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snke9v4S2rU and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaJ5tMoilvM

** The DSM is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association that categories mental health conditions; the current version is referred to as the DSM-5. PTSD is also recognised in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) which is published by the world health organisation. The ICD distinguishes between PTSD and C-PSTD. The latter, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, is a term coined by Judith Herman in her book: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. C-PSTD is distinguishable from PTSD in that it acknowledges continued, ongoing sources of trauma opposed to single traumatic events. Presently, the DSM does not have these two categories. Nevertheless, in simple terms, both PTSD and C-PTSD may be viewed as encompassing the same or similar symptoms and requiring similar healing approaches. More information about the types of trauma can be found here. For the ease of reading, the term PTSD is used exclusively throughout this text; however, it can be inferred that comments about PTSD are equally relevant to C-PTSD.

*** Researching historical terms and definitions for mental illness is an interesting activity in itself, for example, schizophrenia used to be called dementia praecox because it was viewed as early onset of dementia.

^ Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-ppQitxU8

^^ A core consideration in art therapy practice is to never to project personal interpretations onto someone’s artwork. An individual’s interpretation of their work is the authority.

^^^ Fun fact: standard history lessons credit Jung as developing the concept of archetypes; however, the word and concept of archetypes can be traced back to Ancient Greek. Essentially, Jung took the existing word “archetype” and redefined its old meaning to his liking. This is a topic worthy of exploring in more detail in the future.

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Pearce, J. M. S. (2016). Sydenham on Hysteria. European Neurology, 76(3–4), 175–181. https://doi.org/10.1159/000450605

Perryman, K., Blisard, P., & Moss, R. (2019). Using Creative Arts in Trauma Therapy: The Neuroscience of Healing. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 41(1), 80–94. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.41.1.07

Rose, S. (2015). 5O years of neuroscience. The Lancet, 385(9968), 598–599. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(15)60224-0

Sigmund Freud, & G  Stanley Hall. (2018). A general introduction to psychoanalysis : a history of psychoanalytic theory, treatment and therapy. Adansonia Press.

Simmonds, J. G. (2004). Heart and spirit. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85(4), 951–971. https://doi.org/10.1516/fw41-8025-5btj-a7tg

Spence, D. (1994). The rhetorical voice of psychoanalysis: displacement of evidence by theory. Choice Reviews Online, 32(02), 32-1232-32–1232. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.32-1232

Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110

Thurschwell, P. (2009). Sigmund Freud. London ; New York: Routledge.

Twemlow, S. W., & Parens, H. (2006). Might Freud’s legacy lie beyond the couch? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 430–451. https://doi.org/10.1037/0736-9735.23.2.430

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Penguin Books.

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Depression, Adolescence, and Education

As part of my masters of mental health studies, I was required to write a newsletter-style report about a mental health issue directed at a specific group of professionals. I chose to write about depression, adolescence, and education for teachers:

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It is estimated that, on average, there are at least two students in every class who are suffering from depression at any given point. This often goes unrecognised due to sufferers concealment attempts and carers are not being aware of symptoms. The repercussions of this can be great, as left unattended it impacts learning and leads to lower school attendance. Further, it has been associated with self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. By being aware of the signs of depression teachers can, potentially, interweave preventative and curative interventions into the classroom to help reduce the amount of suffering. This following aims to provide some basic information, generate awareness, and promote further discussion of a school’s role in students’ mental health.

Causes

Depression is a complex condition that can occur on its own or with other conditions. It can be sub-categorised in the following ways: physical (e.g. anaemia, thyroid dysfunction, candida), situational (e.g. bullying, family disharmony, relationship conflict), or as part of a broader mental health condition (e.g. post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, grief, adjustment disorder, loss). Irrespective of the underlying cause, all forms of depression share some common symptoms.

Symptoms

Normal challenges in adolescent years, coupled with hormone changes and social pressures, can lead to a mild depression which teenagers drift in and out of as they develop their sense of identity and place in the world. Depression, however, as a serious mental health condition, goes beyond this. Official diagnosis dictates that at least five symptoms are present for at least two weeks, and that these interfere with student’s normal functioning.

According to an Australian Government report:

“Symptoms of major depressive disorder may include significant weight loss or weight gain, loss of appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, restlessness, fatigue and loss of energy, feeling of worthlessness and inability to concentrate.”1

Practical examples of how this may present in the classroom include: students isolating themselves, disengagement, slow bodily movements, not submitting work, aggressive outbursts, teariness, and other challenging behaviour.

Obstacles in getting help

Ideally, once a student has been identified with depression, they would be to referred to a counsellor or psychologist for professional guidance and diagnosis. Unfortunately this is not always possible as students often do not feel that talking to anyone will help. To meet this, simple strategies from teachers and school administration can be useful.

Myth busting

There are many myths surrounding depression which can impede teenagers getting the support that they need. This includes some well meaning philosophies such as positive motivational strategies. Whilst reframing things in a positive light  may be useful in some circumstances, it is not an exclusive approach that cures all. In the case of someone who is depressed it can be counterproductive because they are not making a conscious choice to be depressed, hence, motivating them to be more positive can lead to worsening feelings, such as guilt and shame when they cannot achieve this. Emerging research suggests that students who are susceptible to mood and behavioural problems lack skills, not motivation, to cope with life challenges.

What teachers can do

It is unethical to expect teachers to diagnose students, however, as depression can have such a negative impact on learning and other areas, it is appropriate for them to have an awareness for what to look for and how best to approach it.

Individually, teachers can make a difference to a student’s mental state. Depression contains the element of low self-esteem, therefore, by giving encouragement for efforts, rather than final product, self-improvement is more effectively inspired. Self-esteem building in this way comes across as genuine care and builds confidence in abilities due to the praise being given for the process, not end product.

Primarily, students who are suffering depression need empathy and understanding. This can be a difficult ask when teachers are pressured to achieve target goals and a student presents as not putting in sufficient effort. It can create a difficult situation in which the teacher does not know if the student is being lazy, doesn’t not understand what was expected of them, (i.e. possible learning disorder), or is suffering depression. In one-off incidents this is made even more challenging. A possible solution is for teachers to develop culture where it is normal to check in on students when returning work, opposed to handing it back without saying anything. Conversations could look like this:

Teacher: “Jesse, you seemed to have struggled with this assignment. Is there a reason?”

Jesse’s reply could then be an indicator of either supporting or dismissing the probability of depression. For example Jesse replies: “I rushed it at the last minute,” then suspicions can be reduced. Whereas if there is no reply at all (depressed students often avoid answering questions) or gives a simple response such as: “I don’t care what mark I get,” then further investigation may be deemed necessary.

What schools can do

Preventive measures are best; supportive school communities which promote growth mindsets, mindfulness, and anti-bullying programs, are sound approaches.

Cultivating a professional culture in which staff confer and collaborate with each other if they suspect a student is at risk of depression is one such way in which this could occur. This could be viewed much the same as mandatory reporting of child abuse conversations are expected take place. This practice could be done informally or extended to a formal systematic checking on students demeanours through digital surveys. A Melbourne based school approaches this by requiring all staff to fill in an online questionnaire once a month for every student. Three identifiable markers; mood, social interactions, and workload accountability, are checked across the board. The simple tick-a-box processes ensures that all students are looked out for and no individual teacher is responsible for reporting a student who is struggling. A central coordinator compares the information and follows up as required. This approach, which only requires a few minutes per class, could easily be adapted to most schools without adding too much extra work onto teachers.

Taken to another level, schools can adopt global approaches to intervention by being  trauma-informed, and cultivating connection, and a community atmosphere. These provide excellent prospects for recovery and prevention. Included into such models are skilled based lessons on emotional regulation, relationships and conflict resolution skills, and self-identification and labelling of feelings.  In such environments students are better situated to work through personal issues, like depression, or ask for help, if needed.

Social researcher, Brene Brown, encapsulates this beautifully in her quote:

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”2

Happy, healthy school communities, create happy, healthy students.

Further support

Teachers and schools wanting to seek further information can do so here:

Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. (2017). Education.qld.gov.au. http://education.qld.gov.au/studentservices/protection/mentalhealth/index.html

Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

Fallot, Ph.D., R., & Harris, Ph.D., M. (2009). Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC):A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol. https://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/icmh/documents/CCTICSelf-AssessmentandPlanningProtocol0709.pdf

Footnotes

1. Pg.35 Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

2. Brown, B. (2016). The Gifts of Imperfection. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.

Bibliography

Bennett, M. (2017). Episode 1: Our Trauma-Informed Journeys. [podcast] http://connectingparadigms.org/podcast/episode-1/

Brown, B. (2016). The Gifts of Imperfection. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.

Fallot, Ph.D., R., & Harris, Ph.D., M. (2009). Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC):A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol. https://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/icmh/documents/CCTICSelf-AssessmentandPlanningProtocol0709.pdf

Kidsmatter.edu.au. (2017). Cognitive Behavioural Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) | kidsmatter.edu.au. [online] https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/primary/programs/cognitive-behavioural-intervention-trauma-schools-cbits

Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

Making SPACE for Learning Australian Childhood Foundation Trauma Informed Practice in Schools. (2010). [ebook] Ringwood VIC: Australian Childhood Foundation. https://www.theactgroup.com.au/documents/makingspaceforlearning-traumainschools.pdf

Moss, R. (2013). A Clinical Biopsychological Theory of Loss-Related Depression. [online] The Neuropsychotherapist. http://www.neuropsychotherapist.com/loss-related-depression/.

Schwartz PhD, A. (2016). The complex PTSD workbook. Berkeley, California: Althea Press.

Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. (2017). Education.qld.gov.au. http://education.qld.gov.au/studentservices/protection/mentalhealth/index.html




Art and Trauma

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy, also sometimes referred to as art psychotherapy, is a counselling approach that incorporates the creating of artwork into the therapeutic process. Creating art provides a means of directly tapping into the subconscious mind and in doing so provides insights and directions for conversations that could be otherwise missed. Art therapy also enables traumatic experiences and associated thoughts and feelings to be processed in a safe and efficient manner which talking alone cannot achieve.

What does trauma-informed mean?

A lot of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, stem from traumatic experiences in one’s personal past or their family system. By acknowledging this, core issues can be address as well as the symptoms that they create. In a trauma-informed space, safety, collaboration, and awareness of triggers are of the utmost importance; hence, these are respected and incorporated into the therapy process.

Benefits of trauma-informed art therapy

Art therapy and healing trauma go hand in hand. This relates back to neuroscience principles; for a general overview of this read the article Art Psychotherapy and Neuroscience. More specifically, when someone experiences trauma, the brain that controls cognitive functions (ie. reasoning, memory, attention, and language) doesn’t work as efficiently as it could. The brain can switch to automatic and fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses dominate. Basically, the nervous system’s takes over and either pumps adrenal so as quick movements to escape real or perceived dangers can be made, or the body becomes rigid and cannot move as an alternative means of protection. Simply “moving on” or “letting go” of traumatic experiences solemn works. Such approaches are often glorified repression tactics which result in trauma symptoms still being present days, weeks, months, or years later. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in trauma describes phenomena in detail in his book The Body Keeps the Score. Further, he stipulates that reminders of traumatic events have a way of interfering with one’s life until that are suitably addressed. Van der Kolk (and other researchers) suggests that simply talking about traumas is often ineffective. On a physiological level, this is due to a break in the connection between the thinking and feeling parts of the brain. Art therapy bypasses this problem by not relying on cognitive functions. By mark making, hand modelling (clay, wax, or plasticine), and being creative in other ways, trauma can be expressed and released in an effective manner, thus improving mental health and wellbeing. While participating in any artistic activity can be beneficial, doing so with the support and guidance of a professional therapist, means a greater level of healing can be achieved.

When discussing trauma it is useful to keep in mind that there are two main types. There are big “T” trauma events which are life-threatening occurrences and there are small “t” events that impact one’s confidence and self-agency. Below is a table that provides examples of each. While most people automatically think of big T trauma events as being of significance, little t traumas that remain unaddressed can have drastic long term effects on mental health. Once trauma has been processed via the emotional part of the brain – which it does so when someone is being creative in art therapy – then cognitive functions begin to improve.

Examples of big “T” trauma

  • Physical, sexual, verbal assault
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Difficult divorce or death situations
  • War-related experiences
  • Child abuse; neglect and other intrusions on safety

Examples of little “t” trauma

  • Being bullied
  • Passive-aggressive treatment from family, friends, work, etc
  • Rejection
  • Ridicule
  • Invalidation

Both forms of trauma can have serious impacts on a person’s mental health and lead to PTSD symptoms such as: nightmares, insomnia, intrusive memories, flashbacks, lack of concentration, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, irritability, rage, anger, dissociation, self-destructive tendencies, avoidance, mistrust, poor memory, negative self-image, guilt, shame, and hyper-vigilance.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kolk, B. van der. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin.

How to Zentangle: Art therapy style

When people first try art therapy there is often some level of self-consciousness. Thoughts and comments along the lines of  “will my drawing be ‘good’ enough?” or “I haven’t been creative since I was a kid!” or “I can’t even draw a straight line!” often come up. Such things often arise as a result of what Julia Cameron terms “art wounds”. That is situations from our past in which our attempts at being artistic were laughed at or somehow made to feel they did not measure up to what our society deems to be “good” or “real” art. Zentangling is a great way to overcome these “art wounds”. It is my firm belief – based on personal observations and research – that EVERYONE has the capacity to be creative and artistic. Giving oneself the permission to do so, without judging oneself against others, is the first step towards this.

Zentangling is basically a form of doodling that has a wonderful structure to it and the story of how it begun is also quiet special.

HOW ZENTANGLING BEGUN

Zentangling is a relatively new art form created by a couple called Maria and Rick; she was a graphic designer and he was an experienced mediator. One day when Maria was working on a detailed drawing Rick came into her studio and tried to get her attention. “Maria” he called gently at first, however, she was so absorbed with what she was doing that she did not respond. “Maria!” Rick called out a little more louder and assertively. He repeated this again and again until he had Maria’s attention. When Maria’s concentration was broken and she looked up and realised that Rick had been calling to her for several minutes it promoted some self reflection. Together, Rick and Maria established an understanding that what had happened was identifiable as Maria being in a “flow” state while she was drawing. In positive psychology, this is a state in which a person is fully living in the moment, concentrating, absorbed, yet relaxed and at peace. It also resembles the state in which many meditators try to achieve with their practice. So it was that Maria and Rick then went on to formulate a way in which they could share this practice with others.

Personally, I have always struggled with meditation and mindfulness activities; Zentangling, on the other hand, comes easily. Like Maria, I often find that when I am absorbed in the creative process I feel at peace, other worries in my life subside, and I’m able to feel a sense of perspective that I don’t ordinarily have. Through research, I have discovered that such an experience is linked to nervous system regulation. In short, by engaging in activities that encourage relaxation, like Zentangling, our minds and bodies have the opportunity to reset, so to speak. Simply deciding to be creative and make art work in order to achieve this stage when one is stress is not, however, always easy. It is for this reason I feel extremely grateful and indebted to Maria and Rick for putting together such a wonderful system like Zentangling which enables this to occur with ease.

I have used this approach as a therapeutic intervention with beginners who are nervous of their art abilities, right through experienced artists – every time it produces amazing results – both on paper and in client’s minds. I’ve seen clients who have an extensive art back grounds loosen up and gain new insights and bursts of creativity. I’ve also witnessed clients who swore they could not draw a thing be delighted in what they produced – so much so that their future attitudes and involvements with art therapy changed dramatically for the better.

While the aim of art therapy is not to make something beautiful, it is part of human nature to appreciate such, and in this regard, Zentangles have the added advantage of achieving this every time!

Maria and Rick claim the main benefits of Zentangling as being:

  • Relaxing
  • Incressing focus abilities
  • Expand your imagination
  • Learning to trust your creativity
  • Increasing awareness
  • Learning to respond confidently to the unexpected
  • Discover the fun and healing in creative expression
  • Feel gratitude and appreciation for this beautiful world and all that you can do.
  • And perhaps most importantly . . . Have fun!

Personally, I would add to this list an appreciation of the beauty of imperfection. Zentangling does not require rulers or definite rules. Rather, marks made with free hand guestures add uniqueness and beauty to the work.

So now that we know how great Zentangling is, let’s get started!

YOU WILL NEED

  • A small piece of paper – 10x10cm is fine. Or a sketchbook – I’m using my trusty A5 travel pad for this example.
  • A pencil, fineliner or pen. The traditional zentangle is done in black, however, as with most rules in art, these can be broken! Using a white pen on black paper creates some pretty groovy results!
  • Optional – reference pictures of patterns to get you started. Many can be found on Pinterest, such as these.
STEP 1: You need paper (sketch book as I have) and a pencil or pen. Traditionally, Zentangling is done in black and white, however, as with all art rules, these can be broken!

STEP 2: Make 4 marks on your page that roughly indicate a square, like above (this is rule that you can break later once you are more familiar with the process)

STEP 3a: Draw lines connecting these dots – these can be straight, curved, or whatever!
If you prefer, these step can be done with lead pencil so as there are no sharp edges when you finish

STEP 3b: Completed enclosed shape.

STEP 4a: Draw a few lines to divide the space. No limit or definite rules for this; just do it.
As above, this step can be done in lead pencil as well.

STEP 4b: Divided sections completed.

STEP 5: Fill in each section with a different pattern. This is where you may wish to use the reference pictures you found on the internet. I find that I often start with these as prompts then go off on my own creativity. It’s amazing what you can do with basic lines and shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles!

STEP 6a: Once you’ve completed one section with pattern, go on and fill in the other sections! It is that simple!

STEP 6b: It can be tempting to finish your Zentangle with line patterns, however, I’d encourage you to colour in some sections so as there is a definite contrast between light, dark, and other sections. To complete this one, I added a pole to make it look like the Zentangle is a flag – turning your Zentangle into a recognisable object is completely optional!


How did you go? I’d love to hear people’s experience and if possible it would be great if you could post a photo of your work down below so as we could build up a little Zentangle gallery. If you’re interested in doing so, fill out this form and up load a photo of your Zentangle/s. I can’t wait to see them!

If you’d like more guidance on zentangling you can book an individual session or you can sign up for a Mediation A group that incorporates some zentangling into the session.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed zentangling. For more tips on how art can support mental health click on the follow link at the bottom of the page.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

CAMERON, J. (2002). The artist’s way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Maria, & Rick. Zentangle. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from https://zentangle.com/




Art Therapy and Neuroscience

Renée Spencer, 2018, Tree of Hearts, pencil on paper – digitally enhanced

Art therapy and neuroscience have an intimate connection. There are many facets to this which can be explored, however, as an introduction to the topic this article will be focusing on the creative process. Other connections between art, therapy, the brain, and mental health will be explored in future articles.

At its simplest, creativity is the process of ‘creating’ – be that a meal, a science experiment, or an artwork. While precise definitions can vary, most reflect the notion that creativity is a process, not a singular event. Components of this process can be broken down to (1) considering a task or problem; (2) mentally planning and perceiving possibilities; (3) executing this plan using conscious control over the materials, media, techniques, and skills at one’s disposal. The end goal of creativity is that something new is made.

Neurologically, creativity has been identified as a whole brain activity, regardless of how it is expressed. Research from functional magnetic resonance imaging scans indicates that when a person is thinking creatively, networks within the brain that do not usually work together start to do so. Most significantly, these are the default mode and the executive control network. The default mode’s primary function is episodic memory retrieval, while the executive control network helps to direct attention and focus. When faced with a goal or a problem, these parts of the brain are forced to co-operate to come up with a solution, while ordinarily, they function singularly; creative thinking is one of the only currently known ways in which these parts are activated and work together (Beaty, Benedek, Silvia, & Schacter, 2016).

The importance of creativity in art therapy is expressed by many practitioners and researchers. Most significantly, Vija Lusebrink has worked extensively over the past four to five decades to develop a deeper understanding of this. Lusebrink is a founder of a framework called the Expressive Arts Continuum (ETC) which identifies creativity as a key factor in promoting good mental health. One of the ways in this occurs is by means of neuroplasticity. Basically, when a person engages in the creative process in therapy, doing so promotes changes in the brain’s pathways or creates new pathways. In summary, the act of being creative and/or unblocking creativity within art psychotherapy is associated with promoting higher brain functioning which is transferable to other areas of life (Lusebrink, 2010; Malchiodi, 2013; Rubin, 2003).

Stay tuned and follow this blog for further discussions on the benefits of art making and mental health.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Silvia, P. J., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,20(2), 87-95. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.004

Lusebrink, V. B. (2004). Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy. Art Therapy, 21(3), 125-135. doi:10.1080/07421656.2004.10129496

Lusebrink, V. (2010). Assessment and Therapeutic Application of the Expressive Therapies Continuum: Implications for Brain Structures and Functions. Art Therapy, 27(4), 168-177. doi: 10.1080/07421656.2010.10129380

Malchiodi, C.  (2013) Creative Process/Therapeutic Process: Parallels and Interfaces, Art Therapy, 5:2,52-58, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.1988.10758841

Rubin, J. (2003). The Role of Creativity in Art Therapy and Art Education. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 16(1), 10-16. doi: 10.1080/08322473.2003.11432252