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All pyschotherapy is a kind of experiment

I sometimes get into arguments with my colleagues in the gestalt world.

One thing around which some of us disagree is the role of experiment in psychotherapy.

Experiment is where you try something out in order to see what might happen. You don't advocate behaviour in a fake-it-to-make strategy. You don't prescribe interventions like pills to eradicate an infection. You literally try something out, and you don't know how it will end up, but you know that if you pay attention, you will become more aware of the way you do things, the ways in which you interpret your experiences and make meaning, and the things that scare you.

So, gestalt therapists work with this purposefully at times, and really, when you think about it, all of psychotherapy is a kind of experiment. People come to a therapist hoping something good will result, but they really don't know what exactly will happen, and that's part of the anxiety they feel coming for the first visit.

There are existential, embodied and behavioural aspects in gestalt therapy's use of enactment through experiment. This has not changed much over the years, but some gestalt therapists have moved away from seeing experiment as a central feature of contemporary gestalt therapy, while others maintain it is essential. I am one who believes it is essential.

When contemplating the other three main tenets of gestalt therapy (phenomenological method, dialogue, and field theory), it is difficult to comprehend how anyone would accomplish them outside an embodied process of enactment (i.e. doing something), and it is difficult to understand how any “doing something,” any contacting between persons in the flow of relational process, could be other than existential and experimental. Experiment, broadly speaking is the nature of gestalt practice, a risky step into some kind of unknown, and it is an extended process that, as a phenomenon, is utterly unpredictable. Neither therapist nor client can do therapy without the other, and the two are linked to one another in such a way that the client tells his or her story into the therapist, and the therapist responds into the client. That language, that use of the preposition “into” is intentional. Therapist and client work through one another in ways neither could have imagined.

To illustrate, I have lived long enough to have seen three iterations of writing technology that have affected not only the product of my writing, but also the process of writing. At first I wrote with a pencil on paper. Then, in seminary, I taught myself to write on the typewriter, and I began to think through my fingers on the keyboard, but I was slowed by the need to constantly correct with “white-out” what I was producing. It was cumbersome. When the computer came along, my thinking through the keyboard increased in fluidity, and when the internet came along, I found myself dialoguing with colleagues on professional e-mail lists with such frequency that eventually I found I actually thought better and could best deal with a subject by writing with a keyboard, but if I had to write with a pencil or even talk on the phone, my ideas did not simply die waiting to be expressed, they were never fully born to begin with. I extend myself into the world through my fingers touching an electronic instrument that is often connected up to other electronic devices.

Richard Feynman expressed a similar idea when he told a historian that his notes were not simply the record of his work. The historian had said, “The work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

Feynman had replied, “No, it's not a record, not really. It's the working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?”

Andy Clark, in his book Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, claims that we extend ourselves into the world in certain ways, and that these are not simply tools for the individual but extensions OF the individual. For those of us who have found the internet and are “at home” with it, might I suggest that it is an extension of our selves? We get our work done by means of it. So, when our way of being in the world is attacked as bothersome to others, it is painful and a rejection of the self. Does this make sense to anyone? Now, walk down the street and notice how many people are extending themselves into the world through mobile technology. Folks, the technology, the medium is not the message. It is US; it is the people all around us. It's the extension of these people into the world and the means for contacting and emerging as selves.

The mind is not simply contained in the brain. The mind extends into the world around a person through the embodied “touch” that person makes in the world. Who I am and how I think is partly to do with where I am and what kind of contact I am making with my environment, including of course the other people in my life.

I am grappling with this idea. I used to think of the mind as embodied all right, but I used to think of it as contained in the body, activated by the brain engaged in the world through the contact of the person — but like I said … IN the body. It's different to think that my mind is actually extended out into the world through my body's engagement in the world. What makes sense to me about his, however, is the realisation I have that I do, actually THINK through the keyboard. My thoughts come more fluidly when I'm writing, and my writing is often in response to someone I've encountered in the virtual world.

To apply this to psychotherapy, when psychotherapist and client meet, they each have an experience, but the experience of self, the sense each on has of being a person — of being the person they know themselves to be — depends on the contacting going on between these two unique persons. That is because their minds are extended, and they are sensing themselves in perceiving the other.

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Published October 22, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm)

All pyschotherapy is a kind of experiment

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