Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Imagining the Other: The Influence of Imagined Conversations on the Treatment Process

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Imagining the Other: The Influence of Imagined Conversations on the Treatment Process

Article excerpt

The Constructivist Grounded Theory Study reported in this paper is based on the narrative experiences of psychotherapists who used the intersession experience of having an imagined conversation with a client. The therapists reported that they use imagined conversations with clients between sessions when they have reached an impasse in the therapeutic process, and they noted the experience helps them solve the difficulty by helping to provide greater insight into their clients' perspectives. The participants' experiences suggest a theory that explains how imagination can help one understand another: motor memory may surface implicit relational knowing.

KEYWORDS: imagination; mirror neurons; intersession experiences


The conduct of psychotherapy is a complex process. Therapists constantly question which topics must be revisited, which must be processed in a different way, when new issues arise, and how to answer an infinite number of other such questions. Process research is concerned with how therapists make these decisions within a treatment. This study suggests that one method some therapists use to guide their practice is their imagination.

From Freud (1907) to Coleman (2006) there is a strong current among analysts to view imagination as a sign of ego weakness and a turning away from reality. Yet, the participants in this study attest to the fact that it can be a powerful problem-solving tool to move past difficulties in the psychotherapeutic treatment process. The participants of the study demonstrate that imagination can aid in the executive functions of analytical thinking and the application of theory to help guide treatment. Likewise, they express the degree to which imagination does not arise in a single mind, divorced from reality. Rather, their use of imagining clients is so entwined with the memory of intersubjective interactions that they are able to use the imagined conversations to deepen their understanding of their clients.

The experiences articulated by the participants in this research are not unique to psychotherapists. Indeed, neuroscientific research on imagination supports the claims that imagination involves memory to a very high degree and follows the rules of analytical reasoning. This is undoubtedly why the neuroscientists report that imagination aids in problem-solving. The data from this study suggest that imagination stimulates problem solving ability due to activity in mirror neurons, and these in turn, help therapists develop a greater understanding of clients. That is, the therapists can use imagination to surface their implicit relational knowledge of the client to understand the client's intentions, motivations, feelings, and meaning, and hence, adjust treatment to fit the client's needs.


Process researchers have long investigated what happens during therapy (Schroder, Wiseman and Orlinsky, 2009). A few studies are now showing that experiences both the therapist and patient have between sessions regarding treatment may also be of great importance (Hartmann, Orlinsky, & Weber, et al., 2010). Researchers have termed these "intersession experiences," which are defined as

all the spontaneous and intentional thoughts, memories, feelings and fantasies that patients and therapists have intermittently about their therapy and one another during the more or less extended intervals between therapy sessions (Harmann, Orlinsky and Zeeck, p. 1044).

While most of the work in this area focuses on the patient's intersession experiences, one study in particular looked at the intersession experiences of therapists (Schroder, Wiseman, & Orlinsky, 2009). Among the intersession experiences these researchers measured was that of therapists imaging conversations with clients. More than half of the therapists they surveyed reported imagining a conversation with clients between sessions.

These findings suggest that the experience of having an imagined conversation with a client between sessions may have some importance to the therapeutic process - and perhaps even to the outcome. …

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