The little girl in front of me, Anna, was withdrawn, avoided eye contact, and kept her tiny shoulders slumped forward. I knew from having spoken with her current foster parents that she had already experienced more than her fair share of abuse, neglect, and other negative experiences in her short lifetime. The child seemed to be visually scanning my play therapy room which was new to her, looking up and down each shelf of miniature figures—animals, people, buildings, trees, food, dragons and mermaids, caves and mountains… Her eyes widened a bit when she saw a large-sized cage. She looked over at me, as if to make sure she wasn’t doing anything wrong, and she timidly grabbed the cage. She got a small unicorn from another shelf and put it in the cage. She attempted to lock the top of the cage and said, “Now it’s safe.” Throughout the rest of the session, one by one, she had various creatures attack the cage, trying to get to the unicorn. The powerful lion, the four-headed mythological beast, the hungry shark and many others tried to break into the cage, but they each gave up. While being trapped in a cage would have negative connotations for most people, Anna was exploring the relative safety of the cage which could’ve easily represented something literal as much as it could have represented something internal for Anna and her desire to self-protect. At the close of her session that first day, Anna had spoken only those three words “Now it’s safe,” but she communicated volumes nonverbally and through her play.
While working with several teenagers in a group setting, I noticed that verbal interactions among group members were stilted and forced. All of these teenagers were acutely familiar with the Juvenile Justice System, and defenses were high. At the next session, I produced a number of books that contained large color photographs of art (paintings, sculptures, and other creations) from around the world. The assignment was simple and straightforward: Look through the books for a while to see the variety of options, and then choose the piece of art that you connect with most (“connect with” was defined as liking the piece, imagining the story behind the piece, and/or feeling drawn to the piece, etc.). I told them that they didn’t need to explain why they chose that particular artistic creation, because some things are difficult to put into words. The teenagers took their time and were surprisingly focused as they quietly looked through the books, sometimes gasping and other times smiling and laughing at an image. Eventually they had each chosen an image. They were then given the opportunity to share their chosen piece of art, and if they would like, they could say anything about the art as well. Without exception, the teenagers chose images that personally resonated, and they projected upon their chosen art their own experiences, because it was through the lens of their experiences that they processed the art. One teenage boy said that the main character in his chosen painting was angry because she was sure that the people up in the house (in the distance) had left her on purpose. Another group member said that the elderly lady in the painting was looking over at the child because she raises her and has to make sure the girl stays safe even while a party is going on. An older teenager—more of a young man than a boy—chose a picture of a sculpture of what appeared to be a victorious soldier from some faraway land or time that was part man, part beast. He interpreted that the soldier was proud but also sad because “the people in the town he was protecting are scared of him.”
Nearly all mainstream therapeutic models, no matter how disparate they are in many ways, have in common the heavy emphasis on verbal interactions between the therapist and client. Of course, some individual therapists include visual aids in their counseling; art and creative therapists as well as play therapists like myself tend to use images the most. Even so, a cursory internet search of “what happens in a therapy session” or “what to expect from my first counseling session” brings page after page of articles and blogs that describe the verbal sharing a person who is new to mental health therapy can expect. Why should perceived progress and effectiveness be so inextricably tied to the words that are spoken? Are verbal exchanges truly the most efficient means by which mental health counselors can explore the inner worlds of their clients and effect positive change?
Statistically speaking, people of all ages process visual stimuli much more readily and easily than they process verbal stimuli, whether spoken or written. The human brain interprets and processes an image 60,000 times more quickly than it processes text. Speech-delayed toddlers are typically able to learn signs (American Sign Language) so they can communicate even when they have not yet learned to use spoken words. We have all likely had the experience of feeling so overwhelmed by emotion that words do not come easily, even when we typically have no problem articulating thoughts, feelings, or ideas. While words may escape us at such times, an image can quickly and easily cut straight down to what needs to be healed which leads to enhanced self-awareness and insight. For instance, a richly illustrated rendition of Hansel and Gretel alone in the woods– scared expressions on their faces, wild animals all around– might strike an emotional chord for someone who struggles with fear of abandonment and feels at an intuitive level that he or she is ready to face and work through that fear.
Marketing companies all over the world are aware of- and harness the power of- visual communication. While it takes multiple seconds if not several minutes for a person to fully absorb something that has been said or read, it takes only 13 milliseconds to process an image. Words are processed analytically; pictures (or 3D images/figures) are processed more emotionally. For this reason, visual cues can be a powerful tool for personal growth and emotional healing for people of all ages.
Online images are an unavoidable presence in the lives of most people. With the convenience of cell phone cameras and online access including social medias, people are exposed to images almost constantly. When talking to an individual in person or online, friends and even coworkers frequently share photos—of their pets, children, the new grill they bought, or recent photos from a vacation. Some people, including children and teenagers, seek images out in the effort to feel connected to others who struggle in a similar way and to find a way to be wholly accepting of themselves, including those things that are difficult sometimes. The images that resonate with an individual reveal the thought patterns, assumptions, and feelings that underlie perceived challenges.
Like the child who acts out a scene of domestic conflict using miniature figures or the adult who views a painting of a beach scene and begins to daydream about being there, images evoke emotions that come from deep within a person. Connections are intuitively made between aspects of the image and the viewer’s own life experiences. This phenomenon occurs all the time. I was out shopping with a friend one time because she needed to buy some children’s clothes; on the wall of one of the stores was a large photo of a young girl who was enthusiastically dancing with total inhibition. My friend turned to me and said, “I don’t remember the last time I felt that free.” We laughed, but this woman—my friend—was tapping into something quite profound in that moment. The energy of what was represented in that image in the clothing store brought up for her feelings having to do with her own life and the longings of her spirit within the context of real-life responsibilities and practical considerations.
Whether with personal photographs, coffee table books full of art work, 3D figures or some other visual aid, people respond viscerally to what they see. People process images quickly, emotionally, and through the lens of individual life experience which sets the stage for intrapersonal insight, enhanced self-awareness, and personal growth. With such a powerful tool at our disposal, why depend on only words?