The Sound of Silence


The Sound of Silence

Some clients are uncomfortable in the silence of their own thoughts.  But some clinicians are also uncomfortable when a client isn’t talking.  While art therapists generally have a greater comfort level in this area because of their training in nonverbal processes, it’s easy for any of us to let a client initiate a verbal exchange that seems appropriate on the outside but ultimately stymies the deeper process of turning inward to face the quiet.  I often hear “Oh, I’m a multitasker” when I gently confront a client on this avoidance as s/he talks during the creative process.  Yet the way the brain works does not allow for multitasking if an individual is to benefit from artmaking in therapy.


It used to be that we thought talking was everything.  Talk therapy was regarded as the cure-all, and the individuals who did not or could not benefit from it were rarely consulted about its effectiveness.  Experiential therapies, even those that were born in the world of psychiatric medicine such as art therapy, were often pushed to the margins of mental health treatment.  They were regarded as fun but frivolous—not real therapy.  Since then advances in clinical neuroscience have pointed to the significance of inducing action as a means of bringing deeper, more primitive brain structures into the process of emotional regulation.


These deeper structures, collectively known as subcortical structures, are actually very involved in emotional dysregulation and re-regulation.  They are located underneath the squiggly outer layer of the brain, known as the cortex, neocortex, or cerebral cortex.  Talking is a cerebral, or cognitive, activity.  It involves conscious awareness and an understanding of the rules necessary for encoding mental impressions into words and for decoding other people’s words into mental impressions (expressive and receptive language skills, respectively).  You guessed it—verbal behavior is a function of the cerebral cortex, a cognitive operation.


The cerebral cortex is also responsible for higher-order thinking skills such as understanding spatial and part-to-whole/whole-to-part relationships, planning and executing multi-step tasks, and comprehending cause and effect.  Although artmaking is not a verbal behavior, it exercises these and other higher-order thinking skills while activating the nonverbal kinesthetic/sensory and perceptual/affective functions of subcortical structures to create symbols (the art products) that serve to resolve internal struggles, reveal personal strengths, and illustrate a personal narrative.


Clients who tend to converse during the process of artmaking are shortchanging themselves, as verbal behavior prevents them from attentive engagement in subcortical operations such as detecting boundaries and limits, noticing emotions, discharging excess energy or tension, and increasing stimulation when arousal is low.  Chatty clients often make art products that reflect their inattentiveness to these internal processes, but chatty clinicians can contribute toward this as well.


The explosion of mindfulness and attunement onto the mental health scene essentially makes use of subcortical operations to achieve what talking does not.  Art therapists have always been incidental practitioners of mindfulness, encouraging clients to engage wordlessly in the creative process and save verbal reflecting for later in the session.  When you ask clients to make art during sessions, consider it within their best interest to follow this protocol.  If you’re a verbally trained therapist, you might find this to be a little weird at first—and so will your clients (after all, they’re expecting to talk to you!).  Rest assured that you and your clients will grow together in the ability to tolerate and integrate inner material.


Music can help fill the gap in the meantime, but this must be selected very carefully for each client (music with lyrics may be preferred by some clients due to its familiarity but can detract from subcortical processes, and wordless music that lacks a consistent meter—such as many classical pieces and new age compositions—may work well for high-functioning individuals but serve to destabilize people with a tendency toward thought disorders/perceptual distortions).  In the absence of a music therapist to consult with, promote the sound of silence.  It worked for Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s, and it can work for you and your clients now.




With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan June 2012

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