Insights – 12 min read

Introduction to therapy at the speed of sight

February 6, 2020
By Metaphorical Therapy

To keep our children safe from disease we teach them basic hygiene. When it comes to psychological hygiene we teach them nothing

Modern life is increasingly psychologically stressful. The mental health of millions hangs precariously in the balance. The burden of mental illness is expected to exceed 23 Trillion AU$ by 2030. The scale of comparable human suffering almost defies imagination. This is not news to the World Health Organisation who has declared mental illness a global pandemic.  This is not really news to anyone. What is being done about the treatment of mental illness? Not enough. What is being done about prevention of mental illness?Not enough.

I believe we will fail in our attempts to prevent mental illness unless we start at the very beginning by teaching the very basic fundamental principles of psychological health. When we are little we are taught about hygiene. We are taught to brush our teeth. We are taught to wash and to flush and to clean our rooms. What are we taught about psychological hygiene? Nothing! I dream of a day when the teaching of healthy psychological principles is as much a part of the world-wide education system as writing and arithmetic. Metaphorical Therapy is designed for a troubled world. It is designed not only to help treat the person who has gone over the metaphorical cliff and who has suffered psychological damage. It designed to stop people from going over that cliff in the first place. I think the world needs the Metaphorical Therapy System like a plant needs water and sunshine.

As you can see, there are four Keystone Principles plus the Unifying Spiral.  Together, I use these principles to build what I call “a framework of understanding”.  This framework provides a metaphorical platform for change.

The Big Picture

Metaphorical Therapy is a unique and complete system that can function on its own, or as an auxiliary to any other established mode of psychotherapy. The System employs judiciously selected visual metaphors to drive home the fundamental principles of psychological health and wellbeing and to address specific psychological issues by deep-triggering behaviour-changing intuitive emotional responses on both a conscious, and subconscious level.

To use a popular Australian metaphor; there are five factors that make the use of selected therapeutic visual metaphors in a clinical context something of a no-brainer:

  1. We are a sight dominant species.
  2. Visual stimuli are processed 600 times faster than aural stimuli.
  3. The brain processes visual and auditory stimuli in different ways.
  4. Visual metaphors are central to the way that we perceive and interpret our world and our experience of it.
  5. Metaphors are pre-loaded with meaning that facilitates  precision-targeting of specific issues in order to evoke particular emotional responses.

Let’s consider the five factors that make Metaphorical Therapy such an efficient, fast and flexible therapeutic tool in a bit more detail.

Neurophysiologically speaking, humans are sight dominant

Humans are a predatory species. Scientists recently examined the 5200 year old contents of Ötzi the Iceman’s stomach. Ötzi was clearly not one for a slice of gluten-free toast with a vegan quinoa salad and a soy latte on the side. His stomach was full of ibex and deer meat. We have been hunters for thousands of years.

Like most terrestrial hunters our pupils are round, our eyes are close together and they are located at the front of our heads. Quite unlike flight and prey species like antelope and equines where the eyes are located on the side of the head and where the pupil is letterbox-shaped in order to enhance peripheral vision and thus foil the sly sabretooth trying creep up on their delicious deer and donkey asses. In a nutshell: neurophysiologically, humans are sight dominant. Thirty to forty percent of our cerebral cortex is devoted to vision, as compared to eight percent for touch or just three percent in the case of our auditory sense. This explains why the original flat-pack furniture responsible for an uptick in Scandinavian suicide, always comes with illustrated instructions. Without pictures, the character-building task of assembling baffling Swedish bookshelves might prove not just unpleasant but deeply depressing or even essentially impossible.

There is a good reason why we say, “Do I have to draw you a picture?” to those who are exasperatingly sluggish on the uptake.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. It could be said that a visual metaphor intuits a million! The dominance of sight in the way that we perceive and process our world is reason enough to make images an integral part of any approach to psychotherapy. But wait there’s more…

Visual cognition does not happen in the blink of an eye. It happens 23 times faster

In cognitive and communication terms; pictures are jaw-droppingly fast. Visual cognition occurs in an astonishing thirteen milliseconds. This is how long it takes not just to see, but to understand what you have seen. One-thirteen-thousandth of a second – not bad for an organic mechanism that can run on beer and beans for an average of some eighty swings around the sun. To put this in perspective, the actual blink of an eye takes 300 milliseconds. A veritable eternity by comparison. (Visual cognition may occur even faster. Thirteen milliseconds was the minimum measurable by the computers employed by MIT in the 2014 research that established this benchmark.)

Our brains process visuals 600 times faster than they process auditory stimuli. The speed of visual cognition alone presents a powerful argument for images to be used as an integral part of any approach to any modality of psychotherapy. But wait there’s more…

Consensus that there is a distinct difference in the way that the brain processes auditory and visual stimuli, is growing

The way the brain processes visual stimuli appears to be significantly different to the way it processes and responds to sound. Visual memory has been repeatedly proven to be remarkably robust. In stark contrast, auditory memory has been consistently revealed to be systematically inferior. This supports the growing consensus that there is; either a fundamental difference in the way that the brain processes auditory and visual stimuli, or an asymmetry between auditory and visual processing, or a combination of these factors.

A critical characteristic of visual stimuli is that they can be loaded with both meaning and emotive potential. Images can carry and deliver an extraordinarily powerful emotive charge.

     We know that emotion is the dominant catalyst in decision making.

     Furthermore, emotion is also the primary driver of behaviour.

     And the coup de grace: emotion operates at a predominantly subconscious      level.

It follows therefore, that images can stimulate emotional responses at a sub-conscious level, thus deep-triggering the vital cognitive restructuring that is key to changing behaviour. The capacity of metaphorical images to be laden with meaning, enables both the individual and the clinician to precisely target specific issues.

We routinely take the emotive power of pictures for granted. This is because they are ubiquitous and omnipresent. To do this is a grave mistake.

A naked Vietnamese girl flees the inferno of a napalmed village.

Jackie Kennedy reaches for help across the body of her mortally wounded husband.

A falling man is frozen forever against the backdrop of the World Trade Centre.

A sailor kisses a nurse on V-J Day.

A solitary quixotic figure defies the might of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

A returned servicewoman sheds tears of joy as she embraces her daughter.

The drowned body of an infant Syrian boy lies face down on the pebbles of a Turkish beach.

The survivor of an Alabama tornado is joyfully reunited with his dog.

A squalling baby is plucked from the rubble of a home devastated by an earthquake.

These images, and thousands more like them, are far more than two-dimensional constructs of light and shade and colour on a screen or upon the printed page of a magazine. Each and every one detonates in the heart in a unique way, exploding with an emotional eloquence that transcends words. Silent and static. Yet they sing volumes about pain, suffering, ebullience, joy, love and resilience. They can resonate both broadly and with great precision and specificity. Visual metaphors bring us together in a eureka-lightning-flash of intuitive understanding. This meaning packaged in pictures delivers intuitive insights into why we feel the things we feel. In a wider sense, metaphorical images illuminate what is truly important and perhaps even cast a light onto what it means to be human.

No matter if you are an individual or practitioner operating in a clinical context, if you are not leveraging the power of visual metaphors then you are…well…

…Do we have to draw you a picture?

Moving on to the elephant in the room and the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the corner.

 “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

Metaphors We Live by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. University of Chicago Press.

Everything you think you know about metaphors is probably wrong. Metaphors are such an integral part of the woof and warp of human experience that they are invisible. It’s the old not seeing the forest for the trees conundrum. Metaphors hide in plain sight in their thousands upon thousands. Why? Because we are sight dominated. How? The vast majority of metaphors reference objects, situations or activities we have seen. Tangible concrete artefacts form the backbone of the visual lexicon that we refer to in order to understand, parse and interact with our world. In the case of “visual metaphor” the word “visual” is virtually redundant because the vast majority of metaphors, even if written or verbally communicated, reference visual objects, spacial orientation or familiar constructs, situations or activities. Witness the Mexican standoff and the fact that even our alphabet is metaphorical: A to B. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. A to Z. X-rated. Q & A. The subject of metaphors could fill libraries. It is a topic deep and wide enough to fill veritable lifetimes. It has clearly flooded mine.

If you wish to delve deeper into the power, ubiquity and omnipresence of metaphors, or into the reasons why they are nothing short of imperative in the context of human perception and communication; there are a number of excellent books on the subject: “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (ISBN: 9780226468013 ISBN-10: 0226468011) being perhaps foremost among them. But be forewarned, it’s not an easy read and the subject matter is positively benthic in terms of depth. None the less, it is an extraordinarily illuminating work and well worth the effort.

The byte-sized version

Metaphors are routinely mistakenly regarded as being predominantly a product of the artistic imagination and an almost exclusively literary construct: Hamlet’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The beast with two backs of Othello. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Metaphors are ubiquitous and omnipresent  and they draw on every conceivable aspect of human knowledge and experience.

As human beings our complete conceptual system is metaphorical. Human thought processes are almost entirely metaphorical.

The metaphors we live by are conceptual

The metaphors we live by are conduits

(We put abstract ideas into concrete visual containers and send them via a conduit.)

The metaphors we live by are orientating

The metaphors we live by personify abstract concepts

The metaphors we live by make the abstract concrete

These examples represent but a tiny fraction of the multitude of ways in which we constantly unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) rely upon metaphors. I, and similarly tragic members of the Metaphorical Therapy Team, have spent what must amount to several years steeped in the lore of the metaphor. Consequently, we have to guard against being embarrassingly trainspotterish. We risk losing our audience by choking you with lumpy words like metonymy (calling an executive a “suit”) and synecdoche (saying “England” when you mean their national football team). Both are forms of metaphor as it happens but getting back down to brass tacks:

Visual metaphors are the engine at the heart of the Metaphorical System for a grab-bag of very important reasons

           Lifebuoy for self-preservation.

           Wall for boundaries.

           Gold for self-worth.

           A blender for processing emotion.

           A spiral to show relative proximity, time and emotional distance.

Travel a little lighter through the world

Metaphorical Therapy is unlike any other psychological treatment method.  It is eclectic and lighthearted. It incorporates not just the principles of psychodynamic psychotherapy, but of all the different cognitive and behavioural therapies.  It is a purpose-built therapy created at the clinical coalface. While it is never a substitute for consulting an appropriately qualified professional Metaphorical Therapy is both an invaluable resource, and a self-contained self-help system.

I hope that this introduction has helped you grasp that Metaphorical therapy is simple while being anything but simplistic. The System has great depth and is capable of helping one entirely recalibrate one’s thinking; literally from the ground up.  When you learn healthy new principles your old ways of thinking are rendered redundant. When they are discarded you get to travel a little lighter through the world.

If pictures can change the world they can sure as hell change your mind.

About the author

Metaphorical Therapy

Metaphorical Therapy is an innovative new way to deliver essential psychological education, support psychological wellness, and prevent mental illness.


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