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Tuesday 3 January 2012

The Mental Movie Screen Part 1: Introducing Cognitive Therapy Experientially

The world inside

Cognitive work can seem a bit esoteric if you launch into it from the perspective of theory. I find that its simplicity and practicality come down to Earth a bit if we come at it from the realm of personal experience, preferably right there in the therapy room.

As is so often the case, the therapist isn't essential. I'll paraphrase what I sometimes do when introducing the idea to clients. This may take a bit of indulgence from blog readers, but it won't be the first time I've asked for this.

Take a moment and notice where you are. Look. Listen. Smell. Feel.

Did you notice the bit of clutter nearby? The sensation of your right foot in your sock? That faint intermittent sound from outside the room?

Probably not. Or if you did, you missed thousands of other details. If you moved to another room, you couldn’t draw the room you had left with any great accuracy.

We think we see the world, but in fact we see only a tiny proportion of it. The whole thing seems to be in colour, but our peripheral vision receptors are mostly black and white. Not only do we not see what is there, we fill in the blanks with things we did not actually see. We take vibrations in the air and turn them into sound. We hear sounds and interpret them as language.

And that’s just the present instant. This moment, this room. If you close your eyes you can see visions from the past. Your third-grade teacher’s face. The friend you fought with and never saw again. A birthday party. Your first workplace. Your first kiss.

Much of this, it turns out, is constructed. If you draw the layout of your elementary school and then go back to visit you will discover that you missed significant details. Your memory of that traffic accident isn’t exactly the way it happened.

But you can create images from the past, and they are something like the past reality.

Not only can you make up the past; you can also make up the future. Imagine future successes, possibilities, dreams, hopes. You can terrify yourself with images of future catastrophes. If you are a worrier, you may be quite accomplished at this.

Now: Did you notice that when you considered something from the future, you lost your third grade teacher’s face? Now it’s back again.

Put your teacher’s face into that future image somehow. Now add your first workplace. Feel your right foot while you do this.

You can do it, but it gradually begins to feel like juggling. Bits flicker in and out. There seems to be a limit to the number of things you can hold at one time.

Where are all these images, sounds, awarenesses, playing out? Think of it, if you like, as an internal movie screen - or a set of three screens: past, present, and future, all playing out in front of you. What you see seems like reality, but it isn’t. Even if you are fully present to the moment, undistracted by future or past, you can’t hold the entirety of the experience in your mind.

Why does this matter?

Our emotions and our behaviour seem to be based on reality. They’re not. They’re based on what appears on the movie screens, and much of what appears is distorted or fictional.

Wait: There’s someone behind you with an icepick. Until you learned that, you couldn't react, didn’t feel fear, didn’t run from the room. You can only react if you perceive the icepick. If it appears on the movie screen.

This seems to be two things at once:

1. Too obvious to bother commenting on.
2. Philosophical hairsplitting nonsense.

But, obvious though it might be, it’s important. This idea is at the foundation of cognitive therapy.  Selective perception, and the misperception of reality, lies at the core of much of our distress – and some of our misplaced happiness.

Like a movie, we only see what sits within the frame. We react to Tom Hanks, or to Susan Sarandon, or to Brad Pitt, and to what seems to be happening to them. But if we pulled the frame back, we’d see the boom microphone, the equipment, the limits of the set, and we’d have a completely different experience. Suddenly it’s not a story about a bank robbery. It’s a story about some people making a film.

When we’re investigating our minds, it’s worthwhile to stretch our attention a bit to become aware of two things at once:

1. What’s going on out there.
2. The fact that we are viewing only a part of the movie.

We can hold both awarenesses in our minds at once, just like thinking of our third grade teacher’s face at the same time as we notice our right foot. We can get just a little less caught up in the story, at least for a moment.

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