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Mirrors LAP Article 2014



Creativity and the Therapeutic Power of Art


Pamela McCrory, Ph.D. and Terry Marks-Tarlow, Ph.D.


"The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls”

                                                --Pablo Picasso


Art provides the viewer with a potential therapeutic benefit and can help individuals deal with crises and challenges of life.  In addition, helping professionals receive a benefit through creating art.  Our community outreach event, Mirrors of the Mind 2: The Psychotherapist as Artist, was developed with both these potential benefits in mind. The event provided us with direct experience of the therapeutic potential for both the viewer and the creator of artwork in which psychological significance and meaning was the unifying theme. Gina Golden Tangalakis, Ph.D. artist and co-producer of theater event, shared that the impact was "reverberating through my home and community. My husband was actually brought to tears, and my daughter came home and started composing her own music on the piano, flipping through beautiful photos she took and wants to learn storytelling.  My niece, who is a psychotherapy intern was "blown away" at the creative things that psychotherapists are doing… I feel like I have learned so much and am growing through the process of this experience.”


In the recent book Art as Therapy, the authors propose that viewing art is therapeutic, and that portrayal of what is beautiful and good can perform a "critical function of distilling and concentrating the hope that we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life.”  (de Botton & Armstrong, 2013, p. 22).  They suggest that gallery exhibitions would be more useful and energizing if curators thought more like therapists than art historians.


Art is a universal way to make meaning of our experience, to enlarge our world, to create an opportunity for empathy and to celebrate our common humanity as well as our diverse perspectives. Artistic production provides a means of communicating shared human experience in everyday life, whether by a child’s drawing or an adult’s journal.    Creating meaning is, of itself, a psychologically integrative experience which is central to the capacity for emotional regulation and resilience (Siegel, 1999). In this way the processes of psychotherapy and creativity are parallel experiences, imparting benefit to therapists and patients alike. The affective and cognitive processes involved in constructing meaning are complex phenomena at the higher levels of brain organization and involve flexibility, adaptability, and divergent thinking (Runco, 2007).


Author Azar Nafisi writes eloquently of the liberating power of literature to promote empathy and "resilience in the face of tyranny”.  "I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens.” Nafisi (2005, p.1).


Making meaning is a central concept in the psychology of creativity and in the humanistic existential tradition. Existentialist Rollo May asserts that "creative courage” is a foundational value which makes possible other psychological virtues.  He notes that the word courage derives from the French word for heart-- "coeur”.  Just as the physical heart allows for organs to function, creative courage makes being and becoming possible (May, 1975). Making art clearly helps artists deal with trauma and especially early loss (Zausner, 2007), but its effects go still further. Robert Root-Bernstein (1989) has long been interested in the "correlative talents” of artists who dabble in the sciences and scientists who dabble in the arts. Nobel laureates are more likely to have pastimes in the arts than other scientists, who in turn are more likely than members of the American public (Root-Bernstein, 2008). Correlative talents appear to pave the road to professional success.



The growth-provoking potential of creating art is clear in our own community of psychotherapist artists. Creativity in one area appears to foster creativity in others. Terry Marks-Tarlow, co-author, has two main art forms-- dance and drawing. To step into a ballet or jazz class is to enter a fully embodied form of psychotherapy. Dance fosters complete presence as an antidote to trauma. In trauma, we become preoccupied with the past, which blocks our capacity to be present in the moment or open to novelty in the future. Dance cleans the slate by clearing the mind. By surrendering to where the body breathes, music fills our limbs and shape our movements. We can practice synesthesia—a blending of senses—by allowing the body to sing. As the music transports the whole of us, we can find flow, which allows us to leave class refreshed and ready for whatever is next. Where dance provides an opportunity to clear out stress plus find joy in an embodied moment, drawing taps into the power of imagination.  Terry draws often to illustrate psychological ideas, such as intersubjective space and fractal processes. To draw the ideas clarifies them; to gaze at the resulting images further opens up new dimensions of thought.


Perhaps creativity kindles the power of imagination in the brain much like drug addiction kindles a different kind of sensitivity. Imagination is an important, often under-recognized, faculty within psychotherapy. From a neurobiological point of view, the same brain circuitry underlies memory, ongoing experience, and imagination (Addis, Wong & Schacter, 2007). Evolutionarily, this makes sense. The brain is designed to look forward. The function of memory appears less to remember the past so much as to prepare for the future. Effective psychotherapy takes imagination. When facing a really depressed patient who feels utterly hopeless and helpless, therapists must be able to envision a future that could be different from the past, however fuzzy and undetermined the picture may be. Otherwise, we risk sinking into a well of despair.


To exercise imagination through the arts goes hand in hand with cultivating radical openness. Both are intrinsically therapeutic and empowering. In our view, creativity is an essential quality of of healthy personal and professional expression and contributes to the development of those with whom we work and to our professional and personal lives. Life span development calls upon us to achieve the task of generativity over stagnation as well as the ultimate task of integrity over despair. Creativity provides us this opportunity and challenge. This doesn’t require engaging in the arts per se. We can be creative in how we drive to work, use free time, and in the projects and events we develop within LACPA.  When psychotherapists engage in the arts, we "wash the dust of daily life off our souls” and polish our trade. Certainly this was evident in the unique work of Mirrors of the Mind artists--photographers hone their capacity to see, sculptors cultivate their capacity to touch, and painters ripen the inner eye of imagination. Meanwhile, a variety of themes were expressed through all of the art forms, ranging from loss, social protest, parenting, and spirituality to reverence in the human connection with nature.  This powerful artwork and accompanying artist statements from the 2012 exhibition have been published by LACPA in book form, Mirrors of the Mind: The Psychotherapist as Artist and is available for online purchase at http://tinyurl.com/http-mirrorsartbook-com



Addis, D., Wong, A., & Schacter, D. (2007). Remembering the past and imagining the future: Common and distinct neural substrates during event construction and elaboration. Neuropsychologia, 45, 1363-1377.

De Botton, A. & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as therapy. New York: NY: Phaidon Press     Limited.

May, R. (1975). The courage to create. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Nafisi, A. (2005). Mysterious connections that link us together. Retrieved December 28, 2013 from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4753976

Root-Bernstein, R. (1989).Discovering: Inventing and solving problems at the frontiers of science, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Root-Bernstein, R. (2008).Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 1, 2, 51-63.

Runko, M. A. (2007). Creativity: Theories and themes: Research, development and practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier Inc.

Siegel, D. J.  (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal     experience.  New York: Guilford.

Zausner, T. (2007). When walls become doorways: Creativity and the transforming illness. New York: Crown Archetype.



Pamela McCrory, Ph.D., is Co-Chair of the Community Outreach Committee, Past President of LACPA, and co-creator of the Mirrors of the Mind project. In her private practice in Calabasas she utilizes developmentally based approaches and has a lifelong passion for the arts and the psychology of creativity, a topic on which she has written and presented on frequently.


Terry Marks-Tarlow, Ph.D., is Co-Chair of the Community Outreach Committee, Curator and Editor of Mirrors of the Mind: The Psychotherapist as Artist. She has a private practice in Santa Monica, and is author, most recently, of Awakening Clinical Intuition (Norton, 2014) and Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy (Norton, 2012).




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