Visualizing Preferred Stories: Theory & Technique
The success of visualizing preferred stories or positive self belief stories in the form of prescriptive photomontages (or “Healing Dreamscapes”) are likely driven by a number of factors.
Theory #1A: Memory reconsolidation allows for invented memories
In current research on the neuroplasticity of the brain known as memory reconsolidation, emotional learning (i.e. what our senses register during a distressing moment in time) can be unlocked, activated, nullified and deleted by a new learning. Reconsolidation also apparently enables the incorporation of new elements into the memory trace. When the Healing Dreamscape’s individual elements – its vivid and sensory imagery, symbols, metaphors and various narrative elements – trigger us to retrieve a memory, our mind goes into a temporary state of lability. During this period of lability, the overlaying memory envisioned in the Dreamscape may be re-encoded into our brains in a transformed state. The implication is that prescriptive photomontage has the potential to positively influence and overlay distressing memories from the past that persist as felt emotional realities with a new memory fabricated by the prescriptive artist.
Theory #1B: Memory reconsolidation is best triggered by a sweet spot between reality and surrealism
Memory reconsolidation is said to occur only when there is a perception by the individual of a “salient novelty or an outright contradiction” or when there is a “violation of expectation”* that mismatches the target memory (“Unlocking the Emotional Brain,” Routledge, 2012). Therefore it is always advantageous to have the prescriptive photomontage composed of juxtapositions and vantage points – both metaphorically and literally – to help unlock the viewer’s black and white thinking.
Theory #2: Suspending disbelief with photo-realistic imagery is a good way to convey anything is possible in positive self-belief stories
Using digital photo manipulation software, a prescriptive photomontage artist can create a vivid facsimile of a positive memory or story that feels as real for the viewer than any construct developed by the limbic brain. Integrating new information into the client’s existing memory stores, the Dreamscape can be another way to override non-conscious beliefs and schemas as the “emotional brain doesn’t appear to distinguish between imagined and physically-enacted experiences” (Kreiman, Koch, & Fried, 2000).
“It looks like an actual glimpse into the future whereas mine wouldn’t have looked that real. Making it look real doesn’t make the goal easier to attain of course, but it makes it feel so much more possible. It also in a way pushes me to one day make it real, and in order to do that, I can’t have my eating disorders.”
– Tori K, recovering anorexic about her Healing Dreamscape
Theory #3: Repeated experiences with art induces long-term change in our neural networks
In her seminal article, “Transformative Art: Art as Means for Long-term Neurocognitive Change,” Dr. Son Preminger writes: “…art could be viewed as a medium that by instigating repeated experiences may induce long-term changes and serve as means for modification, improvement, and rehabilitation of various cognitive functions …on-going or repeated experiences induce long-lasting neurocognitive effect.” (Human Neuroscience, 2012)
Applied to individuals about to “graduate” therapy, the repeated viewing of the prescriptive photomontage outside of treatment, can activate the creative imagination. This new self reliance on the individual’s own meaning-making skills then becomes its own reward.
“I feel better. I still check out the photomontage and I feel kind of relaxed. I don’t feel sad, teary and like I want to just breakdown and cry and cry and cry.”
– Shirley H, a 61 year old woman with complicated grief, two years after living with her Healing Dreamscape
Theory #4: Symbolic interpretation of positive self-belief stories encourages “symbolic sight”
When art reaches for a higher plane of thinking, we are more likely to embrace the truth of our circumstances with more clarity and depth, philosophically and spiritually. Dream-like imagery, meaningful backdrops and objects, and symbolization assist us in seeing “we are all the same, and the spiritual challenges we face are all the same,” says Caroline Myss, PhD., a medical intuitive. “Our external differences are illusory and temporary,” she continues. “Mere physical props.”
“I wish I’d had the camera ready to catch his reaction. I’ve never seen this reaction on his face. It took place in stages. He first looked at it with surprise- like trying to figure out where the picture was taken. Then, he began laughing so hard. He continued to stare at it and we both became rather emotional as we began talking about it. From where all the pictures came from and how C.J. looked so perfect….”
– Amy C recalls the reaction of her husband to an anniversary Dreamscape incorporating an image of their stillborn child, C.J., water-tubing.
Theory #5: Mirror neurons in the brain automatically mimic facial expressions
In an article entitled “Happiness, Health and Social Networks (British Medical Journal, 2008), Christakis of Harvard and J.Fowler of UC San Diego hypothesized that happiness can be “spread” in part because of “mirror neurons” in the brain that automatically mimic what we see in the faces of those around us. If the viewer sees themselves and key subjects in the prescriptive photomontage looking happy, such powerful images can become “contagious.”
“George is so happy there and I’m so happy and we’re together. The happiness is much more important than the journey. A journey can be happy. But this is the happy part of the journey. We’re in music. David M continues: There’s love and caring – the fact that George is right behind me, cupping my head, almost like a caress. As tender as you can get. And we’re the only ones in color.”
– David M describing the reaction to his Healing Dreamscape featuring his own happy face and deceased partner George in a physical location (a Scottish music festival) strongly connected to their peace and happiness.
Theory #6: Incorporating small anecdotal details from familiar photographs can create a comforting invented memory
Including significant details associated with feelings of joy, safety and comfort can, in the words of Bharati Mukherjee’s, author of The Holder of the World, “resuscitate the joy of remembrance but also the heroic quest representing a search for meaningfulness and purpose.”
Theory #7: Including sensory memories – such qualities as colors, sound and smell – can be especially comforting
“The emotional brain’s completely nonverbal, implicit yet highly specific meaning-making and modeling of the world is innate and begins very early in life,” write the authors of “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” (Routledge, 2012). Sensory memories touch people at a deeper level, speaking in a way the emotional brain understands and processes.
“Remy had this way when he was happy: he ar-ar-ared like a seal. You knew it was him; that was his sound. So the auditory part of the montage is huge: it always will remind me of Remy’s sound.”
– Joseph C, who is mourning Remy, a schnauzer with a peculiar bark
Theory #8: Myth-building raises a loved one to epic proportions
A loved one can’t be forgotten when they’re now larger than life and taking on mythic proportions. It can become a mystical vision that looks completely unlike “those on earth” allowing surviving family members to move to the next level – which is myth-building; telling an epic story of who this person was and where they were headed.
“The major thing for me – it’s giving the T-shirt out as a gift to Craig’s friends. I would have extra T-shirts in my trunk, and say “I’ve got something for you.” They’d say, “Wow, that’s Craig!” “That’s neat.” Or “I like it.” And some would even put it on or maybe they saw it worn by other friends of Craig’s – and say to me, “Yeah, I know, you gave it to John.”
– Dale S, on how his son’s Healing Dreamscape printed on T-shirts helped him “campaign” for the noble qualities of his deceased son, Craig
Theory #9: Connect the viewer to something larger than themselves
Forging new connections or re-kindling old ones allows us to see that we are bigger than the sum of our parts. Therefore, including people we love in a prescriptive photomontage who were not players in the trauma or loss can be a reminder that your life’s work is still based on relationships. The bond with the deceased can be further continued through active prayer or one-way dialoguing with the Healing Dreamscape.