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Considerations for Facilitation of Regression Hypnotherapy with Aphantasic Clients

Written by Margaret J. Schick

Pacifica Graduate Institute

DPT 870 – Interpersonal Neurobiology, Affective Neuroscience and Depth Psychology

Instructor: Terry Marks-Tarlow, Ph.D.

Originally submitted December 27, 2023


 

This depth psychology paper begins by broadly discussing the purpose and current practices of regression therapy. The latter half of the paper introduces aphantasia—a rare trait where a person is unable to visualize images in their mind—with an emphasis on the relevance of embodied response in regression therapy, especially for clients with aphantasia. When regression therapists fully comprehend how to work with individuals with aphantasia, clients can still experience the benefits of regression therapy despite their limitation with mental visualization.


Regression therapy stands apart from hypnosis and hypnotherapy, where the hypnotist or hypnotherapist guides clients through visualization and affirmations to achieve specific goals, such as smoking cessation. In regression therapy, also referred to as regression hypnotherapy, the practitioner (commonly known as a regression therapist or regressionist) does not employ direct suggestions. Instead, they act as facilitators, guiding clients on an experiential journey.


The scope of regression therapy extends beyond popular perceptions within Western culture, which often associate it primarily with past life exploration. While this aspect is noteworthy, lesser-known outcomes of regression therapy include the revelation of unconscious material, such as blocked traumatic memories from the current life, the identification of emotional or psychological roots for mysterious physical symptoms, and the emergence of new spiritual insights from the personal or collective unconscious. Examining each of these variations in regression therapy will underscore their unique value. However, before delving into these variations, it may be helpful to establish an overall understanding of the structure and process of a regression session.

           

In a typical regression therapy session, the process unfolds in a structured manner tailored to the client's needs and goals. The following sequence outlines the general flow observed in professional sessions:

  • Establishing Trust and Identifying Intentions: The therapist initiates rapport-building with the client and works with the client to identify the intention for the session. This may involve targeting specific memories or leaving the intention open-ended, trusting the psyche to reveal pertinent information.

  • Induction into Hypnotic State: The therapist guides the client into a relaxed and focused state, commonly known as hypnosis. This heightened state of concentration doesn't entail sleep but rather an increased awareness where the client remains in control of their actions and speech. Clients familiar with regression learn to willingly embrace this relaxed state.

  • Accessing Unconscious Content: Using techniques involving guided imagery and non-directive prompts, the therapist facilitates the exploration of unconscious material. Gentle guidance and open-ended questions aid the client in uncovering content vital for healing.

  • Focus on Specific Memories (if Intended): If the client's goal is to access specific memories, the therapist may guide their focus to a particular time, setting, or event previously identified.

  • Emotional Release Facilitation: The therapist assists the client in releasing emotionally charged content that surfaces during the session.

  • Integration of Accessed Content: The therapist supports, without directing, the client's integration of the accessed content with their current life challenges.


At the outset of a regression session, it is imperative for the therapist to apprise the client of the possibility that retrieved content may take on a metaphorical and archetypal nature rather than being strictly factual and biographical. While both experiences can be valuable, it is crucial to distinguish between the two to prevent potential harm. The creation of false memories is a recognized risk in regression therapy, and ethical considerations play a paramount role in safeguarding the well-being of the client.

Researcher and PhD Terry Marks-Tarlow, in her book Psyche’s Veil: Psychotherapy, Fractals and Complexity, issues a cautionary note regarding false memories that can arise when using guided imagery to unearth repressed memories. She underscores the importance of recognizing and addressing unconscious levels of iterated feedback, as failure to do so can have disastrous consequences (Marks-Tarlow, 2008, p. 86).


Applying Marks-Tarlow’s observation to regression therapeutic work, which intentionally brings forward unconscious levels of feedback, underscores the necessity for therapists to guide clients in considering unveiled content through an archetypal lens. Developing an archetypal understanding of psychological experience can be as valuable as integrating memories of actual trauma. As Marks-Tarlow asserts, 'At times it is the longing for clarity itself that needs interpretation, especially when such desires serve as a defense against the muck of uncertainty” (Marks-Tarlow, 2008, p. 90).


The client’s cultivation of an appreciation for uncertainty and archetypal meaning plays a pivotal role in rendering depth psychological work, including regression therapy, meaningful, enriching, and useful. In

the words of Carl Jung, “Whenever an archetype appears things become critical, and it is impossible to foresee what turn they will take. As a rule, this depends on the way consciousness reacts to the situation” (Jung, 1970, p. 461). This underscores the inherent unpredictability when working with archetypal elements, emphasizing the influence of consciousness on the unfolding psychological dynamics. Depth psychological work achieves its fullest meaning and utility when both the therapist and the client can use its language. By understanding the “‘language’ that the psyche is using, you gain the ability, especially in counseling, to speak directly to those subconscious patterns in a way that the client can deeply absorb what is being said” (Walsh, 2009, p. xx).

           

In his book Other Lives, Other Selves: A Jungian Psychotherapist Discovers Past Lives, Jungian Analyst and PhD Roger Woolger describes his discovery of past life regression as a profound tool of individuation for himself and his clients. “This is not a parlor game, simple as the procedures may seem when first witnessed. At the same time, there is powerful learning to be had from this extraordinary process. It is no exaggeration to say that there are among my clients those whose whole life orientation has been changed by only one or two past life sessions. The opportunity to confront one’s true self, naked and unadorned, to see the essence of one’s “stuckness” in even a single story, is unparalleled in any other psychological discipline that I know” (Woolger, 1987, p. 13).


Just as regression therapy is profoundly helpful in exploring past lives, it proves just as valuable in delving into and revisiting buried memories from the client’s current life. The goal is to address and resolve issues deeply rooted in these memories. Like past life regression, this form of regression involves guiding the client through a journey, but with a distinct focus on a difficult time period from their current life. A fundamental aspect of this approach is the recognition of the client's readiness. The intention to explore current life memories is rooted in the client's emotional and psychological preparedness to engage with and integrate these memories constructively. This focus on client readiness ensures a therapeutic process that is both effective and supportive of the client's well-being.


Integration lies at the core of regression therapeutic work, acknowledging that memories and experiences from the past, often buried in the subconscious or forgotten, can significantly influence present behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns. “Experiencing past life or current life memories enables a person to understand the cause of their problem. Spirit-realm encounters [provide] new understandings, and frozen energy from the origin of complexes can be released and transformed. Afterwards the experience needs to be fully integrated into a client's present life to complete the healing process. The simplest way of integrating [a past memory] into the current life is by asking about the patterns between them” (Tomlinson, 2012, p 187).


Spiritual regression stands as another profound form of regression therapy. It may manifest as a crucial component within the framework of past or current life regression, enriching the exploration of memories with a spiritual dimension. Alternatively, it can be a standalone journey, delving into the spiritual realm independent of specific memory recall. Whether integrated into a broader regression experience or undertaken as an independent exploration, spiritual regression offers clients a unique pathway to uncover insights, connect with spiritual dimensions, and foster a deeper understanding of their personal journey. This dual nature allows for a versatile and personalized therapeutic approach tailored to the individual's needs and goals. As with regression that involves memory recall, afterwards the spiritual regression experience must be integrated into the client's present life.


Challenges in the client’s current life may manifest in ways other than emotional or spiritual, and here again regression therapy can help. “Physical symptoms presented by the client are not usually isolated experiences but may also be linked to critical events in this life or other lives that are related to presenting themes. The client may not have any awareness of such a link” (McHugh, 2010, p. 29). By using specific regression approaches that create a somatic bridge (McHugh), the therapist “can have the client deepen into the physical experience in the body. Have them go to the ailing spot and feel it and then give instruction that the feeling can now take the client to its origin” (McHugh, 2010).


 Regardless of the client’s stated purpose for engaging in regression therapy, of essential consideration for the regression therapist is whether the client’s regression experience will take place in the mind’s eye or if it will be non-imaginal, sensed in the body, and known in the mind (but not “seen”). While most regression therapy techniques and clients themselves are imagery-focused, it is important to recognize that for the approximately four percent (Dance, Ipser, Simner, 2022) of people who have aphantasia, therapy solely reliant on mental imagery has no use. “Visual mental imagery is the ability to create a quasi-perceptual visual picture in the mind’s eye. For people with the rare trait of aphantasia, this ability is entirely absent or markedly impaired” (Dance, Ipser, Simner, 2022, p. 1).


The understanding of aphantasia and the tools employed by regression therapists when working with aphantasic clients becomes a critical concern. Ideally, the regressionist will strive to understand the subjective experience of clients with aphantasia, and the approach to regression sessions will be adjusted to ensure efficacy for these people who are entirely or almost entirely without mental imagination.

The concept of the inability to form mental images in one's mind was studied and first published in the late 19th century (Galton, 1880), but it appears that it did not gain greater public awareness until the 20th century. Through his 1973 Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), British psychologist David Marks provided a survey in which the participant is invited to consider the mental image formed in thinking about specific objects, scenes, and situations. The vividness of the image is rated along a 5-point scale, the levels of which are described as: “1) Perfectly realistic, as vivid as real seeing; 2) Realistic and reasonably vivid; 3) Moderately realistic and vivid; 4) Dim and vague image; 5) No image at all, I only “know” I am thinking of the object” (Marks, 1973, p. 19). These VVIQ levels are also commonly depicted in the current day through a graphic illustration of aphantasia as shown in the Appendix.


An aphantasic person typically rates at VVIQ level 5—they are unable to conjure an image in their mind at all; they know the details of something in a more cognitive, concrete way. “Although most people use visual imagery habitually in everyday life, people with aphantasia are often outwardly unaffected, living their lives fully without realising they are in any way different. They often interpret ‘visual imagery’ as merely metaphor, and are surprised to learn others might ‘re-see’ (i.e., visually image) in order to achieve the same visual knowledge they themselves possess without this” (Dance, Ipser, Simner, 2022).


The term aphantasia is relatively new. It was coined by neurologist and researcher Dr. Adam Zeman and his colleagues in a scientific paper published in 2015 (Zeman, Dewar, Della Sala, 2015). Before this formal identification, individuals with aphantasia may have experienced difficulties describing their unique way of perceiving the world. Even with an increasing amount of information on aphantasia available online today, people “whose aphantasia is congenital—i.e., not due to a stroke, brain injury, or psychiatric illness—become aware of their peculiarity reasonably late in life. Indeed, this small deficit in visualization does not cause any handicap, and they have no reason to suspect they are atypical. Nor do they realize that at the other end of the spectrum are hyperphantasic individuals who can produce mental images as precise as illustrations in a book.” (Liu, 2023, p. 1). Today’s increasing public awareness of aphantasia can be attributed to a combination of scientific research, social media pages such as the Facebook page Aphantasia & Hypnosis Research Lab, and online communities such as Aphantasia.com where individuals can share their experiences.


Currently, there is debate among scientists as to the origin and diagnosis of aphantasia. “Research into the newly-coined ‘condition’ of ‘aphantasia’, an individual difference involving the self-reported absence of voluntary visual imagery, has taken off in recent years, and more and more people are ‘self-diagnosing’ as aphantasic. Yet, there is no consensus on whether aphantasia should really be described as a ‘condition’, and there is no battery of psychometric instruments to detect or ‘diagnose’ aphantasia. Instead, researchers currently rely on the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) to ‘diagnose’ aphantasia” (Blomkvist, Marks, 2023).


While aphantasia is considered a relatively rare trait, given the increasing presence of information about aphantasia on the internet it might surprise some to learn that the term and concept may not be universally recognized within the professional community of regression therapists, even though their work revolves around mental imagery. A quick scan of indices at the back of recently published regression therapy and past life regression books would demonstrate this truth: aphantasia is probably not listed. However, even though aphantasia may not be specifically named, many training and information resources written for regression therapists will, somewhere within the text, at least briefly address the fact that not all clients are able to use their imagination to visualize something, and therefore use of other techniques must be among the regressionist’s skill set. If the field of regression therapy is to adequately serve the aphantasic community, though, regressionists will need to discuss the trait more deliberately. The regression therapist will benefit from knowing and using the term aphantasia and understanding with clarity how to work with a sensory, thought, and feelings-based approach rather than an imagery-based one.


Regression therapists can effectively support clients with limited capacity for mental imagery by following these recommendations, synthesized from insights by McHugh (2017), Tomlinson (2012), and Trevena (2023):

  1. Communication and Expectations: Clearly explain the concept of regression therapy and what the client might experience during the process. Emphasize that the lack of vivid mental imagery doesn't mean the therapy won't be effective.

  2. Alternative Techniques for Induction: Integrate techniques that include relaxation and breathing techniques, body-centered awareness, or recalling the details of a place that causes the client to feel safe and relaxed. The aphantasic client knows the details, and they do not have to be able to imagine them to experience the feelings of safety and calm. Use exercises that emphasize the senses, such as touch, smell, or sound. Instead of asking the client to imagine, use language such as “think of” or “pretend,” or “experience any way you like…”

  3. Exploration in Hypnotic State: Guide the client to focus on the feelings, thoughts, intuition, bodily sensations, and other non-visual aspects of the memories and/or spiritual experiences of the regression. Incorporate the senses. Ask the client to describe sounds, smells, or tastes they may be experiencing or aware of.

  4. Metaphors: Encourage the use of metaphors to represent emotions or experience. Explore what the metaphors may signify about their past and/or current life experiences. “Metaphor speaks to the heart of our emotions quite loudly” (Marks-Tarlow, 2012, p. 155).

  5. Respect Client Comfort: Remain aware that the client may feel frustrated or anxious about their inability to visualize, and continue to validate their non-visual experience. Adjust the pace of the therapy to accommodate the client's comfort level.

  6. Adapt Techniques to Individual Needs: Recognize that each client is unique. What works for one person may not work for another. Be flexible in approach and adapt techniques to suit the individual client.

  7. Collaborative Exploration: As with all regression clients, work collaboratively with the aphantasic client. Encourage open communication about their regression experiences and feelings. If they are experiencing doubt, anxiety or another negative emotion or blockage to the full regression experience, invite them to openly explore the emotion. This may allow for the client to move past the blockage and relax fully into the regression experience.

 

 This author revised her own hypnosis induction script, which would typically be used for an image-centered client, to make it applicable for aphantasic clients. This is a sampling of a few sentences and the changes made:

 

Your job as the client is simply to relax, notice what you are experiencing and seeing in your minds eye sensing, and describe that to me.

 

As we begin... remember that all hypnosis is actually self-hypnosis. You decide how deep you want to go. You will not have to try to see the images. All you need to do is trust the process. The images sensations, feelings, and knowing will come to you.

 

Now, breathing naturally again, let’s begin to use the imagination...imagine, with each breath in, that allow a feeling of peace is coming to come into the body and into the mind, and with each breath out...feel yourself letting go

 

Imagine now that you are laying outside on a beautiful day. Imagine it is late summer, and you are laying on a very comfortable bench. Trees are gently blowing in the breeze above you, and the sky is a beautiful blue. Think about how it feels to be in your comfortable place in your home. Pretend that you are there. Recall the comfort in your body when you rest in the middle of the afternoon. That feeling of comfort and drowsiness. You are supported by the couch cushions, [and maybe you have a sleeping pet nearby making the calm of the setting all the more comforting]… the calmer you feel, the heavier and more relaxed your body feels… and the more your body relaxes into the support of the bench of your couch, the more deeply relaxed you feel….


It may be highly beneficial for regression therapists to undergo regression as aphantasic clients would, experiencing this exclusively embodied way. This first-hand understanding would provide therapists with valuable insights into the non-imaginal regression experience, fostering empathy and enriching their ability to tailor therapeutic approaches.


In the intake discussion with clients, it is not only appropriate but crucial for regression therapists to inquire about the client’s level of imagination. A helpful framework for this discussion is the 'apple test' illustration provided in the Appendix, offering clients a specific and relatable context to describe their experience of the mind’s eye. As aptly pointed out by Trevena (2023), “Be mindful that your clients might not know they have aphantasia.” This highlights the importance of creating a space for open communication and ensuring that clients feel comfortable expressing their unique cognitive experiences.


In summary, regression therapy emerges as a profound and transformative tool, facilitating the journey of bringing unconscious memories and content into waking consciousness. This intentional process aims to integrate unveiled content with behavioral patterns that clients seek to change, fostering a profound healing experience. An integral consideration for regression therapists is the client's capacity for mental imagery. Specifically, for the four percent of the population with aphantasia, the regression journey may unfold through thought, intuition, the senses, bodily sensations, and emotion rather than visual imagery. This nuanced approach ensures that the therapy is tailored to the unique cognitive experiences of each individual. By delving into a comprehensive understanding of aphantasia, regression therapists empower themselves to create a therapeutic environment that is not only supportive but also highly effective for clients with this distinctive trait. This commitment to knowledge and adaptability enhances the therapeutic process, making regression therapy accessible and beneficial for a diverse range of clients.

 

 

References

Andrea Blomkvist, David F. Marks, Defining and ‘diagnosing’ aphantasia: Condition or individual difference? [Abstract], Cortex,Volume 169, 2023, Pages 220-234, ISSN 0010-9452, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2023.09.004.

 

C.J. Dance, A. Ipser, J. Simner, The prevalence of aphantasia (imagery weakness) in the general population, Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 97, 2022, 103243, ISSN 1053-8100,

 

Galton, F. (1880). Statistics of Mental Imagery. Mind, 5(19), 301–318. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2246391

 

Jung, C. G. (1970). Good and evil in analytical psychology (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung: Vol. 10. Civilization in transition (2nd ed., pp. 456-468). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1959) https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400850976.456

 

Liu, Ji., Bartolomeo, P. Probing the unimaginable: The impact of aphantasia on distinct domains of visual mental imagery and visual perception. Cortex, July 5th, 2023. DOI : 10.1016/j.cortex.2023.06.003.

 

Marks, D. F. (1973). Visual imagery differences in the recall of pictures. British Journal of Psychology, 64(1), 17–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1973.tb01322.x

 

Marks-Tarlow, T. (2008). Psyche’s veil: Psychotherapy, fractals, and complexity. Routledge.

 

Marks-Tarlow, T. (2012). Clinical intuition in psychotherapy: The neurobiology of embodied response (1st ed). W. W. Norton.

 

McHugh, G. (2017). The New Regression Therapy (Second). CreateSpace.

Tomlinson, A. (2012). Healing the eternal soul: Insights from past life and spiritual regression. from the Heart Press.

 

Trevena, P., Can hypnosis work on those with aphantasia? Yes!, Aphantasia Network, October 15, 2023. https://aphantasia.com/profile/trevenap/,

 

Walsh, P. L. (2009). Understanding karmic complexes: Evolutionary astrology and regression therapy. The Wessex Astrologer LTD.

 

Woolger, R. J. (1988). Other lives, other selves: A Jungian psycho-therapist discovers past lives. Bantam Books.

 

Zeman A, Dewar M, Della Sala S. Lives without imagery - Congenital aphantasia. Cortex. 2015 Dec;73:378-80. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019. Epub 2015 Jun 3. PMID: 26115582.

Appendix

 

 

Aphantasia Network, Aphantasia.com

 

           

 

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