VIENNA 99 – Working on Mental Images and Emotions: An Empirical Support for Milton Erickson’s Approach

Working on Mental Images and Emotions:

An Empirical Support for Milton Erickson’s Approach

Giovanna Genovese

Study Centre and Psychological Consultancy Messina Italy

This study aims to show how Milton Erickson’s Approach

integrated by the Psycho-neural V A-E Model can give empirically tested results.

A coherent psycho-neural model might emerge, not probing

phenomenological reports alone, or essaying the neurological substrate alone,

but examining how both these two processes

covary with one another. (D.D.Price 1996)

The Erickson Approach

The descriptions of Erickson’s sessions are often

nothing more than the telling of one story after the other.

Erickson used allusions, word games, wisecracks, analogies, and open-ended

anddisseminated suggestions. Erickson used the behaviour,

the attitudesof the subject and what he feels and thinks.

Erickson believed in the effectiveness

of the images and the kinesthetic memories.

Psycho-neural VA-E Model

By working, in a specific way, on some mental images it’s possible rapidly

to manage the emotion linked to themand the unpleasant behaviour,

because visual and Auditory stimuli are recorded in the brain

in specific neural tracts that are connected with the Emotional areas

and there is such connection-conditioning

so that mental images and emotions can be recalled reciprocally.

The recent advent of brain imaging techniques, combined with a

phenomenological paradigm, may reveal brain structures involved

with the process of consciousness alteration.

(Rainville Hofbauer,et al.,1999)

Information by Neurosciences on:

1 – What happens inside the brain when we use the areas of vision

and other areas linked to them.

2 – How the visual areas are connected with emotional areas

3 – How emotion connected with mental images

can become conditioned response and so influence behaviour.


The eye receptors change the light into electric signals that

reach the lateral geniculate body through the optic stretch until

to get to the visual cortex, maintaining a topographical order.

<<A complex rete of interconnections, continually recreated, interacts,

providing topographically organized representations

that have an energy which activates physiologic states and

consequent behaviour>> (A.R.Damasio,1995)

<<Topographic representation is a systematic relation

between one structure map and the next one: the several

points of the retina, the correspondent points of the

geniculate body, and these of the cortex, can be connected

by a continuous line>> (D.H. Hube 1988).

<<It’s true that the thought comprises also words and symbols, but both words

and symbolsare based on topographically organized representations

and can became images.>> (A.R.Damasio, 1995)

From the “priming” experiments we know that representations

are secretely elaborated, can influence the thought processes,

and can come back to the \ consciousness later.A.R.Damasio, 1995)

Steven Kosslyn and his group, Hanna Damasio and Thomas Grabownki

have found that the evoking of visual images

activates the visual cortex and the other areas

in which there are topographically organized representations.

<<The visual cortex analyses the visual signals,

if these are of an emotional type a signal reaches the amygdala

to activate the emotional circuits ( J.LeDoux 1999).

Neuroscientists today assert that a completely defined “emotional brain”

doesn’t exist, but instead, there are a lot of circuit systems

that allot the managementof a specific emotion

to different and dispersed, but coordinated, areas of the brain.

The emotions, as the attitudes, goals and intentions

are activated without awareness; they can influence the way in which

people think and act in social situations>> (J.A.Bargh 1990)


<<The primary visual area is connected also with the visual Thalamus which controls all the impulses deriving from the cortex. The thalamus elaborates impulses and distributes the elaborations to other different subcortical regions, including the Hippocampus and Amygdala, which seem to be involved in the emotional and cognitive functions such as the memory>> D.G.AmaraI1992


<<In my opinion to have a mind means this: an organism forms neural representations which can became image, can be manipolated in a process called images, can be manipulated in a process called thought and, at the end, can influence behaviour by helping to foresee the future and consequently to plane and choose the next action>> A.R.Damasio

Deductions of VA-E model

1- The images-representations of events that are emotionally saturated

are inclined to be fixed in the memory, and are more easily recalled.

2- An imaginary construction or what looks like the visual stimulus that

has produced the neural tracks can recall the emotion linked to that stimulus.

3- By modifying the images, in a specific way, we have the possibility to change

the emotions and the unplesant behaviour linked to them.

<<Erickson was a teacher in communication through images, thus he utilized

his tendency to treat essentially in terms of primary trials,of archaic language,

of emotions, of space and forms: that means of images>> (E.Rossi,Watzlawich)

The approach of Milton Erickson with the psycho-neural VA-E model

produces positive result in 6-8 sessions (10-12 hours of treatments)


Our study had two aims:

1 -To determine the effectiveness of the 6-8 sessions of the treatment of anxiety

with Ericksonian approaches supported by psycho­neural VA-E model.

2 -To measure the continuity of the efficiency.


The original sample consisted of 66 patients

(average age = 37.7 ± 10.1; 31 (47%) men and 35 women (53%).

We also collected data from a comparison group

that had received other treatment in the same number of sessions.


Patients were asked to rate their current level of anxiety on a 15 point scale,

ranging from not anxious to terribly anxious, before and after the treatment.

At the end of the treatment, an appointment was made

for a follow-up at 6 months.


The treatment includes 6-8 sessions (10-12 hours of treatment).

The first one lasted two hours, while the duration of the remaining sessions

was about one hour and a half each.

If the therapist and the patient agreed to it,there were 2 or 3 additional sessions.

Two psychologists, one with considerable experience in hypnosis procedure,

the other with a good knowledge of the VA-E model, conducted the treatment.

The Inventory of State-Trait anxiety (S T P I)

C.Spel berger, RGcrsuch, RL ushene

State anxiety: how are you feel in this moment

Nil a little enought a lot

1- I feel calm. . . . .. . ………………………. 1 2 3 4

2 -I feel tranquil ……………… 1 2 3 4

3 -I feel tense …………………………… … 1 2 3 4

Trait anxiety: how you normally feel

1- I tire easily ………………… 1 2 3 4

2-I feel like crying …………. 1 2 3 4

3 -I would like to be happy like everybody 1 2 3 4

4 – I don’t make decision quickly enough 1 2 3 4

The S-R Inventory ofGeneral Trait Anxiousness (S-RG TA)

  1. S.Encll er, M. 0 kada

General reactions in front of: ‘:

Probable physical danger Very nuch Not at all

I feel agitated 1 2 3 4 5

I break out in a cold sweat 1 2 3 4 5

I feel relaxed 1 2 3 4 5

Other persons are judging you

Very nuch Not at all

I feel agitated 1 2 3 4 5

I breakout in a cold sweat 1 2 3 4 5

I feel relaxed 1 2 3 4 5

What was done in each session

1 -“Sowing” -that is setting the foundations for the concepts

on which to work subsequently -a story is told.

It is built with images founded in the patient’s dream sequences.

They are chosen paying attention to the emotions that have produced them.

(Erickson stimulated an intense attention on an enclosed sphere)

2 -The patient is asked to modify the story using

the necessary resources to improve it.

The patient is helped to consider his emotions as a source of well-being.

(Erickson carries out the therapy through a deliberate

correction of immediate emotional answers).

3 -The image-emotions of two stories are remixed to build a third

on which it’s possible to repeat the words “or” and “/ can”.

On these words a post-hypnotic command is built:

the person, using the words “I can” and “or”,

must complete any anxious sentence its brain produces.

(The work to modify images and to build

the positive image-emotions, as the VA-E model suggests)

4 -Allusions, word games, and witty remarks, are within open ended suggestions,

to help the production of positive emotional images

that may stimulate the self esteem.

(Erickson used the indirect method to activate the associative schemes

and the tendency of answers that are present in the unconscious)

5 -The experiences that the patient has lived during the

week are utilized: the patient’s behaviour is used

together with his “feeling” and “thinking” through images.

With positive emotional images an ending is

built which, possibly, reproduces that of a dream.

The use of “or” and “I can” becomes a chore that

the person will consciously have to do in the days that follow.

(VA-E model helps to reinforce thfI,/y,eural tracts)

6 -The next sessions aid to consolidate the new images

that are already recorded in the brain.

Passages of recorded story are commented on.

The actions that were full of anxiety will be thought about

and lived in a different way. They are re-structured.

While this study needs to be further confirmed, the result suggests

that the Milton Erickson approach integrated

with the psycho-neural VA-E model

is a very promising treatment for anxiety.

It can give Erickson’s approach to hypnosis and psychotherapy,

a way for not becoming isolated from the scientifically

based hypnosis and therapeutic communities.

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