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International Art Therapy Practice / Research Inaugural Conference report - Day Three: 13th July 2019

07 February 2020

The inaugural International Art Therapy Practice / Research Conference report on the conference’s Keynote sessions and Round Table discussions: Conference Day One - Saturday 13th July 2019

The inaugural International Art Therapy Practice / Research Conference was organised by BAAT in partnership with AATA (the American Art Therapy Association).  It was attended by more than 700 delegates from over 35 countries around the world. Each day of the conference began with delegates coming together for a keynote session.  Thereafter people could choose from a diverse programme of research and practice paper presentations, round table discussions, masterclasses, and workshops.  The conference included a small exhibition of facsimiles of works from the Adamson Collection.  The International Art Therapy Practice / Research Conference (IATPRC) is now set to become a biennial event.  Report on the conference’s Keynote sessions and Round Table discussions by Simon Richardson with photos by Samantha Jayne Fawcett and Lex Bágust.

Conference Day Three - Saturday 13 July
Morning keynote and panel presentation
Dr Iain McGilchrist

The Divided Brain and the Power of the Implicit

Iain McGilchrist began by recalling he had given the keynote address at the Attachment and the Arts conference in 2013.  He was glad to be speaking at the inaugural IATPRC as he had worked with arts therapists as a psychiatrist and had greatly valued the work they did.  He would be talking about the divided brain and how that illuminates the question of the implicit.  McGilchrist felt we live in a society which predominantly values the explicit and the measurable, whereas most of the important things in life are implicit, cannot be touched, and may not even be able to be spoken about.  This reflects a view held by philosophers from Pascal onwards that there are effectively two ways in which we live in the world.  His talk would show how the explicit and the implicit can be seen in the workings of the two sides of the brain.  Although the two hemispheres are connected - by the corpus callosum - only two per cent of the brain’s activity involves cross-over between them.  Most of the neuron activity happens within each of the hemispheres.
McGilchrist highlighted the fact that the hemispheres are asymmetric.  The right hemisphere is broader in the frontal region than the left hemisphere.  For a long time it was thought that the right hemisphere served no purpose; for McGilchrist it is actually the more important side.  He explained that a lot of the traffic in the corpus callosum is inhibitive, that is it involves the left hemisphere inhibiting the right hemisphere.  The brain is therefore: a divided brain, an asymmetric brain, an inhibitive brain - so what is going on?  The question of hemisphere difference is highly contentious.  The problem is that the differences in the way the hemispheres function and the responsibilities they have are often over-simplified.  This is most obvious in the reductive pop psychology account of left and right hemisphere functions that has become common currency.  People frequently describe themselves as being more ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’, for example, despite such claims having no scientific basis.
McGilchrist then showed a scan of the neural network of a sea creature that existed 700 million years ago.  It is the first known example of a neural network and is already lateralised.  Lateralisation appears in all creatures that have been studied and is of fundamental significance.  McGilchrist explained that lateralisation is about solving a principal problem of existence: how to pay two kinds of attention to the world at the same time.  Attention is not just a technical cognitive function but about how the world comes into existence for us.  The same world attended to on one day in a certain way can seem quite different on another day.  This is part of the process of lateralisation where different things are noticed dependent on circumstances and context.  McGilchrist used a photo of a lizard to highlight how its left hemisphere is focused on foraging while the right hemisphere is maintaining vigilance.  The process of paying two kinds of attention is more observable in creatures with eyes on each side of their head.  The lizard searches for prey with its right eye (left hemisphere) while watching out for predators with its left eye (right hemisphere).  It is able to look for food while being on guard against becoming a meal itself.
There are myriad ways of understanding the world, depending on who is looking and why they are looking.  McGilchrist illustrated this by showing a photo of the mountain Thalas Gair (from the Norse ‘sloping rock’) on the Isle of Skye.  The Norse gave it that name because it slopes down to the sea and was a landmark for them.  The Picts who lived in the mountain’s shadow believed it was home to the Gods.  Painters have painted it, geologists studied it, physicists analysed it, and estate agents have put a value on it.  Can any of these views be said to be what the mountain really is?  McGilchrist suggested they are in fact aspects of it understood with different kinds of attention depending on the onlooker.
The example of Thalas Gair shows how attempts to describe ‘reality’ can be problematic.  McGilchrist explained that, in science, any attempt to arrive at an idea of what reality is like starts with an axiomatic assumption.  You begin with a hypothesis and see how it works; if it works as you anticipated you go on with it, if not you try something else.  Problems can arise though because people tend to see what they expect to find.  The word ‘attention’ itself comes from the Latin ‘to reach out the hand’.  A difficulty can be that attention is often described as a systematic, left hemispheric A to B process: I see something, I recognise what it is.  A right hemisphere approach sees attention as far more complex, partly because the right hemisphere is open to new experience: I see something, I want to know what it is.  As both these modes of attention are integrated into the brain’s functioning - and are vastly and complexly connected - describing reality is rarely as simple as first imagined.
McGilchrist then gave a brief overview of the basic differences between the functioning of the left and right hemispheres.  The theme running through this was that where the left hemisphere attends to the world in a way that is essentially theoretical and self-referring, the right hemisphere is open to whatever is new that comes from experiencing the world at large.  Considering the implicit as opposed to the explicit helps to cast these differences into sharp relief.  Aspects of peoples’ lives like emotions, humour, or desire lose their meaning when they are made explicit.  A joke or a piece of music, for example, loses its power once it is distilled down to its component parts; so where the left hemisphere processes things in abstract terms, the right hemisphere sees them set in context.  The left brain’s impetus is to quantify things while the right brain aims for a qualitative understanding. The left hemisphere works with the familiar - things that are ‘re-presented’ to it - while the right hemisphere works with new experience, however it is presented to it.  And, McGilchrist added, the left hemisphere denies its failings, is unreasonably optimistic and tends to have a high opinion of itself, whereas the right hemisphere is more realistic.
He then turned to the question of visual or nonverbal thinking.  It is commonly believed that language is needed in order to think, but this is not the case.  McGilchrist talked about scientists whose discoveries came to them through visual imagery.  Niels Bohr’s notebook contains only drawings, there are no formulae or verbal jottings.  Animals and birds have the capacity to think and solve problems but do not have language.  Human beings do not need language for thought or communication; and much communication happens nonverbally, through the body, the face, the tone of voice and what must remain unspoken.  McGilchrist highlighted the close link between speech and the right hand (left hemisphere).  By contrast, he suggested, allowing things to be implicit and come into being by a process of clearing things away rather than putting them together is central to the process of creativity.  Michelangelo’s comment that, ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’, is a prime example of this.
McGilchrist concluded by speculating what a left hemisphere world might look like.  He suggested it would include: a loss of the broader picture, knowledge replaced by information, a loss of concepts like skill and judgement, a drive towards abstraction and reification, bureaucracy run riot, a loss of uniqueness, quantity being the only criterion, an either/or approach to everything, reasonableness being replaced by rationality, a failure of common sense, a focus on systems to maximise utility, a loss of social cohesion, depersonalisation, paranoia and a lack of trust, anger and aggression at anything that frustrates procedure, people taking on the role of passive victim, art becoming purely conceptual, music being predominantly rhythm, language lacking concrete referents, a deliberate undercutting of any sense of awe or wonder, flow being replaced by an infinite series of parts, tacit forms of knowing being discarded, people cast as spectators rather than participants; and all of this accompanied by a dangerously unwarranted optimism.  McGilchrist added, with a wry smile, thank goodness we are not living in that kind of world.
Watch Dr Iain McGilchrist’s talk ‘The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ on YouTube here


Girija Kaimal, Associate Professor
Adaptive Response Theory: A Bio-Psycho-Social Framework for Art Therapy Clinical Research and Practice


Girija Kaimal suggested a lot of what art therapists do is fundamentally rooted in evolutionary biology and how our brain works.  She has been an artist all her life, from her childhood in India.  Since moving to live in the USA she has worked as an educator and researcher.  Kaimal is interested in the question of what is quantifiable and what is better understood in qualitative terms?  Art has survived for thousands of years and has been present in every civilisation around the world.  One theory holds that art has developed as human beings became more intelligent.  Kaimal is not convinced by this and has sought an alternative understanding.  Most processes in the human body have an aspect of taking in and taking out, such as breathing, eating, or dinking.  Similarly, every day we are involved in seeing, listening or hearing which are also processes of taking in.  Perhaps art should be seen as a way of taking in and processing information and then letting it out?
Research shows that our psychological states are very much linked to our physical states.  If someone is unable to express themselves their brain experiences this as a threat and will start an inflammatory response in the brain or body.  Kaimal cited loneliness as an example of this.  She challenged the commonly held belief that our brain is simply an information processing machine.  She felt it is better understood as a predictive processing machine, continually deciding what actions we ought to take.  This makes for a personal rather than mechanistic understanding of how our brain functions.  Each person has a personal story.  One aspect of the brain’s work is that people are trying to recognise what is a threat and what is safety.  Kaimal felt this is part of what art therapists do with their clients in therapy; they work with them so they feel able to express themselves.  Which then raises the question of how art functions within this.
If the brain is a predictive processing machine, Kaimal suggested, then what is it that people do in art?  They imagine.  In art therapy this involves the therapist helping their client to see things in a different way.  Art is not then something that is a luxury or a diversionary activity but is fundamental to survival; if you are not able to imagine you are not able to thrive.  Kaimal felt the art making process helps to create a sense of agency for people through engaging them in doing and making, relational development, gaining perspective, and self-regulation.  Art therapy helps the client to be better able to survive and thrive in the world outside.  The clinical implications of this are that it delineates a continuum from core survival to self- actualisation.  Adaptive response theory therefore integrates the unique components of art therapy: facilitating creative and nonverbal self-expression within psychotherapeutic practice.  Moreover, each of the constructs and mechanisms can be empirically tracked or measured using this process.

This presentation has now been published: Kaimal, G. (2019). Adaptive Response Theory (ART): A clinical research framework for art therapy. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. Doc: 10.1080/07421656.2019.1667670


Juliet King, Associate Professor
Art Therapy and Neuroscience



Juliet King opened her talk by using the metaphor of an octopus to describe the fields of neuroscience and art therapy, both of which have tentacles reaching out in different ways.  She contextualized this to growing up with a father who was a mathematician and a mother who was an artist.  King felt that math and art are two distinct modalities that can be combined to inform and complement each other, giving different perspectives on the world.  A similar thing happens with the continuum from art teaching to arts in health to art therapy.  When practices like art, therapy and neuroscience are brought together there is a greater capacity for understanding and further articulating what art therapists do. 
It further enables researchers to incorporate the empirical aspects of measuring and standardization with the relational aspects of psychotherapy. King suggested that using neuroscience to explore art therapy can help us discover clear mechanisms for practice and develop protocols to be tested.  Art therapy involves a therapeutic relationship; in neuroscience terms it is neuro-therapeutic and the art making process is a feedback loop.  This can help with understanding the relational components of art therapy; for example, we can study how the function of mirror neurons might inform an understanding of the processes of transference and countertransference. 
Then, new brain / body imaging technology allows researchers to see what is going on in the brain during an art therapy session.  This has not been possible until recently as brain scanning required people to be static.  It is now possible to use imaging technology to see how peoples’ brain waves change while they are in the session.  The imaging technology also enables researchers to see what happens not just in the brain of a client in art therapy but also between the brains of client(s), art therapist, and the art products made.
A challenge with identifying the mechanisms in art therapy is that creativity happens all over the brain, it is not localized or specific to one particular region or area.  However, as neuroscience helps identify what happens in the brain during art making then we are in a better position to explain what art therapy can offer patients.  King discussed top-down and bottom-up strategies of information processing and knowledge ordering and some challenges of using these methods to research art therapy. 
There is an element of spontaneity and surprise in the creative process which can be difficult to account for.  However, as researchers are more able to understand the ‘space of now’ between therapist and client in therapy, so the potential to communicate the benefits of art therapy to others increases.  Imaging technologies like EEG (electroencephalogram) and fNIRS (functional near infrared spectroscopy)  can provide new insights into the effects of art therapy and give a more precise understanding of brain activity.  King closed by suggesting that when artists and scientists work together, the capacity for exploring art therapy as a practice and a process is greatly enhanced.


Watch Juliet King’s talk ‘Art Therapy and Neuroscience: A Revitalized Synthesis’ on YouTube here


Christianne Strang, Associate Professor
Behaviour, Homeostasis and Art



Christianne Strang began by asking how can we capture the ‘a-ha’ moments clients have in therapy sessions - the creativity and insights they experience - to build evidence of how art therapy effects change.  She suggested that what art therapists have access to in sessions is a client’s behaviour.  ‘Behaviour’ can be understood in a number of different ways.  It can be about how someone interacts with others, their responses to various stimuli, or the way they function as a human being.  Strang said she would use the loosest definition of behavior, and emphasized that what art therapists have access to in session is the motor behaviour that occurs during art therapy.

Behaviours are the output of the cognitive and emotional processing that occurs in the brain; the motor cortex is responsible for intentional, voluntary movement.  This is what is at work when someone makes a piece of art.  The involuntary motor responses such as heart rate or breathing are controlled by the autonomic nervous system.  Both types of behaviour can be affected or change in response to emotional or psychological stimuli.  Strang discussed how observations of clients’ behaviours in sessions can help a therapist in thinking about how best to work with someone to effect the changes they want in their life.

Strang then talked about some of the ways the autonomic nervous system can be affected by sympathetic responses to real or perceived threat.  An example would be raised heart rate in response to a stress trigger.  The role of the autonomic nervous system is to keep bodily functions like heart rate or respiratory rate in balance because, in this optimal state, we can then focus our attention on the day-to-day aspects of our life.  As a regulatory system it works to maintain homeostatis.  Problems can arise, however, if the baseline level of the autonomic nervous systems becomes out of balance in some way.  This can result in someone being constantly in a heightened state of arousal, such as fight or flight.

Strang suggested it is helpful to remember that no emotion lasts forever, particularly when working with clients in a hypervigilant or distressed state.  She felt a useful metaphor, though one to be used with care, is to think of the autonomic nervous system as a thermostat. Under normal circumstances it serves to maintain internal balance.  When someone is in a continual state of threat it can be as if the thermostat is broken or has been turned up too high.  While people may want to reset the thermostat, there can also be resistance to moving away from the familiar set point.  Facilitated by the art therapist, art and art making can form part of the process of helping clients to ‘reset’ their behaviours.  This can enable people to live a more balanced and self-regulated life.

Read Christianne Strang’s article ‘Art therapy helps liberate emotions when words fail’ here


Our Journey So Far and Future Plans
Panel: Donna Betts, Sarah Deaver, Val Huet, Giriga Kaimal, Lynn Kapitan, Neil Springham, Christianne Strang, Tim Wright

Delegates came together at the end of the conference to share some experiences of the three days they had spent together and to look to the future.  Panel members talked about their particular highlights, but the main focus was on the future and how this inaugural conference might be followed up.  Lynn Kapitan reiterated the theme of her presentation on the value of art therapists coming together and crossing borders.  She hoped the IATPRC would become part of a process of practitioners forging relationships with colleagues around the world.  Christianne Strang added that AATA wants there to be another conference.  It had taken two years to organise this one but, now the structure is in place, it can be developed and refined over the coming years.  Val Huet confirmed that BAAT is committed to making the IATPRC a biannual event and one that is truly international.  The aim would be to hold conferences around the world to ensure that art therapy practice and research reflects the diversity and experience of the profession.


The conference closed with a performance of two songs by the choir of delegates who had attended the daily ‘Finding Your Voice’ sessions facilitated by Jacqui McKoy-Lewens.

You can find the Conference Report from Day One on 11th July 2020 here

You can find the Conference Report from Day Two on 12th July 2020 here

The International Art Therapy Practice/Research Conference was held on 11-13 July 2019 at Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London.

You can see highlights from the conference on Twitter using #ArtTherapyIntConf

Find out about the 10th Attachment & the Arts Conference in November 2020 here

You can see highlights from past Attachment & the Arts conferences on Twitter using #AttachmentArts