Art Therapy as a Way of Visually Expressing and Activating Body Intelligence

Art Therapy as a Way of Visually Expressing and Activating Body Intelligence

Here is the abstract (and reference list) for a paper I recently presented at

The American Art Therapy Association’s 44th Annual Conference, entitled:

Art Therapy as a Way of Visually Expressing and Activating Body Intelligence

This paper shows how art therapy accesses the body as a kind of intelligence.  It envisions art therapy as a body-to-body exchange—between client and therapist—such that healing becomes the process of deriving meaning and effecting change through embodied communication.

Psychotherapy is a process that for decades was regarded as the domain of the mind (Damasio, 1999). Boadella (1997) suggests that when Wilhelm Reich was ousted from the psychoanalytic movement, the body was banned with him. Today, psychotherapists within and outside of the psychoanalytic community are embracing a different paradigm. This paradigm acknowledges not only the connection between mind and body, but also conceives of therapy as a mutually embodied experience of both the client and the therapist. Shaw, for example, characterizes psychotherapy as “a way of constructing meaning out of an encounter between two bodies: that of the client and that of the therapist” (2004, p. 271). Conceived of this way, psychotherapy is embodied, intersubjective transformation.

Allan Schore (2003a, 2003b), a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, sheds light on the physiological and biological mechanisms that influence intersubjective relationships, namely the right brain. Schore asserts that especially when we are doing attachment work, therapists must be aware that the nature of intersubjective attachment repair is right brain to right brain healing communication. Babies and toddlers up to age three are essentially right brain dominated beings, whose worlds are composed, therefore, of sensory-motor, perceptual, moment-to-moment, imagistic, non-linear, non-self-observed experiences—the functional domains of the right brain. Left brains come online after age 2 as toddlers learn functions like naming, language, categorizing, ranking importance, tracking time, realizing separation of self from other. Therefore, the repair of early attachment ruptures is a right brain venture.

The abstract, unconscious, bodily oriented aspect of right brain functions has led some researchers to regard the body as the container for subconscious and pre-conscious material. Candace Pert, the neuroendocrinologist who discovered the opiate receptor, made a bold statement, asserting that “Your body is your subconscious mind” (2002, p. 152). As we grow and develop, our body is still our subconscious mind, in a sense; but with left brain development and greater integration between hemispheres, the subconscious system integrates with the left brain naming, and becomes knowable, or part of the domain of consciousness (Damasio, 1999).

What emerges out of this broad theoretical field is a conception of an integrated brain / body / mind system of conscious, subconscious, and pre-conscious ways of knowing. Sounds like Freud (See Schore, 2003a), but the difference here is the imperative to understand the body as a driver of experience and as a key intervention point for creating change.

According to this paradigm, in order to create desired changes, psychotherapists must know themselves and teach clients how to access the body’s ways of knowing. This paper provides a theoretical framework for understanding how art therapy is ideally suited to this task.

Early art therapy pioneer, Margaret Naumberg, and countless art therapists after her understood the power of art to access unconscious material (Junge, 2010). Modern art therapists such as Laurie Rappaport (2009), have laid important foundations for reintroducing the body to art psychotherapy. Art therapists working in trauma resolution, such as Malchiodi (Malchiodi, 2008; Steele & Malchiodi, 2012), Talwar (2007), and Tripp (2007), to name a few, have variously incorporated the body into their therapeutic approaches.

This paper enhances and adds to these formidable efforts in the art therapy world. It shows that art therapy is a way of visually expressing, and thus making knowable, the unique intelligence that is the purview of the body only.


Boadella, D. (1997). Awakening sensibility, recovering motility.  Psycho-physical synthesis at the foundations of body… International Journal of Psychotherapy, 2(1), 45. doi:Article

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1st ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace.

Junge, M. B. (2010). The Modern History of Art Therapy in the United States. Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Malchiodi, C. A. (2008). Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children. New York, NY US: Guilford Press. Retrieved from

Pert, C. B. (2002). The wisdom of the receptors: neuropeptides, the emotions, and bodymind. 1986. Adv Mind Body Med, 18(1), 30–5.

Rappaport, L. (2009). Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy: Accessing the Body’s Wisdom and Creative Intelligence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Schore, A. N. (2003a). Affect Regulation & the Repair of the Self (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Schore, A. N. (2003b). Affect Dysregulation & Disorders of the Self (1st ed.). New York: Norton.

Shaw, R. (2004). The embodied psychotherapist: An exploration of the therapists’ somatic phenomena within the therapeutic encounter. Psychotherapy Research, 14(3), 271–288.

Steele, W., & Malchiodi, C. A. (2012). Trauma-informed practices with children and adolescents. New York: Routledge.

Talwar, S. (2007). Accessing traumatic memory through art making: An art therapy trauma protocol (ATTP). ARTS IN PSYCHOTHERAPY, 34(1), 22–35.

Tripp, T. (2007). A short term therapy approach to processing trauma: Art therapy and bilateral stimulation. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24(4), 176–183.



Comments are closed.