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The Art of Evocation

Evocation Book

The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey K. Zeig’s latest book, Evocation. Order your copy of Evocation here.

Remember, communication is both evocative and informative. If you’re a carpenter and say, “Here is some useful wood,” you mean one thing. If you’re a Boy Scout and say the same thing, you mean something else. And if your hobby is woodcarving, you mean something entirely different. We are continuously processing and interpreting the evocative level of communication. The question is: How can we use evocative orientations in psychotherapy and personal communication when the goal is to elicit a state? The answer can be found in art.

Art is evocative communication. When Picasso painted his masterpiece, Guernica, he likely did not think, “I’m painting this because I want those who look at this piece to think that war is hell.” He painted Guernica so that the viewer would have the evocative experience of realizing the horrors of war.

When Francis Ford Coppola directed a scene at the end of the first Godfather movie, he did not say that Michael Corleone was a hypocrite. He mixed a scene of Corleone attending a baptism with scenes of extreme violence whereby Corleone was taking revenge on his enemies. The meaning of these contrasting scenes was obvious; it did not need to be explained.

When Robert Frost wrote poetry, he did it for evocative effect and his medium was merely paper and ink…

… Frost, Picasso, and Coppola use their medium in unusual and unexpected ways to elicit an experiential realization. Therapists can do the same thing. They do not need to verbally communicate a clear and concise message; they can take artistic license. They can enter with delight and exit with wisdom.

Remember, if you want to evoke an alteration in conceptual realization or state, you need to use evocative communication that tends to be unusual. To understand science, which is based on facts, informative communication is necessary. But the symbolism and ambiguities inherent to art are fundamental to eliciting emotions and concomitant states.

Evocative communication has grammar that is different from informative communication. And we can learn about the grammar of evocative communication by studying art. When we understand the evocative grammar of art, we can apply it in psychotherapy (and in any communication designed to elicit a change in state).

Limbic Communication

Artistic communication, which is evocative, conceptual, and experiential, activates older brain centers, including the limbic system, which can be considered the center of the emotional brain. The limbic system contains the amygdala, which is an accelerator — a brain center of social/emotional reactivity that automatically responds through flight, fight, freeze, fold, hide, cling, or connect. Some people are like mice and immediately take flight. Some are lions and fight when challenged. Others, like possums, fold and play dead. Turtles hide in their shell. Baby koalas cling, and herd animals connect with the group. The most common action among frightened animals is to flee.

The limbic system is a center for emotional communication and concomitant reactions that are robotically enacted. Animals use limbic communication; their communication does not need to be mediated by consciousness. Fish school, cattle herd, and bees build hives and swarm — all without conscious communication. They have an instinct of purpose, an unconditioned reflex.

Humans also have instincts, and human problems have a reflexive quality, in that they “just happen.” Consider the nature of affective, behavioral, and relational problems — clients report a lack of volition, the problem “just happens.” Clients often emphasize the automaticity of the problem: “I walked onto the airplane and I just panicked.” Or, “The plate was empty, and I did not remember eating.” Or, “He talked about going on vacation, and I just got angry.”

Human problems are not cognitive. We don’t think our way into problems. An associative net drives us, and cognitions play a minor role. Among other components, the associative net consists of memories, perceptions, cognitions, behaviors, relationships, contextual determinants, and feelings. The associative net, which is based on our evolutionary biology, drives social and environmental responses.

Consciousness is built on a limbic substratum, and human problems are found in that substratum. If problems could be solved solely by formal logic, people would not need therapists. One could simply get information from a friend or read a self-help book. But when therapists conceive of problems as limbic, evocative limbic communication becomes the logical approach.

When the goal is an alteration in state, one should strategically use limbic communication, a method that is based on our evolutionary sociobiology. I commonly strive to speak to a person’s limbic system and use methods that will reach that level. Limbic communication harnesses para-verbal aspects of relating. Like in animal communication, I use signifying gestures, postures, proximity, and the tone, tempo, and direction of my voice. And because I have studied hypnosis, which relies on limbic methods, I have learned to strategically use para-verbal communication.

Limbic communication is multidimensional and evocative. Limbic communication orients toward; it is not merely informative. Again, this is the crux of Evocative Therapy. Consider how filmmakers rely heavily on the use of music and sound effects to evoke emotion. Sounds and music elicit emotion better than words. Without music and sound effects, a movie or TV program would be uninteresting — flat. Therapists can also use sound for impact, and to better communicate. For example, if a patient says, “I’m depressed,” I might respond, “You’re feeling ugh.” My goal is to empathize in more than one dimension. Sound often carries a message that addresses the emotional understructure of communication —  it speaks to the experiential layers for which words are an abbreviation. Similarly, I might also use a gesture or posture to communicate empathy. If a patient says, “I’m not motivated,” I might reply, “It’s like you’re feeling…” and then suddenly drop both my hands into my lap. Or, I might say, “It’s like you’re feeling…” and then slump back in my chair.

Signifying methods are designed to elicit conceptual realizations. For example, the foundation of a good relationship is trust, and trust is fostered by reciprocity. But trust is a state, and we need to have reference experiences that elicit the state of trust.  Making a symbolic gesture — placing your hand on your heart, as an example —communicates the realization of trust, more than a lecture about its necessity.

To elicit the state of trust in a group therapy session, several members of the group could all face the same way while one member stands a few feet in front of the group, with his or her back to the group. On the count of three, that person is instructed to let himself or herself fall back into the waiting arms of the other group members. Each person could take a turn falling back into the group, so that a felt-sense of trust could be elicited, without the necessity of labeling it as such. This exercise is actually known as the “trust fall.” A variation might be that the group picks up one member and suspends that person above them.

When a clinician wants to elicit a state of trust, the best way is often through a reference experience. Now, this does not mean that offering advice should always be avoided. A clinician can first provide information and advice. For example, if the patient is socially disconnected, a clinician could say, “It is clear to me that your symptoms mean that you are withdrawn, and I think you need to get out more socially.” And if that motivates the client, then nothing else is needed. But if a direct intervention is not effective, evocative communication may be a powerful alternative. Evocative communication is the ground from which emotional response springs.

Therapists need evocative training to enter the therapist states of utilization, orienting toward, and being strategic. And therapists also need to be trained to evocatively communicate.