Musings on the Mind at Play

The other day I heard the neuroscientist Stuart Firestein on Forum echoing the philosophy of Socrates. Mr. Firestein, the author of a new book called “Ignorance,’ argued that science is less about an accumulation of facts and more about embracing what we don’t know. He was talking about maintaining a view that the more one knows, the more one knows about how much one doesn’t know. That the acquisition of knowledge only goes to highlight the infinitude of what is not known. That seems especially true to me in terms of the mind – the area that I explore each working day with my clients.

With all that is known about the mind these days through the discoveries of neuroscience, it seems to me to only highlight the mystery that exits. Or as a client of mine recently said, “the mind is fascinating.” Indeed it is.

I know that people come into therapy with problems to resolve: problems that are distressing and causing sometimes great suffering. Perhaps there are issues of addiction to address. Perhaps they are experiencing depression or anxiety which makes it hard to function on a daily basis. Perhaps there is some recent or past loss to mourn. In the process of addressing these serious problems, I find, given the way I work and my interest in exploring how the mind works, that we also engage in some play. In the psychotherapeutic relationships, our minds meet, explore and play.

This “play” may take many shapes and forms. There is the play in the form of associations. This is the bread and butter of psychotherapy: the technique that Freud discovered and employed. While my clients don’t necessarily freely associate, they certainly feel free to say what comes into their minds. From there we explore where the links and bridges may be to the issues that distress them. There is play that we engage with language. Sometimes we follow certain words with their multiple meanings, puns, and metaphors, to see what they reveal. There’s play in talking about dreams. There is the play of thinking together: the client and I putting out minds together.

Play is inherently expansive (just observe a child at play and the limitlessness of her imagination). And that is, from my point of view, one of the key goals for psychotherapy: that the client’s mind opens and new possibilities, options, and horizons become visible. In the interview on Forum, Dr. Firestein talks about “reveling in mystery.” That seems to me a phrase quite appropriately applied to psychotherapy. The mind is a mysterious place. I just have to quote from the interview one more time: “You want to work on the edge, beyond what is known.”

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