When we have a problem we want to find a solution. That’s pretty understandable. But what if there isn’t one readily available? What if there is only nothing? And sometimes that’s the case - the problem is that there isn’t anything – there is nothing, no-thing at all a void, a black hole.
Sometimes this happens in a therapy session too: we can talk around, through, about, over a problem, but there is still nothing arising from that seems particularly helpful. Sometimes we might explore this problem through free association, dream content, a metaphor or an image. It is not an easy process and although it’s difficult and frustrating, eventually something comes to mind. Yet this something doesn’t really mean anything so it still may as well be nothing. The frustration is still there.
This encountering nothingness is an interesting and common phenomenon in psychotherapy/ art therapy that I have personally experienced as both a client and psychotherapist. Sometimes there is a ‘main image’ that has been consciously drawn and the client may feel comfortable talking about, but the abstract doodle next to it which was less consciously created is just a ‘splodge’ that doesn’t mean anything to them.
In such instances I might ask the client why they might feel more connected to and find it easier to think about the meaning of the ‘main image’ which is often (but not always) more figurative but feel less connected to the (often more abstract) ‘splodge’? Why is it that ‘the splodge’ isn’t worth thinking about? Often people quite understandably don’t know the answer to this and it is what I would like to be explore further in this blog-post. Indeed for the purposes of this post, let us use ‘the splodge’ to represent psychic phenomena in a session that emerges that doesn’t feel relevant or make sense and leads us only to a kind of thinking cul-de-sac.
Why is it that ‘splodge’ like phenomena aren’t worth thinking about or is it that they represent something that for some reason cannot be thought about? Or is this a fuss about nothing? Can’t a splodge just be a splodge?
Something & Nothing/ Known & Unknown: the hemispheres
An obvious way to begin interrogating these questions is to explore how our brains work in relation to perception. Iain Mcgilchrist’s excellent ‘The Master and his Emissary’ exlpores in some depth the role of the brain hemispheres and their role in attention and how this impacts upon our experience of the world. Based on Mcgilchrist’s research, one might conclude that the dominance of the left hemisphere in our culture could explain why ‘splodge’ might get rejected in such a way:The left hemisphere tends to stick with what it knows.
If objects are not recognised through the L-H prism then they probably don’t merit further thought. Mcgilchrist (2012, p.83) postulates that the left-brain has ‘an affinity for what itself has made’ contrasting with the right’s ‘affinity for all that is ‘other’, new, unknown, uncertain and unbounded.’(ibid). Perhaps this is why a more figurative image is favoured over a ‘splodge’ as one feels a more natural affinity for something that has been consciously created. It is something one knows and recognises; both of which are associated with certainty and safety. Yet something that happens unconsciously (a dream) or semi consciously (splodge/ doodle/free association) might make one feel potentially more anxious when attempting to explore their meaning. It should be noted at this point that (as Mcgilchrist is at great pains to emphasise) both hemispheres are involved in doing pretty much everything but the way in which they each pay attention to the world can be markedly different.
Our left hemispheres have a preference for solutions (based on what they already know, what they have in the database) which of course can be useful when one is readily available, but such a preference can ironically in of itself heighten anxiety. A left hemisphere perspective might also be attributed to creating this very feeling of ‘nothingness’. ‘Splodge’ becomes a 'no-thing' and no longer worth thinking about because it doesn’t relate to anything in the database. Conversely, the right hemisphere doesn’t use its database in this way: instead it employs it as material to generate ‘metaphor, irony and humour, all of which depend on ‘not prematurely resolving ambiguities’ (italics my own, Mcgilchrist, 2010,p.82) and are also the creative aspects of consciousness which can loosen things up and help us to solve problems rather than getting bogged down in their detail.
It surely follows then, if we wish to contextualise, solve a problem or find meaning from something we have created that we need the help of the right hemisphere: the left cannot do it alone. If we can harness the right's tolerance for ambiguity (and holding several ambiguities at one time) and engage its playful curiosity then this might even things out a little and give us the capacity to wonder about what ‘the splodge’ could be. To be creative is to embrace the novel and the curious and not only based on what we know already: creating our own things and not only copying those of others.
Psychotherapy is a setting where a sense of reverie or openness to novel and creative thoughts can be cultivated. There are of course plenty of other means besides this that have been employed for millennia; from ancient devotional practice through to physical exercise. Film director David Lynch has written about his own form of reverie in his short book ‘Catching the big fish’. He illustrates how he has discovered some of his best ideas through transcendental meditation. Lynch’s films are themselves often very much of the right hemisphere and perhaps rather splodge like. They are however more often described as ‘oneiric’ or dreamlike, as they consist of surrealistic fragments which leave people in a state of wonder and/or appalled by their frustrating lack of a coherent narrative: just as you feel you are getting a handle on what’s happening, meaning dissolves right before your eyes. It really is like watching a dream unfold.
Reverie, Mothers & CREATIVITY
The way in which the word ‘reverie’ is employed in the previous paragraph does not seem too far from the definition from that in the Oxford dictionary ‘A state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream’. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion used ‘reverie’ to signify a more interpersonal rather than intra-psychic process. Bion's ‘reverie’ signifies a Mother’s readiness to contain her child’s fear or rage and, through a process of ‘projective identification’ the Mother modifies what the child has projected into her and returns them so that the infant can now internalise them in a way which are bearable. This creates a space where they can now be thought about: this space becomes one that is also open to creativity - thinking one's own's thoughts. The reverie of the Mother leads to the infant’s own capacity for it. Rage and fear are still experienced as affects (it is not about getting rid of them) but are now tolerable.
If a Mother on the other hand, for whatever reason does not modify these primitive affects in this way then they are returned to the infant in the form of ‘nameless dread’ (Bion, 1967 p.116) which fills the space and absence, 'no-thing' becomes quite intolerable: all thoughts become associated with this ‘dread’ and cannot therefore be thought about. If we expect something to happen when we are infants and it is not there in this scenario and there is absence/no-thing it is too much to bear.
If however, there are enough of what Winnicott (1962) called ‘good enough’ experiences where our caregivers meet the infant's needs well enough then s/he begins to tolerate the frustration of things not turning out as s/he expects and this itself becomes ‘an apparatus for ''thinking''’ and creativity (Bion, 1967.p111) . Through this process we then find frustration 'more tolerable'.
‘A capacity for tolerating frustration thus enables the psyche to develop thought as a means by which the frustration that is tolerated is itself made more tolerable.’ (Bion, 1967, p.112).
Developmental reasons then also may account then for an intolerance of absence and along with the influence of the left-hemisphere, could be the reason for instances where there is this premature closing down of ambiguity and loss of curiosity. Perhaps the primitive nature of 'splodge' like phenomena are too similar to the 'nameless dread' that could not be thought about when it was first experienced and quite understandably the feeling of nothingness serves as a shield against it.
A key benefit of psychotherapy is that it can enable us to think with gentle curiosity about life’s frustrations and explore their ambiguity rather than give in to the temptation to concretise them right away (which could be said is another way of defending against feeling something.)
But what about the cultural aspect of all this? What is going on collectively here? Could it just be that there is a general malaise in the world when it comes to dealing with things that are frustrating, or anything that resembles 'the void'?
Before the digital age when artists talked about ‘creative block’ there was a sense that they had met an impasse where a flow of creativity had run dry. Of course there were plenty of ways then to ease one’s frustration as artists have done for a long time (narcissism, sex, drugs, alcohol) yet now there are complex algorithms which offer endless ways in which frustration can be removed, though in some cases, in exchange for one's creative life. This might be through browsing social media timelines, or searching for a Netflix series to watch. This sounds perhaps dramatic and such pursuits of course can be harmless enough, but there is a danger of experiencing a kind of mundane numbness in the process and the frustration still bubbles just below the surface anyway - it's an illusion. This is not a judgement upon individuals, rather a political statement: by temporarily and mundanely relieving ourselves of our frustrations through things like social media which are supposedly ‘free’ we are in fact paying for them by not creating anything, by not thinking, or at least in the way Bion described. When ones looks at it this way, this feels like something revolutionary, really worth fighting for – fighting for the right to be frustrated, bored and not having a clue what to do next, but most importantly, our creative selves. Of course the digital world now has an enormous influence on how we deal with our feelings of frustration, of the void. The inherent accessibility of the digital world and the information it provides is a wonderful thing and I do not wish to idealise a world without it or indeed the past, though you may accuse me of such based on the following example.
ANALOGUE FRUSTRATION - Distant stars
As a child I can recall my first experiences of listening to shortwave radio – those fortunate enough to have experienced this will know, (and if not, I absolutely recommend it) - some patience is required to delicately turn the dial to ‘tune in’ and find a station. This can take time and can indeed be frustrating, and now in the digital age when such a search is no longer necessary, this might even seem rather pointless. Yet as you turn the tuning dial, a range of pleasant and unpleasant frequencies emerge, in the high, low and mid range; each in their unique way holding the promise of a new station, like distant stars, broadcasting in an unknown language, perhaps introducing a piece of music that is equally alien and beguiling. Then perhaps suddenly, (as happens with shortwave radios, or at least the ones I had) the signal is lost. Maybe forever. You give up and go to sleep. The next evening you try and return the dial to the same frequency, yet there is only white, brown or pink noise. You will never know what the station was or have the name of the piece of that music you heard. This would be even more frustrating now as you’d probably like to Google it and share it on social media, yet sadly it’s lost so you can’t.
Of course such an example as this is not one of acute frustration. True frustration can indeed be thoroughly unpleasant and even horrific. Yet my intention is just to use this shortwave radio anecdote as a playful means of illustrating how we might think of the benefits of frustrating experiences. They might also become experiences of mystery out of which are born the memories which we can hold most dear and can draw creative inspiration from. By being with our frustrations, this can enable us to mourn what we do not know (or could not have known) and find some acceptance in.
'What can I contain of it? It escapes and eludes me
The tides wash me away
The desert shifts under my feet'
Kathleen Raine, 'The moment'
Special thanks to Chris Mawson and Natalie Kennedy for their thoughts which helped me to write this article.
Bion, W. (1967). Second thoughts. New York: Aronson.
McGilchrist, I. (2012). The Master and his Emissary. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Raine, K. (2000). The collected poems of Kathleen Raine. Ipswich: Golgonooza Press.
Stevens, V. (2005). Nothingness, No-Thing, and Nothing in the Work of Wilfred Bion and in Samuel Beckett's Murphy. The Psychoanalytic Review, 92(4), pp.607-635.
Symington, J. and Symington, N. (2008). The clinical thinking of Wilfred Bion. London: Routledge.
Winnicott, D.W. (1962) Ego integration in child development. Reprinted in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, pp. 56-63. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1965