Art Therapy: When Words Are Not Enough

“The mind never thinks without a picture.” -Aristotle

Art therapy is a form of counseling that uses art to improve a person’s emotional well-being. We are all born with the capacity to feel; however, none of us is born with the ability to speak. Emotions are critical to the formation of memory, and the process of creating art allows us to tap into early memories buried deep within and provides a way to express them.

The left and right hemispheres of the brain process the world in two very different ways. Verbal information is processed in the left brain, whereas visual imagery is processed in the right. Verbal language is a left brain function and is limited when it comes to tapping into core feelings, because the left brain is the interpreter of feelings, not the part that experiences the event that brought about the feelings. The drawback to verbal language as a means of emotional expression is that the left brain uses a person’s established belief system to judge feelings as either right or wrong. These judgments are then translated into verbal thoughts that tell us what we think we feel. Words, therefore, can remove us from our feelings and inhibit the therapeutic process.

Every experience we encounter is first processed in the right brain as an image. This image is then interpreted or misinterpreted by the left-brain in the form of words. Art can bypass that last and sometimes unreliable step in the communication process, because it taps into the emotional areas of the brain that words are unable to access. An unspoken language, in the form of images, exists within each of us that tells the true depth and breadth of who we are as individuals. Works of art are like silent messengers that carry messages from ourselves to ourselves as they reveal information that might have never been known if limited to words alone.

From early cavemen to modern man, art has served a genuine need for expression and validation that words fail to accomplish. Experiences stored in the right brain as images are unlocked by the act of creating and come bursting forth with evidence of life experiences and intense emotion. Bypassing the judgmental and interpretive left brain, as well as conditions culture has placed upon us when it comes to the expression of thoughts and feelings, allows the freedom to relay experiences that would have otherwise been kept silent. Art brings about a wholeness that words alone could never hope to capture and can only enhance the therapeutic process.


Shawna Doriot-Krienitz, MSAT, LPC, ATR


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