Myth, Metaphor and Magic

Patrice Guillaume


International Copyright 1995 Patrice Guillaume All Rights Reserved


Right and left brain thinking

Our human brain has a right and a left hemisphere, and these hemispheres function very differently in their ability to process information. Our left hemisphere is analytical, logical, and linear. Our right hemisphere is "highly specialized to manage complex relationships, patterns, configurations and structures" (10, 22). While our left brain is likely to miss the forest for the trees, our right brain can get lost in abstract thought and have difficulty getting down to specifics. We integrate both ways of processing information to help us navigate in our our daily lives. While it may be true that an artist relies more heavily on right brain thought processes to create, he will need the left brain analytical thought processes to determine what methods and materials will be most useful in bringing his creation to life.

A research associate and principal investigator at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, Paul Watzlawick, suggests that it is important, within the context of the therapeutic situation, to respect the different ways that each brain hemisphere processes information. He further suggests that the desired goals and changes that cause people to seek therapy will be accomplished more easily and quickly if the needs of both hemispheres are addressed. He suggests that traditional psychotherapy, which utilizes a typically left brain analytical approach, could benefit from an infusion of right brain methods. Throughout this paper we will be addressing those methods which allow us to communicate more directly with the right hemisphere.

Jerre Levy and her colleagues have worked extensively with individuals who have undergone a commissurotomy, the surgical procedure which severs the corpus collosum. The corpus collusum connects the two hemispheres of the brain and allows information to pass between them. Functionally, the commisurotomy prohibits the two portions of the brain from communicating. As a result of this surgical procedure, researchers have been able to design experiments to study how each side of the brain functions, independent of the the other.

Levy characterizes the left hemisphere's strategy for processing information as analytic, while the right hemisphere handles incoming information in a holistic manner. In one experiment, she and her colleagues showed a picture to each hemisphere of the brain while the subject was given ambiguous instructions to match the picture with others that it was shown. They discovered that the left hemisphere matched pictures to function (matched the cake to the spoon and the fork for instance) while the right hemisphere matched according to appearance (matched the cake to a hat).

First and second order reality

Watzlawick links left and right brain processing to what he calls "first order reality" and "second order reality." This can be demonstrated by a scene in a recent movie "Rain Man" in which Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond, an idiot savant. Raymond is standing on a street corner. The "Walk" sign illuminates, he steps off of the curb and proceeds across the street. But before he gets to the other side the pedestrian signal switches to "Don't Walk" and Raymond dutifully stops in his tracks. Moments later the traffic light changes and the drivers start honking their horns. The driver of the first vehicle gets out of his truck and physically tries to remove Raymond from the street.

Watzlawick suggests that our first order (objective) reality includes that portion of our experience that can be known through the senses -- in other words, phenomena which we can see, hear, smell, taste and feel. In this case, Raymond's first order reality includes seeing the the pedestrian sign change from "Walk" to "Don't Walk."

Second order reality is subjective in nature. This includes any thoughts, feelings, interpretations and opinions that we hold about the first order reality. Raymond's second order reality seems to include an interpretation that he should follow directions to the letter. The sign said, "Don't Walk," and so he stopped.

Raymond is now about to be physically ejected from the street by the driver of the truck. What is happening here? I think both Raymond and the truck driver can agree on the first order reality --the pedestrian sign did indeed change from "Walk" to "Don't Walk." Where they are in disagreement is in their second order reality, namely their interpretation of the first order reality. Raymond is at odds with the drivers in the cars because they have different ideas about the appropriateness of standing in the middle of the street blocking traffic. Given this same situation, they would interpret the situation differently. There are at least three other responses available: turn back, run, or continue to stroll leisurely across the street.

Watzlawick believes that most people seeking psychotherapy suffer from a discrepancy between their objective and subjective reality -- "he suffers from his image of the world, from the unresolved contradiction between the way things appear to him and the way they should be according to his world image" (10, 41). Most often, he says, the goal of therapy is to modify a subjective world image to more closely resemble the objective world view. Imagine, for instance, a woman who believes that there is a "generation gap," and that this is a bad thing. This is a part of her second-order reality. Whatever difficulties she has with her teenage son she will interpret as another sign of this gap -- and this second-order reality will constantly interfere with her ability to see what her son is actually doing, or to deal with it directly and effectively.

Watzlawick believes that our objective reality is the province of the left hemisphere while our subjective experience, or second order reality resides in the right hemisphere. This seems to be supported by split brain researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux. In the book Left Brain Right Brain, authors Springer and Deutsch discuss the conclusion they have drawn from their research:

Gazzaniga and LeDoux see in these results the suggestion that the major task of our "verbal self" (left hemisphere) is to construct a reality based on our actual behavior. They feel that our verbal mechanisms are not always privy to the origin of our actions and can attribute cause to actions not actually accessible to them: "It is as if the verbal self looks out and sees what the person is doing, and from that knowledge it interprets a reality." They raise the question of whether we indeed know whence our many separate behaviors arise. (9, 264)

Two brains, two languages

So it seems that the origin of our behaviors lies in the right brain; while our left brain, verbal self is left to justify our actions. It seems then that a therapeutic left brain approach toward producing behavioral change is the long way around. Since the right brain is responsible for our behaviors, why not save some steps and communicate directly with our right brain?

How is this to be accomplished? What is the difference between communicating with the left and communicating with the right brain? According to Watzlawick, the two halves of the brain actually speak different languages:

The fact that there exist these two "languages" very strongly suggests that they must be representative of two very different world images, for it is known that a language does not so much reflect reality as create it. (10, 16)

The two languages referred to in the above passage are digital and analogic. Digital communication appeals to the manner in which our left brain operates in the world. Analogic communication appeals to our right brain way of understanding the world. Analogic communication includes figurative language, puns, jokes, metaphor, poetry, ambiguities and allusions as well as non-verbal communication, such as posture, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection, and the sequence, rhythm and cadence of the words themselves. Analogic communication is descriptive in nature; myth, metaphor, dreams and fantasy all appeal to our right brain way of perceiving the world.

"Hui Zi is forever using parables," complained someone to the Prince of Liang. "If you, sire, forbid him to speak in parables, he won't be able to make his meaning clear."

The prince agreed with this man.

The next day the prince saw Hui Zi.

"From now on," he said, "kindly talk in a straightforward manner and not in parables."

"Suppose there were a man who did not know what a catapult is," replied Hui Zi. "If he asked you what it looked like, and you told him it looked just like a catapult, would he understand what you meant?"

"Of course not," answered the prince.

"But suppose you told him that a catapult looks something like a bow and that it is made of bamboo--wouldn't he understand you better?"

"Yes, that would be clearer," admitted the prince.

"We compare something a man does not know with something he does know in order to help him to understand it," said Hui Zi. "If you won't let me use parables, how can I make things clear to you?"

The prince agreed that he was right. (7, 10)

In the above example Hui Zi elegantly demonstrates the use of right brain analogic communication as a means for making himself understood. In using this story in my paper, I am also appealing to right brain understanding to bring more clarity to this topic. This is just one small example of how we can communicate more powerfully through the use of stories, anecdotes or myth. In reality, this is a teaching form that has been been utilized since the very early days of man's existence:

Metaphor as symbolic language

Metaphor is a form of symbolic language that has been used for centuries as a method of teaching in many fields. The parables of the Old and New Testaments, the holy writing of the Kabbalah, the koans of Zen Buddhism, the allegories of literature, the images of poetry, and the fairy tales of story tellers -- all make use of metaphor to convey and idea in an indirect yet paradoxically more meaningful way. (7, 7)

I think the incredible popularity of the work of people like Joseph Campbell, Lynn Andrews, and Robert Bly expresses this yearning we have for right brain experiential learning.

According to Joseph Campbell, the great world mythologies, whether expressed in the image of Jesus on the cross, the tales of Homer, and the writings of Lao Tzu, or in the modern images of Superman, the Godfather, or the Star Wars trilogy, are not about a search for the meaning of life: "I don't think that's what we are really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own inmost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive." (3,3)

Isn't that what therapy is about -- giving the client an experience of himself as different, so that he may go out into the world and act accordingly?

My religious upbringing consisted of learning "facts" in preparation for future tests. Did this learning method contribute to the fact that I now have little use for religion? How different would my experience be if I had been invited to experience the stories -- allowed to participate in the mythology which forms the basis of that religion?

This is the power of myths, stories and metaphors in a therapeutic setting: they can carry significant meaning directly into the listener's consciousness. A left brain statement will carry only one meaning, the literal meaning of the words, e.g. "Greed is destructive." But the tale of King Midas carries a much wider value. It carries ideas about what constitutes true value, how we perceive that value, how we get what we ask for, even ideas about our relationships to our children. A story is experiential, and its meaning depends on the needs and the life situation of the listener.

When we read of Parsifal sitting with the Wounded King, unable to help him and unable to find the Grail because of his knightly reticence against asking simple questions, we will resonate to the meaning of the story if we have ever had an isomorphic experience--an experience in which, for instance, we lost something important because we failed to express our own needs. We will resonate to those meanings whether or not we are consciously aware of the match between them and our own experience -- even if we consciously deny that there is any match. The story will speak to that part of us which knows.

The history of mankind is replete with valuable teaching stories. When possible, though, many therapists find it useful to tailor their storytelling by creating metaphors that more specifically address their clients' difficulties.

The transderivational search

How do myth and metaphor possess such power in helping us to find our way? In his book Therapeutic Metaphors, David Gordon identifies the syntax of metaphor which makes it possible for a metaphor to influence the listener. Perhaps the most important concept to understanding the usefulness of metaphors is the transderivational search.

Each of us enjoys our own unique model of the world. You and I may understand the concept of a dog, but your past experiences with dogs will give you a perception of dogs that is uniquely yours. For example, when you think of "dog," what comes to mind? Is the dog large, small, friendly, vicious, black, brown, long haired or short haired? Do you think of a particular pet, or is it maybe a dog who came out of nowhere and frightened you? This process that you have just gone through is called a transderivational search. You have searched your past experience to identify, in your model of the world, what a dog represents.

It is precisely this process of relating present sensory input to one's internal model of the world which makes metaphors such a powerful agent of change. When listening to a story, the individual will initiate a transderivational search in order to make sense out of the story. If the story being told "matches" something of significance in the life of the listener, then the elements of the story can take on a whole new meaning.

How can the therapist facilitate this match between metaphor and client? First of all, the story must be isomorphic to the needs of the individual. In other words, the story must contain elements that are analogous to the presenting problem of the individual seeking help. For example, a story about a circus elephant who at first has difficulty and then eventually learns to hold water in his trunk for long periods of time contains some of the necessary elements for helping a child with his bedwetting problem.

The uses of ambiguity

The storyteller can more easily influence the listener if he or she chooses words that are ambiguous in their meaning. The reason for this is that the listener will then engage in a transderivational search for the meaning of the story. Words that are too specific can create a mismatch between the narrative and the listener's internal experience.

How do we create ambiguity? Remember, the storyteller is attempting to pace the listener's internal experience. Certainly when the specific information is not important to the story, it is best that the storyteller use words with the broadest possible meaning to allow for the listener's personal experience. The general rule of thumb is to choose words that will allow the listener to continue his internal experience.

One method David Gordon recommends is using words that lack "referential indexes;" i.e. they do not specifically name anything in the listener's experience. Using words that lack referential index allows the listener to bring more of his own experience to the process. Imagine that I am telling a story, and I mention that "John is hiding in the closet, waiting to attack you with his knife." If you are, at that moment, imagining some menacing creature that is lying in wait for you in the basement, you will experience a mismatch between your internal experience and the story I am telling. Gordon suggests that using ambiguous phrases whenever the specific information is not pertinent to the story will result in a more positive experience for the listener.

It is also important to use unspecified verbs, for much the same reason. The statement "John went into the closet" allows for a wide range of possibilities that will be congruent with the listener's internal experience.


Nominalizations are also useful to use in the context of storytelling. Nominalizations are process words that have been turned into things or events. Some examples of nominalizations include: awareness, feeling, terror, perception, confusion, question and injury. Again, these words encourage the listener to use a transderivational search for additional information. Terror about what? Question about what or to whom? What is my perception?

When telling stories, it can be beneficial to mark out information that is useful for the listener. Embedded commands and other information can be marked out specifically for the listener by changing voice pitch, tone or tempo or through specific nonverbal communications. What is happening is that through the context of a story one can get past left brain defenses and speak directly to the right brain.

For instance, suppose a therapist were to say, "You know, I just had the strangest experience. A man walked up to me, said `RELAX COMPLETELY,' and then walked away. Can you imagine that?" What usually happens when you tell someone who is anxious or tense to relax? In my experience telling someone to relax usually gets the opposite results -- they become more tense. Marking out information for the right brain to hear is often much more successful in attaining the desired results.

The literature contains many good examples of this technique. For instance, Milton Erickson was asked, by the family, to see a man named Joe. Joe was dying of cancer and the drugs could not alleviate his pain. Erickson proceeded to tell Joe a story about tomato plants. Note the words that he marked out for Joe's benefit:

Now as I talk and I can do so comfortably, I wish that you will listen to me comfortably as I talk about a tomato plant. That is an odd thing to talk about. It makes one curious. Why talk about a tomato plant? One puts a tomato seed in the ground. One can feel hope that it will grow into a tomato plant that will bring satisfaction by the fruit it has. The seed soaks up water, not very much difficulty in doing that because of the rains that bring peace and comfort and the joy of growing to flowers and tomatoes. That little seed, Joe, slowly swells, sends out a little rootlet with a cilia on it. Now you may not know what cilia are, but cilia are things that work to help the tomato grow... (1, 35-36)

Notice that Erickson deepens the the transderivational search by marking out an experience that he suspects Joe is having: "Why talk about a tomato plant?" This leads Joe deeper into his internal experience.

Creating a successful metaphor

Now that we have an understanding of how the metaphor is useful, let's explore some of the ingredients necessary to the creation of a successful metaphor. In their book, Therapeutic Metaphors for Children and the Child Within, Joyce Mills and Richard Crowley propose that, to be useful, a therapeutic metaphor should:

  1. present a metaphorical conflict

  2. demonstrate unconscious processes

  3. present parallel learning situations

  4. present a metaphorical crisis

  5. develop a new sense of identification (success rather than failure)

  6. celebrate and acknowledge special worth of the child

For demonstration purposes, I'm going to use a metaphor cited above to explain how these six steps can be addressed.

Step 1: The conflict to be addressed is that of a child of ten who is experiencing difficulty with bedwetting. The therapist has decided to use an elephant to represent the conflict. The child wants to learn to control his bladder during sleep, and the elephant desires to hold water in his trunk.

Step 2: Demonstrating unconscious processes involves defining what is happening that results in the difficulty. In this case the child does not, while sleeping, have the muscular control to keep from wetting the bed. This is addressed in the metaphor being constructed by discussing the difficulty this young elephant is having in learning to hold water in his trunk until he is ready to let it go.

Step 3: Presenting parallel learning situations involves discussing other times in the elephant's life when he was not able to do certain things, and then reconnect him with the experience of learning. There was a time when the baby elephant did not know how to hold his trunk to prevent his stepping on it while he walked. There was a time when he didn't know how, and now he can do it.

Step 4: The metaphorical crisis provides the impetus for change. In the metaphor there is a fire and the young elephant is the only one around. He has to fill his trunk with water from a lake, hold the water in his trunk while he walks back to the fire, and then empty his trunk full of water onto the fire.

Step 5: Developing a new sense of identification involves redefining himself. Rather than seeing himself as the elephant who couldn't hold water in his trunk he is now the elephant who saved the day. Because of his ability to hold water in his trunk he was able to put out the fire and save the circus tent from destruction.

Step 6: The final step, celebrating and acknowledging the special worth of the child, is accomplished by having all the circus animals acknowledge his new-found abilities. The animals and circus personnel also give an award to the brave little elephant for saving the tent.

Other therapeutic uses of metaphor

The situations where metaphoric intervention would be of value are endless. As we saw in the previous story, metaphors can be used to remind a person of his ability to learn. They can also be used to demonstrate possible solutions to a problem. What are some of the other possibilities?

Helping people to recognize themselves is one very effective use of the metaphor. A person may possess personal characteristics which interfere with his or her effectiveness in a given situation. A friend of mine is having difficulty communicating with his colleague at work. I happen to be in a position to know that his colleague perceives him as overbearing and arrogant. I think it is safe to say that my friend is going to have a hard time hearing me -- no matter how well intentioned I am -- if I say to him that he is perceived as overbearing and arrogant. My friend will be much more available to hear me if I tell him a story about another "friend" and give him the opportunity to see for himself.

Metaphors can be used to control the therapeutic relationship. If a therapist wants to circumvent a particular ineffective response he may begin the session by telling a story about how frustrating the previous client was; "his response is always the same, he..." (fill in undesired response).

Metaphor is a wonderful way of helping people to redefine or reframe their problem. One story that my children particularly like is about a cat who is completely spoiled and pampered. All she knows is to be taken care of. When her mistress dies she ends up roaming the streets of Paris looking for someone to take care of her. A stray cat takes her under her tutelage and teaches her to care for herself. At the end of the story she is independent and able to care for herself. Along the way, she redefined her problem. Originally her problem was a question of who will take care of me? By the end of the story she she as redefined it to how can she take care of herself.

There are many ways to address the right hemisphere. Erickson often gave homework assignments that addressed his client's difficulty in an experiential way. For instance, one woman patient of his raised African Violets. Rather that address her loneliness directly, he assigned her the task of watching the newspapers for births, weddings, new arrivals, etc. Her assignment was to deliver a plant to each of the people on the list. They never did have to address her loneliness "directly."

Many therapists use drawing as a way of confronting their clients' difficulties. Crowley and Mills report success with asking their young clients to first draw their difficulty. Next, they draw the situation resolved and finally draw the bridge, or necessary resource that will move them beyond their difficulty toward resolution.

Stories have a variety of applications, depending on the needs of the listener. For instance, the following description of learning to walk, told by Erickson, can be useful in a variety of situations. First of all, it reminds the listener that they do know how to learn. It also emphasizes a person's resourcefulness in tackling a new task. The person can be reacquainted with feeling of success. It also transports us back to a time before we experienced ourselves as having limitations.

You don't know what you do when you walk. You don't know how you learned to stand up. You learned by reaching up your hand and pulling yourself up. That put pressure on your hands -- and, by accident, you discovered that you could put weight on your feet. That's an awfully complicated thing because your knees would give way -- and, when your knees would keep straight, your hips would give way. Then you got your feet crossed. And you couldn't stand up because both your knees and your hips would give way. Your feet were crossed -- and you soon learned to get a wide brace -- and you pull yourself up and you have the job of learning how to keep your knees straight--one at a time and as soon as you learn that, you have to learn how to give your attention to keep your hips straight. Then you found out that you had to learn to give your attention to keep your hips straight and knees straight at the same time . . . (8, 48-9)

I've shortened this metaphor greatly for the purposes of this paper, but it still makes clear how complicated a task learning to walk really was. This is a very elegant way of reminding someone just how capable they are if they only take it one step at a time.

I've heard it said that if you explain the meaning of the metaphor then you have destroyed its value, by converting it from a right-brain constellation of meanings into a single left-brain meaning. In the previous paragraph I attempted to explain the value of the metaphor as well as presenting the metaphor. In my left brain attempt to quantify the value to be found in the metaphor, I've reduced the value of the experience to a single meaning.

Just as we can take a rich experience and reduce it to a single meaning, we can also take a single idea and give it richness. Putting thoughts and ideas into right brain language conveys an unexpected amount of information -- since the listener, as well as the speaker, are bringing to the communication their total life experiences. My facility with using myth, metaphor and other form of right brain communication has greatly enhanced my ability to communicate. My capacity to use right brain language to explain my ideas ensures that the person with whom I am speaking will take from the interaction just what it is they can use. For this reason, I think the ability to address the right brain is essential to any fully effective therapeutic style.



1. Bandler, Richard and John Grinder, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.. Cupertino: Meta. 1975

2. Barker, Philip. Using Metaphors in Psychotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1985.

3. Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

4. Gordon, David. Therapeutic Metaphors. Cupertino: META, 1978.

5. Gordon, David, and Maribeth Meyers-Anderson. Phoenix: Therapeutic Patterns of Milton H. Erickson. Cupertino: Meta, 1981.

6. Larsen, Stephen. The Mythic Imagination: Your Quest for Meaning Through Personal Mythology. New York: Bantam, 1990.

7. Mills, Joyce C. and Richard J. Crowley. Therapeutic Metaphors for Children and the Child Within. New York: Brunner, 1986.

8. Rosen, Sidney. My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.. Ed. Sidney Rosen. New York: Norton, 1982.

9. Springer, Sally P., and Georg Deutsch. Left Brain, Right Brain. Rev. ed. New York: Freeman, 1985.

10. Watzlawick, Paul. The Language of Change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication. New York: Basic, 1978.

11. Watzlawick, How Real Is Real? Confusion, Disinformation, Communication. New York: Vintage, 1977.

12. Watzlawick, Paul, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. New York: Norton, 1974.

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