1. Mental Space Psychology
Author: Christine Beenhakker
More than just a spatial experiment
A conversation with Lucas Derks, Robert Hemelaar and René Koppelaar.
Mental Space Psychology is about the psychology of the mental space.
Lucas Derks, social psychologist and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) trainer, had occupied himself with this phenomenon for quite some time and based on this principle he developed the Social Panorama. The Society of Mental Psychology occupies itself in a broader sense with the psychology of the mental space and wishes to bridge the gap with clinical psychology practice and be an international centre of excellence.
The three of you have been occupied with Mental Space Psychology since 2012. What was the reason for you to start up this platform?
René: At present the Social Panorama is connected to one person only, being Lucas. If we would lose Lucas chances are that his thinking and ideas will also be lost and that would be such a waste of this unique methodology. At a given moment the idea came up to join our forces and that is how the Society was born: as a platform for sharing knowledge in the field of mental space and to seek scientific support of the methodology.
Lucas: For quite some time I had the idea that there are general psychological laws which exceed the Social Panorama. Together with two befriended partners of the Laboratory of Mental Space Research, Wolfgang Walker from Germany and Professor Doctor Walter Oetsch from Austria, I did research into these laws.
Our mutual conclusion was that space is the primary organizing principle of the brain. That is why spatial interventions like the Social Panorama, Timeline Therapy and Clean Space Therapy, have a much better or much greater effect than the more traditional interventions. Whenever you work with clients in a therapeutic three-dimensional way, for example by placing sheets of paper on the floor, by pointing at something in the space, or with line-up like interventions, you will see that so much more is happening and that there is less talking. The talking diminishes and events increase. My explanation for this is that you are much more in the ‘operating system’ of the brain.
The idea of how we physically orientate in space is the basis for further thinking and the structuring of our memory.
The Society for Mental Psychology would like to link the experiences from the world of therapy with mental space to spatial cognition, which is the scientific approach. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could establish this link?
Robert, how did you get interested and involved?
Robert: Together with Lucas and René I was looking for a possibility to safeguard the continuity of this idea. Another aspect was to investigate how Mental Space Psychology could be more scientifically supported, in order to take away the mistrust from the world of psychologists. The Society for Mental Space is not a commercial institution. It is a platform of people who find it interesting to be involved in this, professionally or otherwise. Our only commercial activity is our web shop, which is mainly for being able to finance scientific research and publish articles.
So sharing information in the field of Mental Space Psychology is very important to you.
Lucas: Yes, that’s right. We would like to give an enormous boost to development in the therapeutic field. Many therapists are often unaware that they are using mental space. When you approach the therapeutic intervention from Mental Space Psychology, for instance by putting a sheet of paper on the floor, you will activate the client’s spatial orientation. The intervention is used in order to structure personal meanings for the client. To the client it is quite natural to ‘inhabit’ such a space or go through a timeline. You can only recognize that from a certain psychological perspective. Barbara Tversky, emeritus professor of Psychology at the Stanford University of California, has occupied herself with social cognition, the basic organising principle of the brain for language. In the womb you already know what space is, but only after one year you will be able to express space through language. The British psycho-therapist James Lawley has dedicated himself to symbolic modelling and I consider him to be co-founder of this theory.
Robert: If you look at the early years of NLP you will find that the founders considered successful psychological processes and therapies, and what their successful element was. For instance they studied Milton Erikson’s use of language. Quite recently we have come to the conclusion that mental space is really the issue at stake, and that language plays an important role in it.
Lucas: John Grinder was a linguist and this is how language has come to the fore in NLP. In Richard Bandler’s sub-modalities there are aspects of space, but he didn’t really give priority to the importance of space (location). He works with colours, movement, light and dark and so on. In the Social Panorama I have abandoned his way of thinking at a given moment. In my opinion we should be more focused on where the problem is located in space, which will have much more impact. Let me illustrate that with the help of an example.
The son of one of my clients had been abducted by his father. This little boy complained that he couldn’t concentrate at school. We discovered that his timeline went backwards, but the abduction was in front of him. A colleague of mine, Wolfgang Walker, found out that psychiatric patients often had a broken or discontinued time structure in their heads, caused by a trauma. They sometimes keep the trauma close to them, whereas the occasion - if you look at the time and the moment it took place - should actually be much further away. So they keep the trauma too close. This boy also suffered from this. Once we figured that out we put the trauma in a different place, where it belonged, and we took away any objections to placing it there. When the boy was happy with the new location of his trauma the concentration problem was over.
Of course the question now is: how to support this scientifically?
Lucas: Clinical psychology is dominated by effect research. Of course, there is nothing against effect research, but science wants to know how it works.
For example, EMDR has been selected as a preference treatment in case of trauma, because its effectiveness has been proven and it is easily applicable. Then politics get involved because there is a certain percentage of effectiveness.
But nobody knows how it works! I think it is important to understand something about the psychological mechanism.
The case of the little boy I see as a clinical experiment, where two different ‘emotional’ distances were noticeable. One is formed in the here and now: if I experience a trauma at this very moment, it is totally here, right in front of me, but on a time line it will be behind me tomorrow and in three years it will be even further away, sometimes even metres of difference on a time line.
Apparently my brain works in such a way that the factual distance to the occasion moves further and further back to the extent that the occasion is further away in time. Mental space law is: the further away, the less it bothers me. It works the same on a life line with dissociation: the client dismisses it, they distance themselves from it, they simply leave it there. That process is called mental spatial indexing: you secure it somewhere in space as it were, and that is where it is for you.
So by using evocative language you can guide the client in a certain process during his or her journey.
Lucas: Language is the guiding instrument. If I make a certain gesture (he points backwards, editor’s note) it is always a kind of natural sign language, a language without words, which always makes simulations in space. Deaf people do the same.
What is the function of language in Mental Space Psychology? Language is one-dimensional, it has grammar. Our experience is three-dimensional. Language converts three dimensions into one dimension. Grammar helps us to reconstruct something three dimensional out of that, like some sort of code.
Is there a difference, internationally or culturally, in the way people think?
Robert: Internationally there is great interest for this idea, and at present many countries are engaged in finding out what Mental Space Psychology or Social Panorama is all about, like in East Germany. But also in Japan, the Baltic states, Lithuania and Russia people are very excited. I really believe that, for instance, the Japanese way of thinking is completely different from ours. On the other hand, if you start from the mental space there will always be a lot more in common.
Lucas: I could actually work well with Japanese and the Social Panorama, no problem at all. The difference is that, based on their cultural background, they tend to give themselves a different position. For instance, they see themselves as small and daddy as big. In our culture we tend to see ourselves as big, and daddy perhaps as slightly bigger. The mental construction they are building may be different from ours, but they build it with the same elements in the mental space.
What is the actual status of the Society of Mental Space Psychology?
Robert: We are past the initial phase, it is for real now. Our aim is to extend all aspects of the Society for Mental Space Psychology and realize each one step by step. For that we need more people to join us, and finding the right people isn’t always easy. For example, we are looking for someone who is really good at English and who is willing to scrutinize our web site. Our newsletter now reaches about 200 people, which of course isn’t enough by far. We will have to extend our stock.
You were saying: it is for real now. Do you have any plans for the near future – say two years- you wish to realize?
Lucas: We intend to conduct a two-day clinic on Mental Space Psychology
in The Netherlands this year in May. I will also conduct a clinic in Finland; in Italy and Brazil I conducted one last year. That was a great success. Mental Space Psychology is not a form of therapy you learn and for which you need a licence. It is simply a different perspective of human functioning. It is applicable in daily practice straight away and when you start working from this idea you have already made a big step forward. When people start working from this idea it will be able to spread from there.
Robert: Another idea is to organise a conference on Mental Space Psychology in 2017. My suggestion is to invite all institutions and people we know to come to The Netherlands to exchange information and spend one or two days together.
If we could realize that in 2017 it would give this idea an extra push.
Lucas: In September 2015 I went to the 6th International Conference on Spatial Cognition (ICS) in Rome and showed my film on mental space there. It would be great if next time we could continue that and conduct clinics, demonstrations and lectures on Mental Space Psychology. We have already established contact with the organisation.
René: We are also looking for someone to help us build our web shop, so that we can offer books and articles for people to order. We don’t want to keep any stock ourselves, all the material will have to be sent straight from the local publisher.
And finally: How do you see the future for Mental Space Psychology in relation to the developments in psychology?
Lucas: Mental space is the binding element in the brain, so it should be the binding element in psychology as well. It is a very hot topic, worldwide people are engaged in it, like Lawrence Barsalou. In this context he speaks of grounded cognition, which is very comparable to what we are doing. Actually we are working on building new insights in psychology. Mental Space Psychology may have an enormously improving influence on aid and psychology. If we succeed to connect clinical psychology and grounded cognition to Mental Space Psychology that would be a great contribution. There is still an enormous gap and that gap can be bridged with this.
Thank you very much for your contribution and good luck to all of you!
About the author
Christine Beenhakker works as a psychological counsellor and Mindfulness trainer and she runs her own therapy practice in Mierlo (NB). She has completed several studies in the field of applied psychology, yoga, NLP and Social Panorama, and she writes articles for Counselling Magazine on a regular basis.