Episode 105: Healing the self and healing the world through the creation of new memories

al-pesso-smiling-head-usabp-shotIn this episode I have the great honor of connecting with Albert Pesso, one of the creators of Pesso-Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP). Albert is, together with notable figures such as Peter Levine and Alexander Lowen, the recipient of  a Lifetime Achievement Award issued by the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP). I’ve had the great priviliage of attending a PBSP-group for two years, a group that was led by one of his students here in Norway. In our conversation we explore some of the most important aspects of PBSP. Here is a short introductory explanation from their official website:

Created in 1961 by Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden-Pesso, Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP) is the most advanced therapeutic system available for emotional re-education or reprogramming. PBSP heals past emotional deficits using unique processes called ‘Structures’ and ‘Microtracking™’ that help clients to identify emotional deficits and create ‘new memories’. These ‘new memories’ provide symbolic fulfillment of the basic developmental needs of place, nurture, support, protection and limits. With the inclusion of ‘Holes and Roles,’ the latest innovation in PBSP theory and technique, therapists learn how to provide a highly effective and streamlined approach to reducing resistance, negative transference, and somatic overload.

My wish is that this podcast (and the written synopsis) can inspire students of psychology, education and change work to see the immense value inherent in PBSP, and to practitioners already in the field, and who are familiar with PBSP and similar approaches, I hope our conversation can inspire efforts in bringing this kind of work into a more general societal circulation (as Albert himself alludes to towards the end).

(2:45) Albert’s current work situation
Albert starts by sharing some thoughts regarding his current work situation, where he, amongst other things, will be helping to bring PBSP to children and families who are homeless (see Child Homelessness Initiative at Lesley College for more information). Thus, he also wants to offer something in the context of social change work, and not only on the level of individual transformation and healing (a theme which we revisit at the end of our conversation).

(6:30) How PBSP emerged from working with dancers
PBSP emerged from Albert’s experience from working with dancers. He held a position at Emerson College in Boston, where he also worked together with his wife Diane Boyden-Pesso. He was trained under Martha Graham where the general emphasis was on depth, ritual and quality of movement, and not so much on being extravagant or able to jump high. In this context it became important to investigate how to enable the dancers to really use their instrument – their bodies – and following this, understanding how movement actually happens. They began to look at the different motor systems that drive bodily movement and they identified three distinct motor systems, namely reflexive, emotional and voluntary. They experienced that often these distinct systems would override each other and inhibit the dancers to perform adequately. Albert goes into some detail explaining these different systems.

A very important insight emerged from working with the emotional motor system. When the dancers were allowed to just “let it all out”, without any form of modulation, they would maybe run around, scream, cry, laugh etc., which would give them an initial sense of relief, a typical experience of catharsis, but afterwards they would become somewhat depressed. This is how they discovered that healthy emotional expression is first and foremost an interactive process! Albert explains this by using the metaphor of shape/counter shape, meaning that when someone expresses a certain emotion, for instance fear, what they need is a counter shape to fear, for instance some kind of safe haven, either symbolically or literally. When this occurs there is a true sense of relief because the underlying need that drives the emotion has been met. Another important understanding that arose was the fact that many of the emotions and needs that were vented were actually needs that should have been met in childhood, or some other specific context, but since they hadn’t, they popped out now, in the present situation that Albert and Diane were creating in their dance lessons.

In the following sections Albert and I explore many nuances of this therapeutic system and the underlying and implicit frame of reference is what one in PBSP calls a “structure”. Again, here is a general introduction from the official website*:

PBSP is a highly structured group psychotherapy using body movement, verbal techniques and other elements. In what we call “structures” clients are assisted in developing role-played events, which are registered in the mind, as positive symbolic memories that offset the effect of literal, negative memories.

(14:10) The significance of emotional interaction and the creation of new memories 
So just “letting it all out” is a somewhat ancient method and Albert goes on to explain how this ties into some general assumptions regarding health and sickness. The central premises of PBSP is therefore to create new memories and to rather “put something in”, in stead of letting something out. The key method for doing this is creating a situation where the patient can navigate his or her biographical learning history, and in doing this Albert places great emphasis on what he calls the Pilot. This is the conscious or overlooking aspect of the patients cognition (which also corresponds to the pre-frontal cortex in the brain) and it´s also the contact point between patient and therapist. In PBSP it´s important that the patient is onboard and in the driving seat all the way through the process, and the therapist follows along in the patients individual process. So although the Pilot is firmly rooted in the present the process will take the patient back in time so that the unmet needs can be met in the correct context and in the right kinship relationship. Albert explains that the therapy situation creates what he calls a possibility sphere, a bubble where potential unmet needs can come forth and be met. This bubble functions like a time machine and lets the patient create healing situations and interactions as if it had actually happened in the past. This experience is then stored as a new memory in the body-mind and can become the base for a more healthy sense of self.

(21:20) The role of The Pilot and the method of Microtracking™ emotions  
Understanding the important role of the Pilot it´s also interesting to note what might inhibit the Pilot in functioning appropriately. For instance, the patient might be flooded or completely occupied by internal voices or some emotional aspect of the personality, so the PBSP-therapist will use what they call Microtracking™ to help the Pilot distinguish and disidentify from all the different feelings and thoughts that show up in the body-mind. The point being that the present consciousness is a tapestry woven of threads made of memory, and these memories will show up in the subtle expressions of the face and the body. Albert explains how this also ties into perception; the moment we perceive something we also do something (either unconsciously or consciously, subtle or more overt), and this “see-do dynamic” is an expression of our sensory-motor response system.  Then there is the affective or emotional response connected to the situation and on top of that any thought about the situation, so movements, feelings and thoughts are all interlinked in some way. An interesting things to note is that any conscious feeling will immediately express itself in the face, and if it´s not conscious it will express itself in the body, so working with facial expressions is a good way to support the Pilot’s understanding of the situation. Tracking all these minute expressions the PBSP-therapist uses a hypothetical figure called the Witness. This figure names the emotion that is seen in the face and names the context in which the person just spoke. When a name is given to an emotion the patient will feel seen, which again ties into to the shape/counter shape dynamic explained earlier. The Witness is therefore functioning as a kind of template for what the conscious Pilot would do and it also resembles what a parent would do when responding to a child’s needs and feelings. Another way of understanding this dynamic, as Albert explains, is seeing the process of Microtracking™ as a way to integrate the left and the right hemispheres of the brain, giving the patient’s Pilot a more unified understanding of his or her situation (the left side corresponding to feelings and experience and the right hand corresponding to language and knowing).

(29:10) Microtracking internal voices and assumptions about life and reality
Another aspect of the process is tracking the thoughts and underlying values that drive the person to some kind of conclusion regarding his or her situation. Past experience will often determine a persons outlook on life and might lead to negative predictions or at least skew one’s perception and understanding of what goes on in the “here and now”. To mitigate this, and to help the Pilot become aware of this dynamic, the PBSP-therapist will help to identify the different “internal voices” through externalizing the patient’s inner dialogue. This is done through using one or more symbolic figures that repeat back what the patient is saying to him or herself. This process also helps to validate what is present in the patient’s body-mind and when a certain voice is confirmed in this way it subsequently opens the space for other voices. So this part of the process, the externalizing of inner voices, values and thoughts, also help to clarify what topic or theme might be important for the person to investigate further. Moreover, it will often hint at the underlying causes for the particular voices or “truths”. To summarize, the process of Microtracking™ makes it clear to the patient what he or she holds to be true about him or her self and about their life in general, and the patient starts to see how these “truths” are based on their own interior assessments of reality and maybe not so much on what is really true, for them.

(32:32) Three different kinds of memory
Following this detailed explanation Albert points to three different kinds of memory, namely our genetic memory, our autobiographical history and stories of injustice. Speaking of our genetic memory he points to maturational needs which have to be met at the right age and in the right kinship relationship. These needs are; having a place in life, to receive nurture, getting support, protection and limits. The typical problem is that we try to get these needs met at the wrong age and in the wrong kinship relationship, and Albert jokingly describes this situation as marriage! So again, the method of PBSP is to go back in time making it possible to create new and very specific memories, not with the actual people of course, but with a symbolic entity that fits the picture (for instance, an ideal brother that took care of me when I was 6 years old and felt unsafe starting school, as a fictive example).

(36:30) An illustrative example starring Mary and her angry boss
I ask Albert if he can create an illustrative scenario with a fictive person called Mary. We imagine Mary is having a hard time at work with a boss that is constantly yelling at her. This makes her feel small and it reminds her of her father. Albert goes on and describes a typical therapy situation in detail, explaining how the process can help lift the principle of the father away from the boss, so that the emotional charge that was connected to Mary’s history with her father is not triggered every time she interacts with her boss.

(42:00) Working with resistance, and “holes in roles”
Another theme we explore is how different forms of resistance show up in the process. The therapy situation has to be tolerable and if the emotional charge gets too high the Pilot will shut down and the patient will cognitively and emotionally escape. This is why the therapy process is a long term engagement that seeks to give the patient time to unfold their biographical history in a way that is safe and conducive for the healing process. Another form of resistance relates to how the patient might not be able to take in what he or she actually needs. This tendency relates to what they in PBSP call holes in roles, which again ties into memories of injustice. Albert gives an example; a child hears a story that one’s grandmother died during the war, and that this left the mother without anyone to give her love. As a reaction the child will instantly create “a movie” in the mind’s eye where he or she is the one and only healer of that situation, the one who has to provide that love. The child senses the mother’s need and energetically steps in and fills the gap. The child doesn’t see that movie of course, but their body reacts as if it was the truth. This again shrinks the child’s capacity to receive what they need themselves (possibly the same kind of love that the mother is lacking). So in the process one might first create an ideal situation for the mother, where the patient can see the mother’s need being met symbolically, which in turn will create the clearing space for the patient to start receiving what he or she needs as well. Albert points out that some people can go through their whole life without being able to receive what they actually need, and in stead of acknowledging that what they need is some specific interaction from an ideal parent or some other kinship relation, they will project the same needs out into the world, for instance on a spouse, a pet animal or even some kind of activity, such as walking in the mountains.

(51:25) Emotional and neurological effects from the process
The PBSP-process described above lasts for about an hour and could have a significant impact on the patient’s life. So how is it that the process affects the emotional and neurological constitution of the patient? How does it actually work? There has been done some research on the process and Albert explains how the process seems to impact brain responses and levels of arousal.  He also ads that he would like to see much more research in this area! On the PBSP-website there is a directory pointing to the research that has been done.

(56:00) PBSP and larger societal issues
Leaving the individual for now we explore some of the ways in which PBSP can shed light on larger societal issues, such as terrorism. Albert points out that it´s probable that the mechanism of holes in roles could explain why terrorists commit new acts of injustice (although it´s in the name of creating justice for themselves and their tribe). Hearing stories of injustice from their parents when growing up might instill in them a sense of being the only healer of the tribe, so to speak. This is a topic that Albert is currently investigating. I ask Albert how he imagines taking this work further and he points to the possibility of bringing PBSP and related understandings into education. Another theme we touch upon is how to rephrase or re-imagine the whole concept of therapy, not seeing it as something only “sick” people do, but rather as a process in helping people to become who they really are.

(1:02:25) Seeing how we’re all connected and taking part in a cosmological unfolding 
Towards the end I ask Albert what it is that drives him, what underlying values and beliefs are propelling him in his work and what kind of mental models might inform the specific approach of PBSP? First and foremost he points to the sacred nature of reality and the sacred nature of human beings. Moreover, he doesn’t separate between spirit and matter and he sees there being some kind of universality to all and everything – that we’re all One. Albert points to his own life to show how humanity is in fact a whole, and that we’re not as separated as we might believe; he was born an Orthodox Jew, he married a Christian and his children married African-American and Chinese! His point being that there is something in us pushing to embrace this universality. So what is life all about? (a poignant questions for this show given its name “way of life”), and Albert shares a sentence that in many ways forms the bedrock of his understanding of human nature and what it is that drives us: “we’re made to be able to be happy, in an imperfect world, that is endlessly unfolding, and we on earth are the local agents of that cosmological unfolding“.

If you would like to learn more I suggest you check out www.pbsp.org or contact a PBSP-therapist in your area. I would also recommend Albert’s book Movement In Psychotherapy: Psychomotor Techniques and TrainingAnd if you would like to contribute with a comment below feel free to do so.

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode links
Albert Pesso (bio)

James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) er lærer og arbeider i Osloskolen. Han har bred erfaring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) is a teacher, his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in Oslo, Norway. In his spare time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art.
  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a recent interview with Al Pesso from the series “What sustains me”: http://whatsustainsme.com/2015/01/pesso-2015-01/

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a recent interview with Al Pesso from the series “What sustains me”: http://whatsustainsme.com/2015/01/pesso-2015-01/

  • James Arnfinsen

    Ganske nylig, i en uformell samtale med Al Pesso, fortalte jeg ham om en opplevelse jeg hadde da jeg satt på bussen. Jeg lyttet til sangen “Besvärelse – Vi kommer at elska deg”, av Oscar Danielsen, en sang som syntes å ha samme påvirkning på meg som “strukturene” i PBSP (den kroppsorienterte terapiformen som Pesso har utviklet).

    Melodien har en beroligende og trøstende effekt i seg selv, eller kanskje enda mer, den åpner opp for følelser, særlig sorg og lengsel. Samtidig bærer teksten en mening som bringer noe inn i den som lytter. Det er med andre ikke kun snakk om en “katharsis”. Det skapes en ideel situasjon, der den som lytter hører noe helt bestemt som alle mennesker fortjener å høre, nemlig at uansett hva som skjer, og uavhengig av hvordan du er, så kommer de som står deg nær til å elske deg. Sangen formidler dermed budskapet og idealet om uforbeholden kjælighet.

    Det interessante med denne låten er dermed at den jobber på to nivåer paralellt. Ved hjelp av melodien arbeider sangen direkte med det limbiske systemet, altså menneskets følelsesmessige grunnstrukturer i hjernen, samtidig som teksten stimulerer pre-frontal cortex gjennom den språklige interaksjonen. Sistnevnte er en kjerne i PBSP, nemlig at heling dypest sett skjer når vi får den fysiske, symbolske eller språklige interaksjonen vi har behov for.

    Jeg snakket også med Pesso om Empatiskolen, et prosjekt jeg leder sammen med min venn og kollega Anders Asphaug. En av ideen med dette prosjektet er å utvikle metoder som kan gi barn og unge i skolen det de trenger for å mestre livet. I denne sammenhengen ser jeg for at musikk kan være en innfallsvinkel til å skape ideelle og helende situasjoner for barn og unge, situasjoner som gir interaksjon i sammenheng med de grunnleggende behovene man arbeider med i PBSP: behovet for en trygg plass i tilværelsen, behovet for støtte, behvoet for beskyttelse, behovet for næring og behovet for grenser.

    Mens jeg skrev dette innlegget hørte jeg på et inspirerende program på NRK P2 – “Gåsehud og hjertebank”:

    Hvordan virker musikk på følelsene våre? Denne utgaven av Gåsehud og hjertebank handler om musikk og sorg. Musikerne Stian Carstensen, Kåre Nordstoga og Henning Kraggerud deler sine sørgeligste musikkfavoritter og betraktninger om hvordan musikk og sorg hører sammen. Og i studio sitter professor i musikkterapi, Gro Trondalen og nøster i trådene sammen med Mari Giske.

  • James Arnfinsen

    One of the most important aspects of therapy, at least from my point of view, is the significance of being inside what I like to call our “window of tolerance”. If the emotions become to intense we dissociate and it’s impossible to heal our wounds. The same goes for ordinary situations in life, such as finishing a task at work, being creative, finding good solutions to a problem, working closely with colleagues, being able to appreciate humor, being in contact with meaning and purpose. We loose contact with all this when we become stressed and worked up. We fight, flight or freeze! The vagus nerve and the parasympatic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that helps us calm down, is central if we want to stay inside our window of tolerance. Here is an article about some of these issues: https://healingfromthefreeze.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/the-vagus-nerve-and-the-difficulty-with-mindfulness/