Making Meaning in Psychotherapy: A Multi Level Approach to Change

Every waking moment, our brains and bodies assimilate a myriad of?sensory stimulation from the environment and images, thoughts, emotions, sensations and movements from our internal state. In a millisecond, through operations so complex that they elude the full understanding of even the most brilliant minds, our brains compare this wealth of current data to memories of past experience. The most critical result of this comparison is to predict the next moment with suf cient accuracy so that we can make an adaptive physical action. Our predictions of what will happen next are predicated upon the meaning we make of what is occurring in the present, as integrated with our past meanings.

Making meaning and predicting the future begin long before the acquisition of language. The whole organism–as evident in the behavior of infants—has processes at every level for making meaning, from the reticular formation to the neocortex; motor and sensory/perceptual systems; and bodily systems, such as?the autonomic nervous system. Each of these levels makes particular forms of meaning, and each affects the others so that the meaning made at any one moment in uences the meanings made in next.

Psychotherapy is about changing the meanings people make about themselves. This workshop will explore the multifaceted nature of meaning- making in theory and clinical practice. Drawing on the Still-face mother-infant studies and the formation of regulatory systems, we will explore meaning-making without symbols and what we can learn from infants and their interactions with others. We will argue that different intrapsychic systems within an individual generate constant and multiple moment-to-moment forms of meaning that are the heart of our experience of having a coherent sense of self. We will also highlight how meanings are not only self-organized and regulated internally but also organized and regulated dyadically with others, and we will demonstrate how to intervene psychotherapeutically in these meaning-making processes.


We will explore how trauma and attachment histories affect meaning-making, present research data on bodily meaning-making systems (cortisol, autonomic nervous system, movement and behavior) and illustrate how working directly?with movement in clinical practice can support new meanings. Through clinical examples and video excerpts of interactions and psychotherapy, the presenters will illuminate how therapy can help to alter a client’s meaning-making and how maladaptive meanings can undergo a change in a dyadic relationship.