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Understanding the Expressive Therapies Continuum Part 6: Cognitive Level Processing

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC


As we continue navigating on into our exploration of the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC), we will review the top tier containing the Cognitive and Symbolic components of information processing in these next few blog posts. As a brief review, the ETC is a framework for understanding systems of information processing that exist on 3 hierarchical levels, where simple information processing occurs at the bottom tier and gradually increases in complexity to more complex cognitive processes at the top. In this blog post we will review the Cognitive component and how working with art materials at this level can be supportive to our healing process.


In a journal article written by one the of the founders of the ETC, Vija Lusebrink (2004), Lusebrink stated that the Cognitive level of the ETC “...involves activities of the frontal cortex and encompasses memories, problem solving, and anticipatory operations with images, concepts, and the corresponding verbalizations. The cognitive component focuses on analytical and sequential operations, logical thought, and abstraction.” Based on this informative research, we can understand that working creatively at the cognitive level involves higher order cognitive functioning that focuses on structure, conceptualizing steps to reaching an end goal, naming and identifying parts of one’s art work and solving problems that arise in the artmaking process.


When we engage in artmaking, often there are moments where planning ahead and problem solving are necessary skills needed to accomplish a specific task or goal. For instance, in drawing there are many decisions that may need to be made in order to get started- figuring out where to start on the surface, what types of elements will be included, what materials will be used to create those elements and how to develop the drawing over time to adapt to unexpected happenings. When we operate from the Cognitive component of the ETC, actions are typically deliberate and intentional, according to Lisa Hinz who has compiled a large amount of research and information on the ETC.


At this level of information processing and creative functioning, we might be aware of the properties that the art materials contain and make decisions based on these schemas. For instance, if I know that I want a firm boundary denoting a clear shape, I may choose materials that are more resistive, such as colored pencils or markers. In this way, we are taking information from what we have already learned and experienced in our memory and applying that information in a way that helps us make practical decisions about what we need or want to achieve a particular outcome. As summarized by Lisa Hinz with regard to early research by Vija Lusebrink, the Cognitive component is unique on the continuum because “...it involves the use of mental images of past experiences and future actions.”


Materials that promote functioning on the cognitive level, according to Hinz, include wood, mosaic tile, construction paper, and collage materials and processing. Activities that promote and enhance functioning at the cognitive level include creating a lifeline or timeline, creating a theme based collage, and cognitive maps. Activities that require multiple steps, such as creating a mask or pottery also combine elements of the Cognitive component as well as sensory and perceptual level processing.


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Reference List:


Vija B. Lusebrink PhD, ATR-BC, HLM (2004) Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy, Art Therapy, 21:3, 125-135, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2004.10129496






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