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Therapeutic use of film, music & poetry

A few days ago a client lent me a DVD of the film Groundhog Day.  It's a whimsical comedy about a guy who finds himself in a weird time loop where he has to repeat the same day again, and again, and again.  Luckily for him, he isn't condemned to act the same way every time.  He has choice.  A bit like each of us, he can experiment with trying different responses - and he gradually shifts from being a self-centred, unkind, impatient prima donna to someone much more caring, fun and worth being around.  My client talked about how much the film had helped him, and this led me to thinking again about the use of film as "therapy".

BABCP, the UK's main society for cognitive behavioural therapists, has a listserv - a rather marvellous communal email link - where one can put out queries and comments which will then be read by hundreds of other therapists.  I asked about people's experience and advice on using film in therapy.  I mentioned Groundhog Day and also how at training workshops, lecturers use of film clips to illustrate teaching points has often been one of the most memorable aspects of the workshop for me.  I had a bunch of helpful replies.  The most useful was obvious, but I just hadn't thought of it - type a search into Google.

Wow!  Of course!  There's already a whole literature out there.  For example, a site called Cinematherapy.com provides a list of recommended films categorised by the issue they deal with.  There are headings for Inspiration, Personal Issues, Social Issues, Children, Adolescents, Family Issues, Couple Issues, Mental & Emotional Illness, and Physical Illness/Medical Issues.  All suggestions are linked to the Internet Movie Database.  There's advice too on choosing films, watching films, and points for therapists.  There's even an online course for would-be cinema therapists advertised on the site.  Cinematherapy.com also provides a bibliography with a long list of books on cinema therapy & related applications, and also a great links page to other cinema therapy sites and relevant (academic) articles.  Good stuff. 

And that led me to think about other art forms and the way they can help or damage us.  There has been a series on BBC Radio 4 recently called "Soul Music" looking at the way particular pieces of music have affected people.  This week was on "You've got a friend", the song written by Carole King and made famous by James Taylor.  You have a few more days to catch it on listen again.  The next, and last programme in the series, will be on Strauss's "Four last songs".  Even more moving for me has been the Radio 4 programme "What's in Your Head" described with the words "Under pressure, when we are on our own, many of us hear the words or songs we learnt by heart as a child. This programme features people discussing how these songs have helped them in situations of extreme pressure and danger."  Sadly you only have four more days to "listen again" to this programme.  It's one that could be worth recording.

And there's good research showing how media and art can affect us.  For example Dr Tobias Greitemeyer, at the University of Sussex, is one person working in this field.  Some of his recent papers include:

Fischer, P. and T. Greitemeyer (2006). "Music and aggression: the impact of sexual-aggressive song lyrics on aggression-related thoughts, emotions, and behavior toward the same and the opposite sex." Pers Soc Psychol Bull 32(9): 1165-76.  [PubMed]  Three studies examined the impact of sexual-aggressive song lyrics on aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behavior toward the same and the opposite sex. In Study 1, the authors directly manipulated whether male or female participants listened to misogynous or neutral song lyrics and measured actual aggressive behavior. Male participants who were exposed to misogynous song lyrics administered more hot chili sauce to a female than to a male confederate. Study 2 shed some light on the underlying psychological processes: Male participants who heard misogynous song lyrics recalled more negative attributes of women and reported more feelings of vengeance than when they heard neutral song lyrics. In addition, men-hating song lyrics had a similar effect on aggression-related responses of female participants toward men. Finally, Study 3 replicated the findings of the previous two studies with an alternative measure of aggressive behavior as well as a more subtle measure of aggressive cognitions. The results are discussed in the framework of the General Aggression Model.

Fischer, P., T. Greitemeyer, et al. (2009). "The racing-game effect: why do video racing games increase risk-taking inclinations?" Pers Soc Psychol Bull 35(10): 1395-409.  [PubMed
The present studies investigated why video racing games increase players' risk-taking inclinations. Four studies reveal that playing video racing games increases risk taking in a subsequent simulated road traffic situation, as well as risk-promoting cognitions and emotions, blood pressure, sensation seeking, and attitudes toward reckless driving. Study 1 ruled out the role of experimental demand in creating such effects. Studies 2 and 3 showed that the effect of playing video racing games on risk taking was partially mediated by changes in self-perceptions as a reckless driver. These effects were evident only when the individual played racing games that reward traffic violations rather than racing games that do not reward traffic violations (Study 3) and when the individual was an active player of such games rather than a passive observer (Study 4). In sum, the results underline the potential negative impact of racing games on traffic safety.

Greitemeyer, T. (2009). "Effects of Songs With Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Behavior: Further Evidence and a Mediating Mechanism." Pers Soc Psychol Bull.  [PubMed]
Previous research has shown that exposure to prosocial songs increased the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, led to more interpersonal empathy, and fostered helping behavior. However, inasmuch as cognition, affect, and behavior were measured in different studies, it remained unclear what variable constituted the mediating path from media exposure to action. This was tested in the present research. In four studies, listening to songs with prosocial, relative to neutral, lyrics increased helping behavior. This effect was mediated by interpersonal empathy. The results are consistent with the general learning model and point to the importance of the affective route in explaining how media exposure influences social behavior.

Greitemeyer, T. (2009). "Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial thoughts, affect, and behavior " Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45(1): 186-190.  [Abstract/Full Text]
Previous research has shown that exposure to violent media increased aggression-related affect and thoughts, physiological arousal, and aggressive behavior as well as decreased prosocial tendencies. The present research examined the hypothesis that exposure to prosocial media promotes prosocial outcomes. Three studies revealed that listening to songs with prosocial (relative to neutral) lyrics increased the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, led to more interpersonal empathy, and fostered helping behavior. These results provide first evidence for the predictive validity of the General Learning Model [Buckley, K. E., & Anderson, C. A. (2006). A theoretical model of the effects and consequences of playing video games. In P. Vorderer, & J. Bryant, (Eds.), Playing video games: Motives responses and consequences (pp. 363-378). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates] for the effects of media with prosocial content on prosocial thought, feeling, and behavior.

Isn't the world interesting!  And just as we have so many ways to damage ourselves and each other, we also have so many ways to help ...


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