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The importance of art and film for psychology

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 22:38

A new publication from the School of Psychology and Counselling challenges psychologists to take art and film seriously, especially during times of crisis when people go through 'liminal experiences'. 

The article is the result of a collaboration between Professor Paul Stenner from the Open University and Professor Tania Zittoun from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The online first version has just appeared in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. 

Tania Zittoun is well known for her work on how people use 'symbolic resources' - such as films and novels - to help them through difficult times of transition, and the paper integrates her approach with Paul Stenner's recent work on liminal experiences. These are experiences during which transformative events can leave those going through them in an 'in-between' phase in which they are no longer what they were (in the past) but not yet what they may become (in the future). In such situations people are, in short, suspended between worlds. These experiences can vary from being limited to the individual (e.g. loosing a job at a crucial moment, suffering an intimate bereavement) to society level phenomena (as many from the UK experienced during the height of uncertainty around Brexit), and they can even be global - as shown by the disruptive and transformative effect of the current corona-virus pandemic.    

The new paper, however, does not simply argue that film and other symbolic resources can be helpful to people going through important changes. It also shows that films and art-works more generally can contain valuable insights for all who are interested in psychology

Stenner and Zittoun approach these two related issues in an innovative way through a socio-cultural analysis of a major film: Inception (directed by Christopher Nolan). Their analysis shows how the film stimulates and draws upon imagination just at the moment that it is most needed, due to the way in which transformative experiences can erode the difference between reality and appearance. A person's capacity to imagine a new future is most needed precisely when their future is cast into doubt, and their capacity to re-imagine the past is most needed when a gulf seems to separate what they were from what they now are. But how can psychology - which tends to start with an assumed distinction between objective fact and subjective fancy - cope with these high levels of contingency and uncertainty that are so characteristic of liminal occasions?  

The article shows how Nolan's movie - and art more generally - works dynamically with tensions between fact and fiction, taking these as part of experience, and - if all goes well - providing a space for re-imagining collective and individual existence. Art alone is, of course, not enough: but it can play a vital role. In other recent publications and talks, Professor Stenner has shown how comparable findings extend also to novels (like the Magic Mountain) and plays (like Hamlet), and Professor Zittoun has written extensively on the nature of the imagination.


Stenner, P and Zittoun, T (2020) On taking a leap of faith. Art, Imagination and liminal experiences. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. March, online first.

Stenner, P. and Greco, M. (2018). On The Magic Mountain: The novel as liminal affective technology. International Political Anthropology, 11(1): 43-60.

 Zittoun, T and Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. London: Routledge.

You can read more details about the paper here: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fteo0000148

 An interview with Paul Stenner from The Psychologist in which he talks about the concept of 'liminal hotspots' can be accessed here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/march-2018/incitement-become-different-can-be-both-thrilling-and-terrifying

"This incitement to 'become different' can be both thrilling and terrifying" | The Psychologist

Talk to me about circles. The German poet Rilke, who was a bit of genius, wrote ‘I live my life in ever widening circles’. I think we all ‘move in circles’… within circles of friends and acquaintances, and between cycles of activity and routine that more or less repeat, like having breakfast, travelling to work, writing a report, trying to persuade our kids to do their homework.




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