fpsyg-09-02083 November 12, 2018 Time: 14:1 # 1
published: 14 November 2018
Florida State University, United States
Michael Alexander Wieser,
Coventry University, United Kingdom
This article was submitted to
Clinical and Health Psychology,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 29 November 2017
Accepted: 09 October 2018
Published: 14 November 2018
Yaniv D (2018) Trust the Process:
A New Scientiﬁc Outlook on
Psychodramatic Spontaneity Training.
Front. Psychol. 9:2083.
Trust the Process: A New Scientiﬁc
Outlook on Psychodramatic
Emili Sagol Creative Arts Therapies Research Center, The Graduate School of Creative Arts Therapies, University of Haifa,
Human mind is hypothesis-driven and our observations of the world are strongly shaped
by preconceptions. This “top-down” principle is biologically driven and contraindicative
to spontaneity, which is non-linear, condensed, and initially incomprehensible. My ﬁrst
argument is that spontaneity entails “bottom up” information processing, as articulated
in the hierarchical neurocognitive model of perception. My second argument is that
changing the balance between these two processes is important and feasible. Insights
from psychodynamic transference and savant syndrome are presented to support these
ideas. Uniting these contemporary notions with some essentials of J. L. Moreno’s
philosophy is my third goal. By violating predictions and expectations, psychodrama
interferes with top-down “conserved” processing and cultivates here and now, stimulus-
dependent spontaneous acts. Further evidence is presented in support of the claim
that adult spontaneity leads to enhanced cognition and creativity through imitating the
child’s brain, as Moreno envisioned. Because spontaneity is formed before having the
evidence for its truth or adequacy, it entails, in adults, overcoming apprehensions about
acting without a theory in mind. This is what trusting-the-process means and it requires
training, which psychodrama fosters on its stage laboratory.
Keywords: spontaneity, psychodrama, bottom-up, top-down, creativity, transference, savant syndrome, role
“Man will fear spontaneity until he learns how to train it” (Moreno, 1953, p. 47).
“Spontaneity is a function of organization” (Wellman J. Warner, May 1951, as cited in Moreno, 1953,
As a method of clinical intervention and group therapy, psychodrama uses a dramatic-
theatrical format to allow clients enact emotions, experiences and meaningful events in
life, thus turning the abstract into concrete. Through dramatic action, the client explores
an internal world, reaching insights about self and others, experiences what could never
happen, and develop better living skills. Based on action and enhancement of spontaneity and
creativity, psychodrama assists clients in facing life challenges, examine alternative solutions, and
sometimes adapt to their situation with peaceful acceptance. The protagonist in psychodrama
is invited to actually become the “thing” that s/he is referring to, be it a person or an
abstract concept, like passion. “The embodiment must correspond to the idea of the thing”
(Moreno, 1946/1985, p. 26). This is enabled through spontaneous improvisation – a process
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that underpins psychodrama – and brings the patient closer to
his/her emotions, thoughts, and imagination (Moreno, 1953).
Indeed, the origin of “spontaneous” is in Old Latin:
[sua]sponte, “of one’s own accord, willingly” (dictionary.com.
retrieved November 27th, 2017, from http://www.dictionary.
com/browse/spontaneous?s=t). This deﬁnition emphasizes being
in agreement and harmony with oneself, without external
inﬂuence or constraint. Freedom is a central issue. Adjectives
such as “automatic,” “impulsive,” or “instinctive” that sometimes
accompany the term seem to underline a routine, mechanized
and ﬁxed patterned response, which, as elaborated below, seem
to miss the point.
I argue that this unique psychodramatic experience
corresponds to “bottom-up” processing (vide infra) and,
accordingly, is particularly conducive to creativity training and
therapeutic change. However, because we are inclined to think
in a “top-down” fashion, spontaneity requires training, and the
capacity to be trained and consequently change the balance exists
in the general population. To begin substantiating this argument,
I ﬁrst refer to top-down vs. bottom-up processes as articulated in
the cognitive neurosciences.
THE HIERARCHICAL MODEL OF
PERCEPTION: “BOTTOM-UP” VS.
Classical theories considered the brain as passive and stimulus-
driven, rather than as a device that actively creates meaning
by itself. It was presumed to react to sensory inputs and
copy pre-speciﬁed information. These approaches emphasized
serial “bottom-up” processing in hierarchically organized neural
structures (Marr, 1982;Biederman, 1987). Newer data designate
the brain as much more active and adaptive (Edelman, 1989;
Churchland et al., 1994;Engel et al., 2001). According to this
view, cognition and behavior are not stimulus-driven, but are
to a large degree based on expectations derived from previous
experience and on generalized information already stored in the
architecture of neural networks (Engel et al., 2001;Gilbert and Li,
2013;Muckli and Petro, 2013). This holds true in the infant brain
as in adults (Emberson et al., 2015) and also when multisensory
systems are involved (Lee Masson et al., 2016).
“Top-down” processing denotes cognitive inﬂuences and
higher-order representations (e.g., expectations, attention, or
knowledge) that impinge on earlier steps in information
processing. “Bottom-up” refers to attention as driven mainly
by the characteristics of the stimulus and its sensory context
(e.g., contrast, symmetry, and order). The anatomical variant
of this idea is that top-down inﬂuences are associated with
the activity of descending pathways from the neocortex that
are relayed through the thalamus, while bottom-up processes
denote feedforward connections, ascending along a hierarchy
of areas, which represent progressively more complex aspects
of the sensory (visual) scene (Mumford, 1992;Ullman, 1995).
Importantly, “top-down” and “bottom-up” processes represent
general organizational principles rather than dichotomous
concepts, and in most situations, they interact in the process
of perception (Macaluso and Doricchi, 2013). However, the
proportion or dominance of each of the processes within the
interaction is dynamic and has important implications for
cognition and behavior. Weighing of new (current) evidence
and prior expectations must be dynamically adjusted when
negotiating changeable real-world environments as well as
Francisco Varela, a pioneer in embodied philosophy,
suggested in 1987, that subjective visual perception is 80%
dependent on ongoing “bussing activity” within the brain’s
visual system, while only the remaining 20% is external and
stimulus-dependent (Varela, 1987). Mahoney (1991) elaborated
on this idea and suggested that the greatest proportion of that
[internal] endless activity is self-referential (recursive):
Numerically speaking, there are 10 motor (eﬀerent)
neurons for every sensory (aﬀerent) receptor; and for every
motor neuron, there are 10,000 interneurons (neurons
that connect only with other neurons). If we accept the
traditional notion that one’s sensory receptors constitute
one’s contact with the outside world, we are forced to
conclude that one is much more extensively connected with
oneself than with the external environment (pp. 101–102).
While controversy may still exist regarding the nature of
perception (Firestone and Scholl, 2016), this principle (i.e., that
most of our visual perception is internally driven) is biologically
adaptive, as it promotes safety and avoidance of familiar painful
experiences. Yet, it also induces a psychological/cultural burden,
namely the diﬃculty to change. The fact that our mind is premise-
driven and that our observations of the world are strongly
shaped by pre-conceptions makes it diﬃcult to embrace a new
perspective (Gregory, 1980;Snyder et al., 2004). Chi and Snyder
(2011) eloquently elaborate:
Information consistent with our expectations or mental
templates is often accepted at face value, whereas
inconsistent evidence is discounted or hidden from
conscious awareness. While this hypothesis driven
mechanism helps us in eﬃciently dealing with the familiar,
it can prevent us from seeing better solutions in a diﬀerent
and/or unfamiliar context (p. 1).
I might add that it prevents us from ﬁnding better solutions
in a familiar situation as well. For example, in a study on
the Einstellung eﬀect in chess, Bilali´
c et al. (2010) showed
that even experts can fail to ﬁnd an optimal solution when a
common solution comes ﬁrst to their mind. This demonstrates
the powerful inﬂuence of our long-term memory and the strength
that our preconceptions have on our mind (Gobet et al., 2014).
Long-term memory is an important source of top-
down processing, [it] includes not only declarative
memories, but also the procedural knowledge stored in the
functional architecture of sensorimotor networks. Network
architecture could constitute an “implicit” source of top-
down inﬂuences as, for instance, the topology of lateral
connections within cortical areas is known to embody
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stored predictions that have been acquired both during
evolution and through experience-dependent learning, and
have proven to be of adaptive value (Engel et al., 2001,
It appears, then, that the human mental apparatus has
evolved to promote biological advantage by relying on existing
knowledge more than on novel, unhabitual or unforeseen
encounters (Varela et al., 1991/2016;Grossberg, 1999, 2000).
To paraphrase Varela et al. (1991/2016), this quality is not
optimal, it is, rather, simply viable. To be viable means
The perceptually guided action of the system must simply
facilitate the continuing integrity of the system (ontogeny)
and/or its lineage (phylogeny). . .any action undertaken by
the system is permitted as long as it is does not violate the
constraint of having to maintain the integrity of the system
and/or its lineage (Varela et al., 1991/2016, p. 205).
Therefore, the inﬂuence of ongoing top-down activity on
the processing of incoming sensory signals is not conﬁned
to a feedback, but rather plays a decisive role in the
(re)action production. Subjective information related to previous
experience is superior in interpreting current perceptual
stimuli, relative to the actual (bottom-up) input. Incoming
signals may therefore convey diﬀerent meanings about the
same scene, in accord with a preexistent mental/behavioral
I suggest that intentionally changing the proportion of
top-down/bottom-up dynamic processes, so that bottom-
up input is more dominant at the expense of top-down
inﬂuences, would enhance spontaneity as well as therapeutic
change (vide infra). I also claim that this is exactly what
psychodrama does, by cultivating spontaneity through role
play and other creative acts. Before turning to the latter
claim, I will substantiate the former using two clinical
examples: psychological transference and autistic conditions.
These examples demonstrate top-down and bottom-up dynamics
in low-level sensory systems as well as in higher-order mental
Originally, within classical psychodynamic theory, transference
was viewed as representing a displacement from the past,
with the patient distorting the present in order to make
room for the expression of some encapsulated earlier
fantasy or experience. An alternative formulation sees
transference as reﬂecting “a universal psychological striving
to organize experience and construct meaning” that operates
in an ongoing way, and which is “an expression of the
continuing inﬂuence of organizing principles and imagery that
crystallized out of the patient‘s early formative experiences”
(Stolorow and Lachmann, 1984/1985, pp. 26, 25, as cited
in Mitchell and Black, 1995, p. 166). Thus, transference
distortions can and do exist in any interpersonal context,
not only in therapist-client relationships1, and they are
predominantly a top-down phenomenon in a context of
attachment (Brockman, 1998, 2010). Transference triggers
memory that “may enter consciousness and inﬂuence
perception. . . where it takes control of attention, perception
and thinking” (Brockman, 2010, p. 704). By focusing
attention, transference “would be limiting perception—
whether that focus be on perception from the senses or on
perception from the medial temporal lobes (memory)” (ibid.
Brockman (2010) further suggests that bottom-up
interventions, in the context of psychodynamic treatment,
consist of unexpected and unanticipated interventions and
act as a “circuit breaker,” which leads to change. Violating
expectations and predictions (as in “oddball paradigm”)
would require a completely diﬀerent course of action by the
patient. Neurobiologically, this would be mediated through
a ventral frontoparietal network that interrupts with a dorsal
frontoparietal network that mediates top-down processing.
To illustrate, Brockman introduces a 48-year-old patient,
who had been in numerous therapies since the age of 17.
He accepted the referral from a colleague, who described the
patient as “. . .chronically depressed, hopeless, suicidal” (p. 695).
Among other reﬂections regarding this background, Brockman
underlines: “I was partly aware that when I accepted this patient,
it would be imperative that I ﬁnd a treatment and a plan diﬀerent
from those she had undergone. I would need to ﬁnd something
new” (p. 695). After having reached a relatively solid therapeutic
alliance, Brockman refers to a speciﬁc oddball intervention, in a
moment when the patient complained about having a recursive
failure in producing her work:
Therapist: Then maybe you should work here.
Therapist: Here in my oﬃce. I’m not here many afternoons.
Patient: You’d let me work here?
(Therapist’s reﬂection): . . . I think we were both a little
unsettled by the “oddball” quality of what I had just oﬀered.
After a beat, she asked, what makes you think there’s
something so special about this oﬃce?
It’s not about the oﬃce. It’s about me, and your connection
to me (p. 708).
Instead of providing a “conventionally” therapeutic
intervention, Brockman spontaneously said what could be
considered the wrong sort of thing for a therapist to say. “What
is spontaneity? It is the character of not resulting by law from
something antecedent. . . I don’t know what you can make
out of the meaning of spontaneity, but newness, freshness and
diversity” (Peirce, 1935, p. 9, as cited by Moreno, 1946/1985).
Within this particular therapeutic setting, Brockman seems to
have reacted spontaneously while being genuinely empathic.
1However, the therapist-client relationship incorporates a regressive component,
which tends to increase the stress of the relationship and consequently increases
the potential for transferential distortions.
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Though somewhat unorthodox, similar examples appear in
classical literature (Oremland, 1991) as well as self-psychology
Brockman clariﬁes that when transference work and
interpretation are overpowered by the aﬀective experience
involved (through emotional memory), engaging in an
unexpected and salient intervention shifts the balance, allowing
“the prior focus to be released and a new focus initiated through
the ventral system [to be] taken up as the new focus by the dorsal
system” (Brockman, 2010, p. 706). Thus, within the transferential
relationship, an unexpected and surprising suggestion created
“a new object”2and, as such, had to be perceived and processed
through the bottom-up network.
INSIGHTS FROM AUTISTIC SAVANTS
People with autism appear signiﬁcantly less concept-driven
than normal individuals (Snyder and Thomas, 1997;Snyder,
1998). While this lack of use of concepts leads to serious
intellectual and social impairments, people with autism show
exceptional performance on visual search tasks (Shah and Frith,
1983;Plaisted et al., 1998b;Joseph et al., 2009), have higher
prevalence of absolute pitch (Miller, 1999), and superior visual
discrimination (Plaisted et al., 1998a;Bertone et al., 2005),
consistent with the development of positive neurology (Kapur
et al., 2013;Schwarting and Busse, 2017). Particularly interesting,
they are less susceptible to visual illusions than the normal
population (Happé, 1996;Bogdashina, 2003).
Research suggests that people with autism see the world
more accurately – as it really is – because they are less biased
by previous experiences (Pellicano and Burr, 2012) or because
of having a “privileged access to lower level, less processed
information” (Snyder, 2009, p. 1399; see also: Frith and Happé,
1994). Recently, a third hypothesis was suggested, in which an
increased propensity to represent and respond to environmental
volatility (impaired top-down processing) compromises learning
about probabilistic relationships in the environment, resulting in
an increased receptiveness to sensory inputs (Lawson et al., 2017).
In all of these potential explanations, people with autism are
less susceptible to past-generated distortions/knowledge and are
more open to alternative and, at times, more eﬃcient and creative
interpretations. This is especially evident in savant syndrome
(from French savoir = to know), a speciﬁc and rare condition in
which persons with autistic disorder or other mental disabilities
have extraordinary skills, in stark contrast to their handicap
The condition can be present from birth or surface in early
childhood (congenital) or can surface unexpectedly
following head injury, stroke, dementia, or other
central nervous system (CNS) disorders (acquired).
The special skills occur most commonly in the areas of
music, art, calendar calculating, lightning calculating, or
2This, of course, may contribute therapeutically by leading toward a
transformation of the therapist from being an “object” to being a subject.
mechanical/spatial abilities (Treﬀert and Rebedew, 2015,
Snyder (2009) argues that savant skills are latent in all of
us, an argument in accord with the fact that they can emerge
“suddenly and spontaneously in individuals who had no prior
history for them, either in interest, ability or talent” (p. 1400).
Gobet et al. (2014) further elaborate and suggest that in the
general population, “creativity can be boosted by decreasing
conceptual processing and increasing the role of low-level
perceptual processing” (p. 2). While in both autistic and healthy
brains, creativity might be a separate process from talent or
skill (Zaidel, 2014), Gobet et al. (2014) prediction was indeed
tested and conﬁrmed. Consistent with the view that autistic
savants have some atypical anterior left brain dysfunction or
inhibition together with right brain compensation (Miller et al.,
1998;Treﬀert, 2005;Sacks, 2007), artiﬁcially inducing savant-
like skills in normal healthy individuals using low-frequency
repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (Snyder et al.,
2006;Boggio et al., 2009;Snyder, 2009) or transcranial direct
current stimulation (Chi and Snyder, 2012), brought a cortical
disinhibition or atypical hemispheric imbalance; this in turn
induced and improved savant-like abilities like drawing skills,
proofreading skills, numerosity, and reduced false memories (for
review see: Snyder and Mitchell, 1999;Snyder, 2009).
While the implications for the study of human cognition and
the psychology of expertise are profound (Gobet et al., 2014;
Wilson, 2016), it is enchanting to read a poetic description, so
consistent with the above hypothesis, written as early as in 1953
by Moreno, father of psychodrama:
Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual
and evoke a response. There were many more
Michelangelo’s born than the one who painted the
great paintings, and many more Beethoven’s born than
the one who wrote the great symphonies, and many more
Christ’s born than the one who became Jesus of Nazareth.
What they have in common are creativity and the creative
ideas. What separates them is the spontaneity which, in the
successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of
his resources, whereas the failures are at loss with all their
treasures (p. 39).
Indeed, spontaneity (in contrast to impulsivity) is the
cornerstone of psychodrama and is imperative in other creative
arts therapies3as well (Malchiodi, 2003). In some of the latter,
however, art is essential to the therapeutic paradigm and is used
mainly to project and thus to distance (zoom out) the person
from his/her symbolic creation: visual arts through image, music
through sound and rhythm, and poetry/writing through words
(Knill et al., 1995). In psychodrama, the protagonist simply enacts
his or her own life episodes, rather than, for example, some pre-
given theatrical role, thus zooming-in without being signiﬁcantly
dependent on acting skills. While psychodramatic techniques for
zooming-out are also used (e.g., “mirroring”), the basic method
3Conventionally including art, music, drama, dance/movement, poetry/creative
writing, bibliotherapy, play, and sandplay.
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works through nearing to the psychic materials rather than
distancing, and is the reason that psychodrama is considered
a more direct method. Before further associating this to my
argument, I will shortly introduce Moreno and psychodrama4.
SOME BASIC ELEMENTS IN
Moreno (1889–1974), a psychiatrist, who with his wife, Zerka
Toeman Moreno, founded Psychodrama, which focuses on
group processes and the primacy of action. Also a formidable
pioneer of group psychotherapy and sociometry (the study and
measurement of society and relationships), Moreno considered
the three ﬁelds to be interrelated and indispensable to one
another (Moreno, 1970). He had a strong existential and spiritual
belief system, central to which was the treasuring of spontaneity,
creativity, and the “urgency of immediate experience” (Moreno,
1989, p. 45, as cited in Wilson, 2011, p. 11).
In his Canon of Creativity, Moreno (1953) outlined a mutual
association between spontaneity and creativity, so that the ﬁrst
arouses the second and the second is receptive to the ﬁrst. “In
order to become eﬀective, creativity (the sleeping beauty) needs
a catalyzer – spontaneity” (p. 45). It is generally accepted that
Moreno’s intention was that spontaneity is a state that induce
the creative sequence (process), leading to a ﬁnal “product.”
“Creativity is related to the “act” itself; spontaneity is related to
the “readiness” of the act” (Moreno, 1955, p. 109). Without a
doubt this twin concept was central in Moreno’s thought:
I formulated this twin concept as the primary principles
of existence in my earliest eﬀort to comprehend the living
universe in its entirety. It seemed to me that they oﬀer
a safe bridge between ontology and science and that they
are better able to explain all phenomena of the inanimate
and animate universe than any other set of concepts I had
known (ibid, p. 105).
The bridge, however, between ontology and science was not
so safe, as Moreno’s deﬁnitions of spontaneity and creativity
have been criticized for inconsistency (see: Aulicino, 1954;
Kipper, 2000;Kipper et al., 2010). Is spontaneity an existential
phenomenon, impossible to quantify or measure, as Bergson
(1911) – frequently quoted by Moreno – suggested? Or is it
a biologically based social phenomenon ready for empirical
test? Kellermann (1992) reviewed this debate and suggested
that despite Moreno’s natural science ideal, “in reality, Moreno’s
humanistic bias shows through in most of his writing. . .[and]
emphasize the hidden spiritual dimensions of reality and the
intuitive, mystical sources of truth that cannot be investigated by
the [objective] experimental approach” (p. 39).
In line with this suggestion, Moreno’s intention was to
convince that spontaneity and creativity evoke levels of organized
4The philosophical and theoretical basis of classical psychodrama is voluminous,
and only few selected elements are tapped here. The interested reader is advised
to refer to: Moreno (1946/1985,1953), Moreno and Moreno (1956, 1975),Moreno
et al. (2000),Horvatin and Schreiber (2006),von Ameln and Wieser (2014).
behavior which are not fully traceable to preceding determinants:
“Whereas a living act is an element in the causal-nexus of the life
process of the real person, the spontaneous-creative act makes it
appear as if for one moment the causal-nexus has been broken
or eliminated” (Moreno, 1946/1985, pp. 35–36). Relating this to
a more clinical setting, Moreno conceived spontaneity important
to treatment of mental disorders because it “enables the patient
to. . . activate bodily and mentally his crucial conﬂicts so that he
feels more clearly all the possibilities of a solution and eventually
will turn his will towards a new path” (Moreno, 1939, p. 28).
Because spontaneity is not conservable like the kind of
energies noted by physicists, and is vulnerable to mood, context,
and mental dynamics, one has to warm up to it from the
start. Indeed, “warming up” is formally the ﬁrst phase in any
psychodramatic meeting and stands for the activity of becoming
gradually more spontaneous. It is indispensable in Moreno’s
theory to get ready for action.
There are many ways to warm up to spontaneity, e.g., through
physical action, promoting authentic encounters, or making
abstract situations more concrete. Necessary to all is a safe and
nurturing setting. Moreno was well aware of the fragility of this
emotional process and of the spontaneous state itself. Yet he saw
no other way but to rehearse, to train and to practice spontaneity
through active, concrete, “experimental” actions, including role-
playing. In role play one is deliberately creating an approximation
of some aspects of a real experience, and it is through the study
of roles in action that new knowledge about roles is developed
and behavioral alternatives rehearsed (Moreno, 1953;Yardley-
Indeed, among psychodrama’s most cherished techniques is
role reversal: acting out one’s life roles and experimenting with
new and unfamiliar (“other”) roles, with the help of an “auxiliary
ego,” here and now, as if in their statu nascendi and locus
nascendi. In a group context, selected auxiliaries usually enter
some presented roles alternately, allowing an actual interaction
to occur. Properly guided, such process is aimed at producing “a
shift in perception so that one can see the other and oneself in
a new and fresh way” (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 15; Kellermann,
Whereas conduct in a life situation is irrevocable, here every
phase of the performance is open to correction through
criticism made by the other participants, the instructor
and the subject himself. Thus, a technique for learning
to diﬀerentiate, in action, behavior patterns which may
have been inadequate at the start is made available to the
individual and to the group (Moreno, 1953, p. 534).
The action component, aptly led-to by a warm up, bypasses the
rational, linguistic defensive mode of describing or explaining,
allowing spontaneity and improvisation to arise (Moreno, 1953;
Zwerling, 1979;Blatner, 2000). Using the instruction, “show
me how” rather than “tell me why/what,” necessarily evokes
unique neurological and psychological processes, critical to
the success of therapy, that are missing when using discourse
alone. A key concept in the construction of this notion is
diﬀerent types of conscious “selves,” with diﬀerent inputs and
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qualities of consciousness (Markus and Wurf, 1987;Kahneman
and Riis, 2005;Wilson, 2009;Conner and Barrett, 2012).
Enactments naturally induce personal involvement by engaging
an experiencing self, critically diﬀerent from other selves’ states:
It is the experiencing self whose blood pressure rises in
response to stressful situations (Kamarck et al., 2005),
whose cortisol responds to a stressor (Smyth et al., 1998),
and whose immune system reacts to elevated feelings
of hostility during spousal ﬁghts (Kiecolt-Glaser et al.,
2005). Although humans can evoke the stress response
through memories and anticipated thinking (Sapolsky,
2004), acute autonomic, hormonal, and immune responses
are most commonly activated as people act and react to life’s
momentary stressors through the eyes of the experiencing
self (Conner and Barrett, 2012, p. 6).
Cognitive processes induced during experiential action are
predicted to diﬀer considerably from those produced during
rhetoric, static or non-experiential conditions (Yaniv, 2014a).
Thus, acting from within or acting out, in psychodramatic
practice, helps in gaining new insights and facilitates changing
maladaptive behavioral patterns, which Moreno coined – “action
insight” (Moreno, 1946/1985, p. x). “Acting out” in psychodrama
means enacting rather than the psychoanalytic and more widely
known usage that involves unconsciously expressing some
disowned drive. As Moreno said,
I suggested that we diﬀerentiate two types of acting out,
irrational, incalculable acting out in life itself, harmful to
the patient or others, and therapeutic, controlled acting out,
taking place within the treatment setting...under the guide
of therapists who are able to utilize the experience (Moreno,
1946/1985, p. x).
In the latter, by “mixing” imagination with concreteness, truly
creative acts become possible, invoke surprise and awe of the
unexpected and add a new memory trace. On one hand, this
enables the protagonist to process pain and mourn the past; on
the other hand, it may allow experiencing compensation and
correction. In total, this is an empowering experience that may
change the protagonist’s point-of-view of himself and lead him
further, to exercise creative behavioral plans, even in reality.
In the psychodramatic situation. . .the whole world into
which the actor enters – the plots, the persons, the objects in
it, in all its dimensions, and its time and space – are novel to
him. Every step he makes forward in this world on the stage
has to be deﬁned anew. Every word he speaks is deﬁned
by the word which is spoken to him. Every movement he
makes is deﬁned, aroused and shaped by the persons and
objects he encounters. Every step he makes is determined
by the steps of others towards him. But their steps, too, are,
at least in part, determined by his own steps (1946, p. 53).
Pushing it further, conceptually, Moreno envisioned
psychodrama as having the potential to become a birth-like
situation, with the protagonist becoming a new-born being:
The moment of birth is the maximum degree of warming
up to the spontaneous act of being born into a new setting,
to which he must make a rapid adjustment. . .the infant is
the actor. He has to act in roles without having an ego or
personality to act with. Like the impromptu actor, every step
he makes in the world is new. He has to act quickly on the
spur of the moment. . . (Moreno, 1946/1985, p. 54).
In contrast to this unique experience, Moreno’s concept
of cultural conserve (Moreno, 1946/1985, pp. 107–109) is
theoretically the opposite of spontaneity, insofar as it is a familiar,
uncreative, and ﬁxed form of engagement, but which is often
required to set the stage for improvisation. Cultural conserves
(e.g., the alphabet, the numbers, the language, and musical
notations), underlie and determine all forms of creative activities.
Moreno’s intention, when coining the term, was to refer to the
category of things that already has been created, such as customs
or social rules, in order to diﬀerentiate the product of creativity
from the process, and to remind us to attend to the latter. He
marked our “tendency to irrationally cling to what has been
created, to rely on traditional or established rules as if they
had unquestioned authority, to lapse into ﬁxed or rigid habits
of belief and thought” (Blatner, 2000, p. 75), instead of being
spontaneous. Why does this tendency endure? “The answer is:
man fears spontaneity, just like his ancestor in the jungle feared
ﬁre; he feared ﬁre until he learned how to make it. Man will fear
spontaneity until he learns how to train it” (Moreno, 1953, p. 47).
To summarize Moreno’s legacy regarding these issues, he saw
the insuﬃcient development of spontaneity as the source of
human psycho- and socio-pathology. Therefore, he considered
spontaneity training as “the most auspicious skill to be taught to
therapists. . .and it is his task to teach his clients how to be more
spontaneous without becoming excessive” (Moreno, 1953, p. 42).
In conclusion, the spontaneous-creative act and the cultural
conserve are highly congruent with bottom-up and top-down
processing, respectively: psychodrama encourages decreasing
the “causal-nexus” inherent to top-down habitual behavior,
and increasing “bottom-up” receptiveness by warming up
to spontaneity, then creatively acting upon it. The latter is
intensiﬁed in psychodrama, thanks to the association of personal
content with dimensions of space, action, and imagination
that are added to the more conventional verbal discussion in
therapy. These dimensions “allow for improvisation, thinking
in terms of alternative scenarios, shifting roles and points of
view, opportunities for replay and other elements which oﬀer
new avenues to insight and self-reﬂection” (Blatner, 2000, p. xvi).
Reaching these desirable goals requires considerable mental
eﬀort, to which I now turn.
Whereas ordinary communicative processes (e.g., language) are
perceived as known and linear, spontaneity (e.g., improvisational
play) is non-linear, associational, condensed, and at times
incomprehensible. In my view, trusting the process – a popular
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aphorism common in discussions of creativity in ﬁelds like arts,
sports, and management – means remaining in the co-created
improvisational (symbolic) play, despite its incomprehensibility.
It requires overcoming the apprehension and nervousness
aroused when working without a clear “theory” in mind. One has
to willingly suspend control and become open, somewhat passive,
“receptive” to stimuli and associations arising both within and
without. This state reduces critique and judgmental (top-down)
responses and “goes along” with whatever arises in the moment,
even before understood. “The therapist can know whether his or
her response is beneﬁcial only by what happens next. The criteria
chosen for this judgment are determined by the maturational
purposes of the therapeutic endeavor” (Meares, 2001, p. 760).
From a neurophenomenological point of view, spontaneity
is a disinhibition that allows a special kind of attention to
the “thing in itself,” naked from expectations or preferences,
reminiscent of the autistic savant experience. It has a relatively
well-characterized brain proﬁle, consistent with reduced frontal
activation (Martindale, 1999;Yaniv, 2011, 2012, 2014a,b), which
is also common in the “savant brain,” as discussed above.
Does this imply that there are brain mechanisms common
to psychodrama and savantism? As mentioned above, brain
stimulation protocols that reversibly simulate savant lesions
have been successfully used to induce creativity and enhanced
cognition in normal subjects (Snyder et al., 2003;Young et al.,
2004;Snyder et al., 2006;Boggio et al., 2009;Gallate et al.,
2009;Karim et al., 2009;Chi and Snyder, 2012;Chrysikou
et al., 2013). Gobet et al. (2014) suggest that these results give
us a clue for “a ‘better’ brain— a brain that is hypothesis
driven, but is resilient to cognitive illusions, a brain that can
in addition see the world with direct perception and thus [be]
open to alternative interpretations” (p. 1). Does the savant kind
of knowledge, associated with bottom-up mechanisms, arise
naturally in psychodrama?
Support of the suggested resemblance is based on the fact
that the brain stimulation protocols mentioned above actually
simulate the infant brain in which the frontal lobe matures
gradually over the ﬁrst years of life, in contrast to a much
earlier maturation of other cortical areas. Thompson-Schill et al.
(2009) review the late prefrontal development and suggest that
despite some negative consequences for childhood behavior, it
“has a clear advantage over an adult when it comes to certain
types of learning (like language acquisition) or certain activities
like ﬂexible object use during problem solving” (p. 261). In
fact, the authors review a few examples in which children –
as well as patients with prefrontal cortex damage – do better
than healthy adults in tasks that assess creative thinking. They
further suggest that “This apparent ﬂexibility of behavior can
be interpreted as a stimulus-driven response: A mind that is
at the mercy of its environment is not shaped by expectations
or beliefs” (p. 262). The relation to psychodrama emerges
through the move from the imagining of doing to actual doing,
from hypothetical, imaginary forms of experimenting to real,
witnessed and performed spontaneous acts.
Interestingly, the cradle of psychodrama was at children’s
impromptu play at the gardens of Vienna around 1908–1911
(Moreno, 1946/1985, p. 3) and Moreno considered infants as
“the geniuses of the race” (ibid. p. 48) from the perspective
of embodiment and achievement. Much later, a few years after
Moreno had moved to America, The New York Times published
an interview with him entitled, “Impromptu plan used in
Children, said Dr. Moreno in an interview, are endowed
with the gift of spontaneous expression up to the age
of 5, while they are still in an unconscious creative
state, unhampered by the laws and customs laid down
by preceding generations. After that they fall heir to
accepted methods of expression; they become imitative,
turn into automatons, and in a large measure are deprived
of natural outlets of volitional creation (The New York
Times, February 3, 1929; page number unavailable).
The remarkable association between Moreno’s early premises
and recent scientiﬁc evidence, reasonably support the hypothesis
that spontaneity, as regarded in psychodrama, is associated with
hypofrontality and related compensatory-like mechanisms.
SO, WHAT COMES OF IT: BOTTOM-UP,
TOP DOWN, OR BOTH?
The dramatic incarnation of a stream of bottom-up
experiences aroused in a protagonist is a professional asset
of psychodramatists. It induces, in turn, non-habitual, creative,
sometimes brave, impromptu actions in the psychodramatic
scene. “It is not given like words or colors. It is not conserved or
registered. The impromptu artist must warm-up, he must make
it climbing up the hill” (Moreno, 1946/1985, p. 36).
Yet one has also to concentrate and self-organize in order
to communicate – dramatically or otherwise – whatever
arises, which may be blurred, even distorted. The two phases
continuously interact during the spontaneous-creative act,
reminiscent of the double-phased “regression in service of the
ego” (Kris, 1936/1952) which enables the maintaining of contact
with primary physical and mental positions and with varied
thinking modes (Knafo, 2002). This complexity was eloquently
described by Moreno:
In the spontaneous-creative enactment, emotions,
thoughts, processes, sentences, pauses, gestures,
movements etc., seem ﬁrst to break formlessly and
in anarchistic fashion into an ordered environment
and settled consciousness. But in the course of their
development it becomes clear that they belong together like
the tones of a melody; that they are in relation similar to
the cells of a new organism. The disorder is only an outer
appearance; inwardly there is a consistent driving force, a
plastic ability, the urge to assume a deﬁnite form (Moreno,
1946/1985, p. 36).
While the move from the “anarchistic fashion” to “an ordered
and settled consciousness” could be understood as a move in
dominance of mental processes – from bottom-up to top-down,
I do not think that this is the case. This move is a process
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that creates a new insight, and thus it cannot be identiﬁed
as a top-down (cultural conserved) phenomenon, but rather a
rearrangement of current mental representations and therefore
continuous in nature with the preceding spontaneous-creative
state of mind. This distinction is important in understanding
spontaneity the way Moreno conceived it:
One of the contributions of spontaneity research was to
recognize the various phases and degrees of spontaneity
as one continuous process, the reduction and loss of
spontaneity, impulsive abreaction and the pathological
excesses as well as adequate and disciplined spontaneity,
productive and creative spontaneity. Another contribution
was to recognize that spontaneity does not operate in a
vacuum but in relation to already structured phenomena,
cultural and social conserves. Spontaneity is a function of
organization (1953, p. 545).
Eventually, this process may be consolidated into long-term
memory, becoming the new top-down, conserved baseline.
This may be best represented in Moreno (1946/1953) original
concept – “catharsis of integration.” He considered catharsis as:
A process which accompanies every type of learning, not
only a ﬁnding of resolution from conﬂict, but also a
realization of self, not only release and relief but also
equilibrium and peace. It is not a catharsis of abreaction but
acatharsis of integration (1953, p. 546).
Moreno believed that as a consequence of role reversal,
the actor-patient has an opportunity to ﬁnd and re-organize
him/herself, “to put the elements together which may have
been kept apart by insidious forces, to integrate them and to
attain a sense of power and of relief, a catharsis of integration
(in diﬀerence from a catharsis of abreaction)” (1953, p. 85).
It can well be said that through a long chain of role takings
and interactions, dialogical sequences and pauses, moments of
meditation and decision, psychodrama aims at an integration
of the protagonist with his co-actors and the spectators of the
drama, into a freer and more spontaneous community, in the
group microcosmos and beyond. As a result, psychodrama must
be considered as ﬁrst and foremost a bottom-up method and
process. By violating predictions and expectations, psychodrama
interferes with top-down processing and cultivates in-the-
moment, stimulus-dependent experiences, from beginning to
LIMITATIONS AND CONCLUSION
While the present arguments clearly point to a past-dependent
constriction of cognition, it is only fair to note that a
contrasting view had been previously presented, whereby top-
down processing allows the agent freedom from immediacy
(Shadlen and Gold, 2004) by not being “limited to that which
emerges as a direct response to stimulus input” (Smallwood
et al., 2013, p. 120). Designating attention to the immediate
environment as freedom or captivity seems beyond experimental
considerations and may consist of personal preferences which are
beyond the scope of the present paper. Suﬃce it to mention the
central role attention to immediacy is given in the Zen/Buddhist
meditation practice and in its modern counterpart, mindfulness
meditation. The relationship of the latter to drama-related
therapies is innovative and has been recently discussed elsewhere
(see: Gluck, 2013;Schuchner, 2016;Yaniv and Kedem, 2017).
A more objective challenge emerges regarding the lack of
empirical consensus about the neuroscience of creativity (Arden
et al., 2010;Dietrich and Kanso, 2010;Sawyer, 2011), raising
questions such as what is the relative importance of top-down
vs. bottom-up processing in creativity (Thompson-Schill et al.,
2009;Benedek et al., 2011), or whether creativity can be isolated
to discrete regions in the brain (Abraham, 2013;Jung et al., 2013).
A likely explanation for these inconsistencies is that results from
individual studies are framed in general terms, while neither
creativity nor spontaneity should be treated as a single entity.
For example, when looking at individual components of general
creative ability (e.g., divergent thinking), an emerging literature
has yielded a relatively consistent pattern of results, pointing to
the importance of functional connectivity between diﬀerent brain
areas (Beaty et al., 2014, 2016).
Introducing the bottom-up/top-down conceptualization to
psychodramatists is new and important because it may provide
them with a diﬀerent perspective on their actual interventions,
thus opening new possibilities for developing psychodramatic
theory and practice, and it could recast psychodrama in a more
scientiﬁc light. On the other hand, introducing spontaneity –
from the psychodramatic perspective – to neurocognitive
science could prove beneﬁcial, as it could show how the fast,
spontaneous, unknown side of our mind can bring about
appropriate, competent, and skillful responses “in dealing with
a situation, however, small or great the challenge of its novelty”
(Moreno, 1955, p. 109). It might also open up a rich array
of in-action experimental procedures that are currently lacking
in the ﬁeld (Yaniv, 2014a). For example, in a study about
divergent thinking, openness to experience was conceptualized
as a “tendency to engage in imaginative, creative and abstract
cognitive processes” (Beaty et al., 2016, p. 773) and was evaluated
using scale questionnaires. From a spontaneous point of view,
openness to experience would be authentically appraised by
an actual engagement in some improvisational, creative acts.
Using this kind of research tool would make the stemming
results more valuable for real life situations and clinical
applications (Cole, 2001;Nadar and McDowd, 2008;Beidas
et al., 2014;Yaniv, 2014a). Psychodrama has been successfully
implementing this vision for over a century. Other clinical
traditions, like contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy,
began incorporating some of these unique characteristics
more recently (Rothenberg, 1988;Modell, 1997, 2009;Stern,
2007;Wachtel, 2009). The challenge to the cognitive sciences
The author conﬁrms being the sole contributor of this work and
has approved it for publication.
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