Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Mighty Power of the Subjunctive

Originally posted on August 5, 2017

I continue to think about why psychodrama works, and here’s my latest hypothesis: Humans have a developed neocortex which gives them the power to imagine “if”-type sentences. This in grammar is known as the subjunctive tense. (Linguistic analysis, including grammar, gives clues to different ways people think in using different languages.)

Psychodrama brings into play the human capacity for the power inherent in being able to think hypothetically, also known as “if.”  “If” considers what could be, might yet be, should have happened, if only” and sentences that use these qualifying adverbial phrases. Such considerations have power! These subjunctive specula-tions address what hasn’t happened but might have or might yet “if only.” Whatever “it” is—it could be a narrow escape appreciated or a longed-for event, the use of the magic “if” allows for the weighing of possibilities.

The metaphor of drama uses this “as if” consideration. Indeed, a significant part of human communication also thinks in terms of “as if,” and the philosopher Hans Vaihinger noted, this set was the foundation of much neurosis as well as much scientific and philosophical speculation. Psychodrama (for which term I substitute “action explorations”) captures that capacity of the neocortical brain-mind: Let’s enact that feared or longed-for scene not only as if it did happen, but further, as if it is happening in the here and now! This allows for a more concrete way to think about eventualities.

Thinking in terms of “if” has a weak analogy in the technical realm: Fire was invented for warmth and to cook food, but purified it could also be used to drive engines. Imagination was not just for story-telling, but Moreno noted it could also be for devising strategies! That is to say, imagination gave emerging humans a competitive advantage. Harnessing the subjunctive, utilizing the magic power of “if,” allows humans to not only plan mammoth hunts, but to think through and resolve worries.

I realized further that the drama in psychodrama offered an opportunity for conscious reflection that ordinary free association couldn’t deliver half so well. In summary, the magic “if,” the subjunctive tense, opens to the possibility of role playing situations and furthermore experimenting with the possibilities that open up. It harnesses the power of the human imagination.

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