This time I would like to share with you a very recent interpersonal experience which caused an impact on me and an authentic reaction materialized by the exclamation “really?” I suppose that the impact was a real moment of surprise.
A few days ago, I met with a family which belonged to the group of Germans who lived almost all their lives in Chile in a sect called “Colonia Dignidad” (Bauer, 2009). They are all now back to Europe trying to recover and restore their own lives. She was born in the sect; he arrived there at the age of 12. Her socialization was completely determined by the authoritarian system whereas he grew up in a normal family system until the age of 12, before being obliged to bow to the rules of the sect.
Actually the couple lives in a small village, in a beautiful house with a big garden full of flowers and a lot of space also for their son.
She told us that shortly after their arrival, her husband who was so happy with their new life far away from all kind of repression, asked her for a wish. He simply wanted to make her a gift, whatever it was, as both of them had not received personal belongings in so many years. She told us that she did not understand his question or invitation and that she did not know what he really meant. Apparently, this kind of thought, this inner space and feeling was not present in her mental system. She was astonished and surprised, but not sad or angry; nevertheless she started to think about the lack of desires, about past times in the sect, about her childhood, about what is normal and what is not. She realized that in the system where she grew up, any kind of individual expression and desire was forbidden; no celebration took place, neither for birthday nor for Christmas nor for any other special day of the year; no parents would guess your wish from your eyes and no gift in 45 years. Rather were they punished when having private thoughts and desires. Her brain was so manipulated and conditioned that no mental structure for individuality, for inner dialogue and self reflection existed. He, instead, could still feel what it meant to have a wish, to receive and to hand someone something, as he had this experience in his early childhood. In contrast to her, he felt sad and concerned when life changed and personal desires where interpreted as treason of the community.
A few days later – in a very short ride in my car from one place to another, a friend, who did not grew up in a sect but in a restrictive loveless family, told me exactly the same. Her parents never asked her for a wish when she was a child, no gifts on birthday. She learned to suppress any kind of desire and was still disappointed and sad when she thought and spoke about this part of her life.
I was so surprised about how a child could grow up without being allowed to have a desire; both stories touched me a lot and I started to think about how it was in my own childhood and how I did handle this topic in my own family with my children later. I also started thinking about the importance of individual expression, on one side and on the different expressions of surprise, on the other; about the cruelty of mankind by repressing an innate feeling and punishing children for something which is natural.
Surprise is considered to be one of the basic affects of human beings, independent from the cultural background. What is more, “surprise” can be identified, classified and described with the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), developed by Ekman & Friesen (1978). “Surprise” and “amazement” are affects which stimulate thinking and reflecting and which help to develop cognitive brain functions from the first day of life (Heigl-Evers & Ott, 2000). The same affects play an important role in the development of the personality by promoting functions like self reflection and reflection about others, curiosity and the need to get new and more information. Getting surprised is over all a spontaneous and unconscious reaction, it just happens and it cannot be planned; it is an input for complex mental elaborations. Some people love surprises more than others; children probably more than adults.
Since psychotherapy studies the importance of the nonverbal expression in the therapeutic dyade, interesting results has been reported. Not only sadness, anger and fear could be detected and identified as elements of affect regulation between the protagonists, but also the affect of surprise. This affect seems to be one of the indicators for therapeutic change. Research which used the Emotional Facial Coding System (EMFACS) (Friesen & Ekman, 1984) showed that the expression of surprise is correlated with and can be identified during episodes of therapeutic change. “Surprise” which is reflected in the face of the patient, leads to reflection, inner dialogue and insight (Teark, 2002). So “surprise” seems to function as a catalyzer and promoter of knew thoughts, creativity, mental development and individuality.
Being a music therapist I also know that routine and ritual are important elements of the therapy, as for their repetitive and regular structure, which produce a state of calm in the emotionally convulsed and/or disorientated patient. But the experience of surprise is not less important and this may be particularly the case when asking our patients to choose their favorite instrument or the most important piece of music during adolescence or during improvisation. Probably we produce exactly the moment of surprise in him/her, which gives him/her the opportunity for reflection and, why not, for insight and further development and change. Surprise can happen in so many moments, with any sound or any rhythm - our task as music therapists is to be alert and to detect this affect, in our patients but also in us. For example observing the facial expression of our patients or “listening” to our inner music or contra transference feelings. Reflecting on it means introducing new information into the mental system and promoting change and development.
Bauer, Susanne (2009): The Meaning of Music in a German Sect in Chile: Colonia Dignidad. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved April 03, 2012, from http://voices.no/?q=colbauer200409
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1978): Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press.
Friesen, W. & Ekman, P. (1984): EMFACS-7. Unveröffentlichtes Material.
Heigl-Evers, A. & Ott, J. (2000): Zur Theorie und Praxis der psychoanalytisch- interaktionellen
Methode. Psychotherapie. 5. Jg., Heft 5, Heft 2: 58-72. CIP Medien, München.
Teark, G. (2002). Moments of Spontaneity and Surprise: The Nonlinear Road to Something More. Psychoanalytic Inquiry: A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals Volume 22, Issue 5, 2002:728-739.
Bauer, Susanne (2012). Surprise!! From a Daily Life Experience to the Importance of Basic Affects in the Music Therapeutic Context Surprise!! From a Daily Life Experience to the Importance of Basic Affects in the Music Therapeutic Context. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2012-surprise-daily-life-experience-importance-basic-affects-music-therapeutic-c