Experiential Psychopathology - Dr John Howells

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IV - Vector Therapy

Theoretical Background

Vector Therapy arises from fundamental, social and clinical observations, and is supported by them.

At the fundamental level, we find that creativity through evolution is essentially a re-patterning of phenomena in such a way as to allow a more harmonious functioning of those phenomena. A hurtful biochemical agent can become a drug of great benefit by a re-patterning of its elements. In the evolutionary process, re-patterning occurs by chance and the resulting new pattern survives because it is more harmonious with the developing changes occurring around it. However, man’s increasing insights, themselves a product of evolution, also allow for directed changes of phenomena. Vector Therapy has this fundamental capacity of reshaping phenomena, in its case psychic phenomena, and does so in a systematic directed fashion.

The second observation concerns neurotics in society. As neurotic individuals are studied in society, it is noticed that their condition fluctuates – sometimes it deteriorates, sometimes it improves and sometimes it resolves completely. Therefore the capacity to improve without psychotherapeutic intervention is there. Indeed, one study (Frank, 1961) showed that the neurosis of more than half of the patients under observation resolved spontaneously while their appointments remained on a clinic’s waiting list for one year. What causes this spontaneous improvement? What circumstances are at work outside interview psychotherapy? If we knew the answer, we could utilise the responsible therapeutic factor or factors. Vector Therapy has gone a long way towards finding an answer and utilising it in treatment.

The third observation springs from clinical work which daily produces examples of spontaneous changes in neurosis. To quote but a few examples taken from recent meetings with families:

Family 1. The family entering the room consist of father, mother, maternal sister, a young child and an infant. The infant is the referred patient for his refusal to feed. The infant, held in his mother’s arms, enters the room crying. The family sits down. The crying increases and with it the annoyance of those present. Then there is an intervention; maternal sister puts out her arms and takes the infant, who immediately ceases to cry. The infant is responding to a new pattern of vectors, which indeed brings relief to the whole group.

Family 2. The family recalls their adolescent son’s turbulent life. There was only one period of respite remembered with satisfaction by parents and boy. This was when the parents were abroad for six months and the boy, aged ten at the time, stayed behind and was looked after by his paternal grandparents. In their care his disturbance seemed to fall away from him. This boy too responded to a new pattern of vectors.

Family 3. A husband presents with depression. The whole family comes for treatment. Therapy has hardly begun, when the son of 25 is transferred to a post abroad. The family reports a sudden improvement in father’s depression which lifts dramatically. It emerges later that he was locked in conflict with his son. Here we had a spontaneous alteration in the pattern of the vectors to father’s advantage.

The examples are legion.


During 25 years, work with families at the Institute of Family Psychiatry, Ipswich, England, brought to light cases in which the morbid process of neurosis was resolved or improved by extra-interview procedures complementary to, or divorced from, interview psychotherapy. Clinical work and research supported the hypothesis that therapeutic factors were at work outside the psychotherapeutic interview and efforts were made to identify these factors. Careful assessment supported the belief that the most significant pattern of forces is that within the family, although occasionally the pattern outside the family may also be powerful. When a pattern of forces were producing psychopathology, changing the pattern would remove or attenuate the trauma. Thus, more emphasis was placed on the therapist’s capacity for reshaping the pattern of forces in the life space of an individual or a family in a systematic and purposeful fashion. Having arrived at a rational theory of Vector Therapy, its application developed into a useful and economical technique.

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