Akhter Ahsen was ahead of his time

It will take years for the realisation of Dr Akhter Ahsen’s model of psychotherapy to fully take root

Akhter Ahsen was ahead of his time

That was his library, larger than a small-sized house, ceiling-high overstuffed bookshelves, unpublished manuscripts piled up to your knees, all around the room. Dr Akhter Ahsen showed me his study cum bedroom in a large house in Yonkers, a posh outskirt of New York.

A number of his colleagues and co-workers were living in his neighbourhood. Image Analysis Institute was established nearby that house, where all the training on his model of psychotherapy was being arranged, and the reputed Journal of Mental Imagery was compiled.

Dr Akhter Ahsen (January 1933 - December 2018) was an American psychologist born in Sialkot. He was a psychotherapist, philosopher, mythologist, and poet writing in Urdu, English and Punjabi. He was the author of nearly forty books and hundreds of articles. I can personally testify that his unpublished work was at least seventy times more than his published books and articles. It is indeed very difficult to put his work in a specific domain and call him an expert of that. Among his friends, colleagues, and students, there has always been a debate over how to describe him. Was he a psychologist, philosopher, mythologist, or poet? Everyone has had a convincing point.

In the domain of psychology and psychotherapy, he introduced the theory of Eidetic Imagery. Ahsen’s definition of imagery can better be explained through our experience of trauma. Our mind records a traumatic experience in the form of visual images. These images are recalled in flashbacks, which are more disturbing than the actual trauma. These images pose a challenging hurdle for a psychotherapist treating Post Traumatic Disorder (PTSD). These flashbacks carry all the intricate details of the traumatic event encapsulated in a visual cue. They have a video recording of the traumatic incident, our physical response to the shock, i.e., uptight body, and all the inferences and generalisations (thoughts) one draws. He called such a mental image an Eidetic Image.

Ahsen was the first theorist who broke down the recording of an experience, which may form varied types of psychological disorders. The psychotherapist’s task is to deal with and address these images formed after every difficult experience. Generally, these are the images one tends to push to the back of mind because they are distressing, depressing and deplorable. Ahsen provided empirical evidence to establish that these images, actually, are therapeutic in nature. It was exactly the opposite of what other forms of psychotherapy were suggesting.

In Ahsen’s model, the therapist does not teach or preach any ideology but facilitates the client to see a traumatic experience eyeball to eyeball. The overarching nature of an Eidetic Image makes it directly connected with our physiology. Just visualise a distressing experience; you will immediately feel a throbbing and a palpitating heart. This connection between psychology and physiology makes Eidetic Psychotherapy capable of addressing many chronic physical ailments for which we keep gulping medicines.

Akhter Ahsen was ahead of his time

Amongst his friends, colleagues, and students, there is always a debate over “what was he?” A psychologist, philosopher, mythologist, or poet. Everyone has had a convincing point.

Dr Ahsen was the first theorist who identified this role of Eidetic (or experiential) Imagery. His form of psychotherapy is equipped with a concrete mechanism of tracing the experience responsible for the disorder and robust therapeutic systems. It may sound simple to write so briefly about his contribution to psychology and psychotherapy. However, such a work requires a deep investigation and insight into how the human mind works, and on top of it, a genius to consolidate all this in shaping a replicable model of psychotherapy.

Being a student of his, I tried adapting his model for those who have never been considered and qualified for psychotherapy, i.e., people with Intellectual Disability and associated disorders like Autism and ADHD. Dr Ahsen’s theory of imagery was so germane that people with no ability to speak (non-verbal) responded to the adapted version of his therapy. This response by people with disabilities refuted the century-old view of therapeutic disdain held even by Freud. Similarly, on using Dr Ahsen’s theory to delineate the psychology of colonialism, we found simpler and less philosophised outcomes. These outcomes may help the subalterns to recognise and measure the strengths of their colonial shackles but with an exit strategy, as well.

Dr Akhter Ahsen’s contribution to the philosophy of consciousness helps students evolve a view on the functioning of human awareness. He defined consciousness as a composite of senses, physiology and cognition, which shapes up in the context of primordial and cultural experiences. In his work, he brought this definition out of the pure philosophical realm and discussed it in a way that even students can comprehend.

Dr Ahsen’s work on mythology needs no introduction. He not only described the myths and the stories narrated in them, he reinterpreted the myths in the current time and space. In Ahsen’s work, myths are an integral part of the current consciousness, both personal and socio-political.

His book, Trojan Horse: Imagery in Psychology, Art, Literature and Politics, is a good example, where he used the Greek myth of the Trojan Horse to describe how imagery and imagination are being invaded. This attempt is pervasive and includes psychology, literature, art, and politics. Can we see how politics has departed the higher grounds and come down to building roads and bridges? Similarly, the myth related to the Hindu god of wisdom is discussed in Ganesh: The Broken & the Misshapen: Innovation & Commentary on Consciousness. Here again, one can see his theory of consciousness reigning across the whole text. Hyponoia: The underneath sense of being, Aphrodite: The Psychology of Consciousness and Rhea Complex are three other titles with the same persistent endeavour to connect myths with current consciousness.

It is not possible for an expert of a particular field to appreciate Dr Ahsen’s overarching work on psychology, psychotherapy, mythology and literature. It needs serious attempts to review and requires interpretations by serious scholars of these domains of knowledge.

As a student of psychotherapy, I can confidently say that the realisation of the strengths of his model of psychotherapy will take place at a time that is yet to come. He was a genius way ahead of his time.

The writer is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. He can be contacted at akhtaralisyed@gmail.com

Akhter Ahsen was ahead of his time