Helen Bonny’s Background in the Research Model

From the beginning Helen Bonny, Ph.D. was interested in research. In the 1970’s she had joined a group of researchers at Maryland Psychiatric Research Center to explore consciousness through the use of psychotropic drugs for life changing results with their patients. This esteemed team of researchers included their director Dr. Walter Pahnke, Ph.D a psychologist and Doctor of Divinity from Harvard.  Stanislav Grof, MD was recruited from Prague, in the Czech Republic. He had more experience with research in LSD than any other known researcher of that time. Also on the team were Joan Kellogg, MA founder and developer of a testing instrument, The Mari Card Test. At that time, drawn mandalas before and after an LSD session were often used to indicate changes in the individuals and groups being studied. Helen’s expertise with music became an essential element in each of the sessions with LSD as it directed and structured the experience making it more safe.  It was from this beginning that Helen eventually  developed GIM. She found that one could safely explore consciousness using music alone without the stimulus of a drug.

Along with many of her colleagues, Helen published many research papers on the many studies conducted on their subjects. This research set a foundational precedent to the development of The Bonny Method.

Who has contributed to the Research?

In the past 40 years this method has spread to many countries. Those trained in GIM have taken up the standard for innovative research. Being a fairly new method, many GIM practitioners see themselves as pioneers in this approach and realize the importance of grounding it in research. Often research has grown out of student requirements in completing Masters and/or Doctoral degrees choosing to make GIM their focus for a thesis.

* Dr. Denise Grocke, a professor at the University of Australia has complied over 800 research studies in GIM. All are listed in our index. The following overview of the research studies is condensed from Dr. Grocke’s compilation. Essentially these research studies have fallen into four categories: Qualitative, Quantitative, Adaptations and Music Analysis studies.

Early Studies

Early studies were conduced by Robert McDonald, 1990,for his Ph.D. research thesis that studied the effects of  GIM on hypertension. Blood pressure was measured throughout the treatment phase. He found that the blood pressure was significantly lower with GIM than clients given verbal therapy or no therapy.

Dr. Cathy McKinney, a professor at Appalachian State University with her colleagues as well as a team of two Swedish Psychologists, Wrangso and Korlin all engaged in early research with GIM. Their work was foundational in further exploring the many facets in the effectiveness of GIM. When one is first studying a new method it is essential to establish a model of healthy subjects so that later comparisons could be made with  clinical disorders and physical disabilities.

Overall it was found that GIM as a therapy significantly increased the intensity of  feelings with a vividness and action within the imagery that brought insight and change. For example the research team of McKinney, Antoni, Kumar and Kumar in 1995 and again in 1997 demonstrated through measurement of cortisol levels of participants, that GIM reduced mood disturbance, depression, and fatigue. Interestingly in a follow up sample they found cortisol levels continued to lower even after 7 weeks with no further sessions being given.

The Swedish team of  Wrangsjo and Korlin. began by testing 14 adult subjects of  which 10 were  healthy and 4 had psychiatric symptoms. They reported an immediate decrease in the psychiatric symptoms, interpersonal problems and an increase in the experience of life as being more meaningful and coherent.

Later they tested 30 subjects, 20 tested as functional and 10 as dysfunctional. The dysfunctional group improved significantly. Such improvement was seen even in areas that are usually hard to treat, such as anger. From these studies they stated that GIM is effective because it draws on a person’s inner resources to face issues rather than verbal therapy which tends to rely on the therapist for guidance.

Suitability of Clients for this Therapy Approach

Some tests attempted to determine the suitability of clients for GIM therapy. Dr. Ken Bruscia a professor at Temple University studied 30 clients of GIM. The groups were divided into those who tended to repress their issues and those who are more openly sensitive to them.  The sensitizers showed more anxiety in approaching their problems through GIM. It was noted however that they were consistently less anxious at the end of the session. The repressors, who tended not to do well in therapy, showed resistance from the beginning. They were not willing, for example to even state an issue to work on. Yet over half of that group did find themselves engaging in emotional responses during their sessions. This indicated that GIM is able to break through defenses even with those who are resisting.

Physical Disabilities

With physical problems various medical conditions have been studied. Among these are hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. All of these studies indicated effective change. With the cancer studies there was a reduction in total mood disturbance, increased emotional and social well-being, a decrease in intrusive, disturbing thoughts and  also of avoidance behaviors. With many of these tests researchers felt that there would have been even more improvement and sustained change if they had received at least 10 sessions rather than the 6 or less that each received.

Adaptations of GIM

In studies around the adaptations of GIM there have been many examples. First it is established that a traditional GIM session would last 1.5+ hours and would include a full program of music, as well as a pre and post discussion and preparation. The original music programs lasted between 30-45 minutes. Adaptations had to be made to fit the current clinical hour of 50 minutes to 1 hour. Programs had to be shortened to fit the time frame and some new programs grew out of this need for adjustments. In surveying GIM therapists 77% had shortened programs, 70% developed contemporary or non-classical music for sessions. In conducting groups with GIM it was found that 83% shortened programs for groups. Usually groups listened to no more than 10 minutes of music while preparation of the group before and after the listening were given more attention.

GIM With Severely Disturbed Groups

Dr. Lisa Summer and Fran Goldberg two GIM trainers and music therapists had worked extensively with groups and with severely disturbed individuals. They developed a model called Group Music and Imaging or GMI.  They found that changing music lengths was important with this population since it allowed them to make contact with feelings but not get overwhelmed, confused or disturbed with too much stimulation.

Another research group with Moe, et al in 2000 and 2002 found that in working with severely disturbed individuals it was not appropriate to use the more traditional approach. But they found that short music listening in a group setting could be quite effective. By experiencing even one core emotion during the listening, it is helpful. In the follow-up discussions many participants began to understand themselves in new ways.

Study of Case Examples

Another focus for study was the clinical effectiveness of GIM. In these studies the content of the sessions were analyzed.  To capture the essence of the experience the symbolic content is studied together with the emotional responses. Also a significant factor was the interaction between the client, the music and the interventions of the guide.

Many examples of such studies have been published in the AMI Journal for GIM.  These studies include a series of sessions with one client and are written from the perspective of the therapist/guide. Often the focus of these type studies noted the symbolic changes in key images occurring over time. Attention was paid to the breakthrough in emotions and insights that occur.  It is noted that such change in imagery and emotional confrontations lead to significant change for the client.

In Bonde’s 2007 cancer study, he interviewed clients about their experience. He found that clients reported, 1) new perspectives on past, present and future. 2) enhanced  coping, 3) improved mood and quality of life, 4) enhanced hope 5) improved understanding of self and 6) new love of music.

Four Functions Central to Success

Other studies such as that done by Abbott in 2007-2008 involved the videotaping of 6 GIM sessions. With these sessions she identified four functions that appear central to the work. 1) Dealt with the formation and management of the therapeutic relationship and attention to maintaining appropriate boundaries.  2) Concerned the identification and help with understanding the issues. 3) Concerned the focusing and containing of the client to work within the GIM process. 4) Guiding the client in the here and now of the imagery experience, (rather than talking about an issue which is often done in regular verbal therapy) was emphasized Also clients were encouraged in the formation of their own images and moving into deeper areas of self-exploration.  Post session discussions helped in clarifying the growth and healing that had taken place.

Heuristic Study –A groundbreaking identification of how the therapist intuitively works was conducted by Dr. Ken Bruscia in 1998. He delineated different levels of consciousness he experienced while guiding sessions. He identified four levels of experiencing (as a therapist):

  1. A sensory level whereby the therapist “senses” what is happening for the client through his own body;
  2. Affectively, where the therapist can identify feelings and emotions which are aroused by what is taking place for the client;
  3. Reflectively, where the therapist tries to integrate meaning out of the sensory and effective experiences, and
  4. Intuitively, a level of spontaneous response to what is occurring for the client

Pivotal Moments in a GIM Session

In a 1999 phenomenological research, Denise Grocke studied the critical moments in GIM sessions which can be identified as turning points. These pivotal moments identified by clients were: Remembering and describing in vivid detail emotional content. The impact this had on their lives and the insights gained, were examined. Also noted were the lasting effects these experiences had on them. The therapeutic presence was also important and the skillful interventions of the therapist/guide which lead to these changes. Interestingly, such notable events often followed encounters with unpleasant, challenging or even horrible feelings that were resolved.

Studies in Transpersonal Experiences Within GIM Sessions

Kirstie Lewis conducted a survey of 128 transcripts to identify the transpersonal matrix occurring in GIM sessions. She used Ken Wilbur’s Spectrum of Consciousness to identify 7 themes that related to the transpersonal state. 1) Body changes, i.e. in transpersonal moments the client often becomes dis-identified with the body or feels very expanded or even out of body. 2) Past life or other psychic experiences occur 3) Extraordinary experiences of light or energy happens 4) Deep positive emotions felt 5) Archetypal/Spiritual imagery occurs 6) Wisdom is imbued and  7) Unitive experiences occur. All of these transcripts revealed one or more of these transpersonal expressions.

Another Transpersonal study conducted by Abrams in 2002 involved 3 independent interviews with 9 of the GIM trainers. He wanted them to identify the experience of the transpersonal in their own personal sessions. He encouraged them to compare transpersonal sessions with non-transpersonal sessions and to note the differences. In conducting these interviews he facilitated his subjects to explore the impact of these transpersonal sessions on their lives. I was one of these subjects and I can say that it was very uplifting to look at these sessions in this particular framework and to identify those moments that were particularly transcendent. After 20+ years they still continue to have positive effects.

Music Analysis Studies

Each student of GIM is given extensive training in the analysis of the music programs and how they can be so effective. To study the music many methodologies have been used. These included different forms of analysis, phenomenological, structural, and event. Also the effects from repeated listening and an EEG study and skin conductance study.

Grocke in her 1999 study of pivotal moments in GIM also describes how one piece of music affected such a turning point. For example in Beethoven’s Violin concerto, slow movement, she noted this piece is written in a major key. There appears to be a dialogue between the violin and orchestra and the violin and several other instruments. Mood is peaceful yet expansive. The harmonic structure is predictable. This and other qualities of the structure of this piece lent themselves to the experiences reported in pivotal moments.

Further she developed a Structural Model (2007) for Music Analysis (SMMA), in applying this to music more consistent with pivotal moments she found the rhythmic features remain constant, while rhythmic motifs tended to be repeated. For a full review of this important study see her listing in the index.

To condense this further, music that carried pivotal moments featured:

  • Formal structure which there was repetition
  • The speed was predominantly slow and consistent
  • Melodies were predictable, harmonic and repeating
  • Featured were dialogue between instruments

In 2000 Marr studied the shifts in imagery as it directly related to music. She used the SMMA and found that imagery was evident when the music showed predictable rhythms. In music with rapid changes the imagery tended to be more sparse yet in moments of tension and release in the music it was matched in the imagery experience.

EEG Study

In 1995 Alan Lem conducted EEG studies on the effect of one piece of music on brain activity in which participants listened to music and reported imagery after the listening. There were 27 participants each hooked up to the EEG. Lem created an intensity spectrograph of the music and then averaged the brain-wave activity of all the participants. Brain activity increased during moments of sudden and unexpected changes in the music. Lem felt this finding indicates that changes in the music may stimulate new imagery and that it would be helpful for guides to give room for such changes in their guiding,


In studying these several conclusions stand out:

  1. In quantitative studies a minimum of 10 sessions may be required to indicate significant and sustained change.
  2. It is noted that European studies vs. US studies tended to use different

Scales to measure results against. In the future a consistency of such scales of measurement would be more helpful in measuring effect.

  1. Recruitment of subjects for studies over 6-10 weeks proved difficult. It is helpful to conduct studies in places like Universities or hospitals where the population is dependable for such a period of time.

The research indicates a diversity of topics using different methods to test effectiveness. These studies provide valuable information for the practitioner and the clients of GIM. Also it is noted that many adaptations have been made to treat people with different disorders and to adapt to different time limits on sessions. In the studies on Transpersonal experiences there is indication that this method also opens one to higher levels of integration than methods solely concentrated on the alleviation of problems and/or psychiatric symptoms. It is encouraging to see how much research, worldwide has been done with GIM and it is hoped that more research will build on this to establish GIM as an effective, more short term method, which is ultimately life enhancing in bringing  significant change.


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