Carl Jung would probably have cringed at my discription above, for I included what he termed mere "signs" in my definition of a symbol, in addition to his definition of a word or image that "implies something more than its obvious meaning." (From Man and His Symbols.) I do this because my inner engineer sees no point in the distinction when she is manipulating concepts. My inner poetess does agree with Jung, but finds what the inner engineer comes up with very intriguing and will rarely protest. The inner matriarch, however, will put her foot down if she thinks the other two are getting out of control.
So despite what my inner engineer thinks, it is still a very good distinction to make. While signs relay only information, symbols affect us on a much deeper level. Quoting from Man and His Symbols again, I give you Jung's explanation:
It has a wider "unconscious" aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. . . . Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.
About this time my inner poetess smiles in smug triumph and my inner engineer goes, "That's what you think, buddy." At which point the inner matriarch gives them both cookies and milk and tells them to be quiet for a few moments.
The point is - a symbol carries not only a meaning, but a set of related meanings, some which may not be apparent at first. Furthermore, there are different sets of meanings that exist for a symbol depending on the context it appears in - just as there are different means for many phrases depending on the context surrounding them. Alter the context just a little and new connections become apparent. Alter too much and it all becomes meaningless.
"But how can one be sure of the correct context?" asks my inner engineer. To which my inner matriarch answers, (after smacking the back of the engineer's head for talking with a mouth full of cookie crumbs), "By finding the symbolic constants and manipulating them until everything falls into place." My inner engineer then takes a large sip of milk and starts talking excitedly about mathematical atomic models and how they progress over history, until they become better and better at predicting atomic behavior. My inner poetess sets down her cookie and asks, "And how do you know when you have reached the truth of what an atom is really?"
My engineer blinks and says, "Well, it's impossible to know what an atom is really like because we can't see it. We can only construct mathematical representations that explain the behavior we see through experimentation."
"Then Jung was right," my poetess says. "Man cannot understand everything. Even you must relinquish the concrete for the symbolic."
My engineer shrugs. "I'll give you that, but it does show that signs can work the same way as symbols."
"I think the mathematical signs you're referring to could also be considered symbols," return my poetess. My inner matriarch hushes both up again before they get into an argument.
There are symbolic constants that exist through the collective conscious of humankind. They are called symbolic archetypes and we have only begun to meticulously identify them in the past century or so. Many psychologists are rediscovering the power in them and more personal symbols in the transformation and maturing of self - knowledge once widely accepted among ancient cultures. After discovering that man is made up of atoms and their bodies planned through DNA, we are just now starting to appreciate that the human mind is a symbolic entity.
This should not come as a surprise. The cornerstone of intelligence is the ability to make connections and identify patterns. That is what a symbol is - a concentrated module of connections and patterns. Some of us have just set that part aside in the pursuit of the concrete. Because of the concentrated nature of symbols, they can be very powerful things if used just right. They can explain processes, sway opinions, give direction and even predict certain events.**
In its own way, science has stumbled across the dual nature of man. The carnal, concrete being and the spiritual, symbol-driven one. Through the use of symbols, we learn to access our spirit - to either use it or abuse it at our whim. Properly harnessed, the spirit is stronger than the body. Studies on survivors show that the factors that determines who will survive and who will not is not their physical attributes, but their emotional and mental ones.
We as individuals are very much like symbols - we too are much more than what is obvious at first glance.
** When I refer to predictions, I mean as a mathematical model predicts behavior. Those who have been keeping track of the recent fMRI research or read the science headlines, have probabling already seen the articles about areas of the brain becoming activated when it anticipates needing those areas. Also, many IQ tests rely on our ability to predict the next symbol in a series. In fact, some people insist that prediction is a major part of intelligence. Probably a really good example of what I am talking about is one of the basis of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, specifically the concept of psychohistory as a mathematical science.
Okay, now on to the terminology and such of imagery in a healthcare setting. I must apologize, but after reading everything, I decided I would be better served with a vocabulary list, then an essay on imagery. I sort of consider imagery as the practical application of symbolism. I could share some of the data I've found in the past on the effectiveness of visualization exercises and such, I suppose. However, this is already pretty long.