Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 3–34 | Cite as

The Flexibility Hypothesis of Healing

  • Devon E. HintonEmail author
  • Laurence J. Kirmayer
Original Paper


Theories of healing have attempted to identify general mechanisms that may work across different modalities. These include altering expectations, remoralization, and instilling hope. In this paper, we argue that many forms of healing and psychotherapy may work by inducing positive psychological states marked by flexibility or an enhanced ability to shift cognitive sets. Healing practices may induce these states of cognitive and emotional flexibility through specific symbolic interventions we term “flexibility primers” that can include images, metaphors, music, and other media. The flexibility hypothesis suggests that cognitive and emotional flexibility is represented, elicited, and enacted through multiple modalities in healing rituals. Identifying psychological processes and cultural forms that evoke and support cognitive and emotional flexibility provides a way to understand the cultural specificity and potential efficacy of particular healing practices and can guide the design of interventions that promote resilience and well-being.


PTSD Trauma Healing ritual Anthropology Flexibility Resilience Mood 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

This is a review paper and did not involve research on human subjects.

Informed Consent

This is a review paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.McGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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