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The Referential Process

The referential process is a set of functional stages proposed by Bucci (1997; Bucci, 2001, 2002; Bucci, Maskit & Murphy, 2015) that describe the general process of bringing nonverbal material, existing both outside of and within awareness, into a form that can be translated into language. The process is bidirectional, in that meaningful entities that are verbal in nature (such as words spoken by others or read) can be translated back to nonverbal form.

The referential process incorporates three major components or phases: arousal, symbolizing, and reorganizing. The three components often occur in order, though there may also be recurrences of them, especially the symbolizing and reorganizing phases. Recent empirical research (Bucci & Maskit, 2007; Bucci, Maskit & Hoffman, 2012) has shown that the components of the referential process are distinguishable in terms of levels of referential activity as measured by the WRAD in that each level of the process is defined by its different degree of connection between the verbal-nonverbal and symbolic-subsymbolic systems; and also distinguishable by other computerized measures.

The Phases

In the Arousal phase, material that is outside or in the periphery of awareness is activated. This could include somatic stirrings, perception of sensory material, activation of an emotion schema, or arousal of a plan for motor action. The material that is 'aroused' exists within the vast expanse of the person's personality, memories and knowledge base; the sensation or emotion is undifferentiated at this point and it cannot yet be described or thought of in verbal terms. In this way, the arousal phase is best conceptualized as being dominated by the nonverbal subsymbolic system.

As the activated material is gradually processed it is collected and classified into a prototypic image or plan for action. This is the preliminary part of the symbolizing phase, when the material is brought into symbolic form but is not yet expressed in language. The early restlessness of the poet may suddenly evoke a specific picture in her imagination; the distracted scientist may experience his 'a-ha!' moment. The subsymbolic material that has been incubating outside of awareness assumes a more accessible form, which often feels as though it has come from 'outside' the person. This material is then  connected to verbal form in the Symbolizing phase.

Once an idea or emotion reaches the stage of verbal symbolization, it can be re-worked within this system. This is called the Reorganizing phase. During this phase, creative ideas can be refined and solidified, and emotions and memories can be analyzed for their overall personal meaning. The restructuring that occurs during this phase encourages psychological growth and personal development, and can begin the referential process anew by raising new questions, thoughts or feelings in response to the revelations that have been acquired.

Relevance of the Referential Process to Psychotherapy Research

Although the referential process is a general cognitive model that can be applied to activities such as the development of creative ideas or problem-solving, it has proven to be a particularly helpful model in the investigation of the process of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general. Studies that have analyzed transcripts from psychotherapy sessions using referential activity measures have found that the three phases of the referential process are not only consistently identifiable in their different linguistic qualities, but serve as an indicator of how strongly a patient’s narrative is connected to emotional experience (Khan et al., 2010; Kingsley, 2010).

During a psychotherapy session, the arousal phase typically characterizes the first few moments of the session, when the patient is collecting thoughts and experiencing feelings toward the therapist. Disfluency and narrative false-starts are typical as the patient tries to find words for the feelings. As the subsymbolic material organizes into an accessible form, the patient may relate a fantasy, dream or memory that has come to mind, or may describe some interaction with the therapist. Such narratives mark the symbolizing phase within the session, and demonstrate the moment when referential activity is at its highest point. The patient is likely to be verbalizing material that is linked to the emotional experience that has been activated in the session. After relating the dream or memory, the patient, with the therapist, may have ideas about the personal meaning behind the story, and reflect on the experience, potentially leading to  restructuring it. 

In a clinical validation study, using randomized segments from transcripts of psychoanalytic sessions, Kingsley (2010) compared the three phases of the referential process as identified by trained judges, with each phase's RA levels as measured by WRAD, and with other computerized dictionaries available in the DAAP system. The study found that there are distinct linguistic markers for each of the three phases, and that the types of language used during each of the phases supports the conceptual theory underlying the referential process. The Arousal phase is characterized by Disfluency and the use of Affect words without specific valence, consistent with the characterization of this phase as a time of searching and struggle, largely within subsymbolic systems. The presence of both RA and Reflection is low in the Arousal phase. The Symbolizing phase is marked by high levels of RA, as the patient moves into storytelling within the session. There is a lower incidence of use of Affect words and low levels of Reflection, as the patient is likely to be engrossed in the telling of the story without reflecting on the events or the feelings involved. Finally, during the Reorganizing phase there is a greater occurrence of Reflection and specifically-valenced affect labels, including Negative and Positive Affect, as the patient considers and works through the personal meaning of the story that has been related. 

A Word on the Theory of the Referential Process

The components of the referential process are offered in this summary as elements of a  sequential process. In practice, it is not expected that every stage necessarily occurs, nor do they always occur in order when they are present. A patient in a psychotherapy session may never reach the Reorganizing phase; indeed, in some cases they may never leave the Arousal phase at all. Alternately, a patient may move rapidly back and forth between the Symbolizing and Reorganizing phases as they attempt to reflect on a story that they are in the process of telling. While the sequence may vary in these and other ways, the theory postulates that psychotherapy will be more effective to the extent that the three phases are represented, perhaps in a single session, perhaps in a series of several sessions, perhaps with some backtracking and repetition within the sequence. 


Bucci, W. (1997). Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Science: A multiple code theory. NY: Guilford Press.

Khan, M., Murphy, S., Bucci, W. & Maskit, B. (2010, January). Linguistic markers of the psychotherapy process: The referential process and the linguistic inquiry word count. Poster session at the Midwinter meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, New York, NY.

Kingsley, G. (2010). The clinical validation of measures of the Referential Process. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 5827.