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Sandtray Therapy: The Science Behind the Madness

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

The use of sand and images in the sandtray activates, stimulates, utilizes, and coordinates all functions of the brain. When one touches the sand, there is an immediate connection between the body, feelings, and sometimes thought. Movement and building activates the lower brain that connects the body and the motor sensory systems of the brain. The fine motor activities activate the frontal lobes. The parietal lobe processes and transmits tactile sensations every time builders touch, arrange, and rearrange the sand and images. It processes information about touch, temperature, pressure and pain, increasing the capacity for sensory knowledge. It also connects to brain centers that link with speech comprehension, visual functions, and reading. The visual cortex and occipital lobe are called into action as builders view and respond to the image collection, particular images on the shelves, and as they explore the different shapes and forms created by the manipulation of the wet or dry sand and various images. The aroused senses then activate the limbic system, which is implicated in emotion, memory, and learning. The amygdala initiates meaning-making and memory in terms of good-bad, safe-unsafe, and fight-flight experiences. The frontal lobes process and regulate any emotionally laden experiences. The hippocampus creates and retrieves long-term memories and involves the temporal lobe to sequence events in time and space. The temporal lobe in turn processes and conducts information about smell, sound, and memory. It supports complex comprehension of verbal memory, speech, many language functions, object perception/recognition, and the processing of faces/complex scenes. The presence of the witnessing therapist activates the middle of the prefrontal regions of the brain that registers “attuned communication” or that nonverbal sense of “going alongness” between two or more people. It also supports verbal communication of shared feelings (Schadler, G., & De Domenico, 2012).

When we think of the left hemisphere, we think of our fixed belief systems, self-talk, organizing details, drawing conclusions using logic without experiencing the current situation and communicating with the world in a literal, factual, and concrete way using unadorned conventional language. The right hemisphere is the creative side where we access our feelings, interrelationships, intuitive mind, spirit, and our authentic self. It is here that we see the “big picture,” possibilities, and use “our felt sense,” the imagination, symbols, and images to synthesize patterns and meaning (Schadler, G., & De Domenico, 2012).

Information is processed first with pictures and THEN words and linguistics are attached. This makes sense if you think about how children can remember and process things based on pictures way before they can express it with words. This phenomenon continues across the lifespan. Have you ever seen a picture that affected you in a certain way, both mentally and physically, but you struggled to put it into words? That happens because information is first processed in the right side of the brain where emotions and images reside (and is, hopefully, then processed to the left side of the brain where we communicate ideas using words). When there is a traumatic event, the images and emotions get trapped in the right side of our brains. Sandtray therapy allows us to process situations that are hard to articulate. Through sandtray therapy, I get to see into your world and better understand where you are coming from (Flaherty, A., 2018) and, hopefully, you learn some things about yourself.

I know it all sounds kooky, but it is grounded in science and it works!


Schadler, G., & De Domenico, G. S. (2012). Sandtray-Worldplay for people who experience chronic mental illness. International Journal of Play Therapy, 21(2), 87-99.

Flaherty, A. (2018). Your “no fail” sandtray therapy script. Southern Sandtray Institute. Fort Smith, AR.

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