Our imagination is an incredibly useful tool. It can soothe us during difficult times and help us solve problems, create new things, and consider possible courses of action.
Some researchers have argued that our imagination, which gives us the ability to consider different scenarios, is at the core of what makes humans different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Moreover, existing research has suggested that what we imagine can actually affect our minds and bodies in very concrete ways.
For instance, a study that the journal Psychological Science published in 2009 found that when we imagine doing something, our minds and bodies anticipate the imagined action as though it were a real action.
The results of another study, which featured in Current Biology in 2013, suggest that imagining that we hear certain sounds or see particular shapes can change how we perceive the world in real time.
New research by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, NY, now proves that what we imagine can seem just as real to our brains as actual experiences.
As the investigators explain in their study paper, which appears in the journal Neuron, we can harness the “magical powers” of our imagination to help us overcome persistent fears and anxiety disorders.
“This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing,” says Prof. Tor Wager, co-senior author of the study.
The power of what you imagine
When it comes to helping people address their phobias or anxiety disorders, psychologists may recommend “exposure therapy.” This approach aims to desensitize a person to stimuli that trigger a fear response by repeatedly exposing them to these stimuli in a completely safe environment.
This can help a person disassociate those stimuli from a sense of threat and impending negative consequences.
In the new study, the researchers used functional MRI to scan participants’ brains and assess brain activity both in real and imagined situations involving unpleasant triggers. The aim was to see whether and how imagination may help us discard negative associations.
“These novel findings bridge a long-standing gap between clinical practice and cognitive neuroscience,” notes the study’s lead author Marianne Cumella Reddan, who is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“This is the first neuroscience study to show that imagining a threat can actually alter the way it is represented in the brain,” she adds.
In the current study, the research team recruited 68 healthy participants, whom they conditioned to associate a particular sound with receiving an electric shock that was uncomfortable but not painful.
They then split the participants into three groups. To those in the first group, the researchers played the sound that the participants now associated with an unpleasant physical experience.
Those in the second group had to imagine hearing that same sound instead, while those in the third group — the controls — had to imagine pleasant sounds, such as the trills of birds and the pitter-patter of rain. None of the participants received any further electric shocks.
Imagining a threat repeatedly can help
While the volunteers were either hearing the triggering sound, imagining it, or imagining a pleasant sound, the researchers assessed their brain activity using functional MRI. The team also measured their physiological responses by placing sensors on their skin.
The investigators found that brain activity was very similar in the participants who actually heard the threatening sound and those who only imagined hearing it.
In all of these volunteers, the auditory cortex (the brain region that processes sound), the nucleus accumbens (associated with learned fear), and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which signals exposure to risk) became active.
However, after the participants repeatedly heard or imagined hearing the triggering sound without receiving the expected electric shock, they stopped being afraid. The process had extinguished the association between that sound and an unpleasant experience. This phenomenon is known as “extinction.”
In the control group, in which the participants had imagined pleasant sounds only, other brain regions lit up in the functional MRI scans, and the negative association between the triggering sound and the electric shock never went away.
“Statistically, real and imagined exposure to the threat were not different at the whole brain level, and imagination worked just as well,” explains Reddan.
“I think a lot of people assume that the way to reduce fear or negative emotion is to imagine something good. In fact, what might be more effective is exactly the opposite: imagining the threat, but without the negative consequences.”
Prof. Tor Wager
You can ‘update’ bad memories
The researchers also suggest that, thanks to the power of imagination, we may even be able to “revise” and “update” memories that are unpleasant or unhelpful.
“If you have a memory that is no longer useful for you or is crippling you, you can use imagination to tap into it, change it, and re-consolidate it, updating the way you think about and experience something,” says Reddan.
However, just how vivid each of our imaginations is may affect the outcome of such experiments. Thus, the investigators explain, those with particularly vivid imaginations may benefit the most from “manipulating” unpleasant associations, while those with less active imaginations may not see much of a difference.
There is a real need for more research into the powers of imagination, say the researchers, but the current findings emphasize one thing — namely, that we should not underestimate the effect of what we imagine.
“Manage your imagination and what you permit yourself to imagine,” encourages Prof. Wager. “You can use imagination constructively to shape what your brain learns from experience,” he adds.