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 Imagery Exercises

Some Common Misconceptions

          You may think that you’re not good at imagining things, or that you’re not a “visual” person, and therefore a technique like mental imagery just isn’t for you.  But that’s not quite true. 

          The practice of mental imagery involves all your senses, not just sight.  It’s possible to imagine sounds, smells, tastes, and touch every bit as vividly as it is to imagine sights.  

          Let’s do a little experiment:

See if you can you bring to mind a freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie that’s just hot out of the oven -
          how it smells, looks, tastes,
                     the way it feels in your mouth as you chew it.

Try to recall the melody of a favorite song,
          the screeching of car horns and brakes in city traffic,
                     the silence of the countryside.  

Imagine the embrace of a friend or lover,
          what it feels like to stroke the soft fur of a cherished pet,
                     or the cheek of a beloved child.

          If you were able to imagine any of those things – even just a little bit – then you’re capable of practicing mental imagery.

          But even if you couldn’t, the fact is you’re making use of imagery all the time, whether you realize it or not.  

          When someone tells you about an experience they had, part of your mind is creating images of what they’re describing.  That’s why we can be surprised to find that someone or some place we’ve heard a lot about doesn't turn out to be anything like what we expected – they don't match the images we’d created of them.

          As an experiment, think back to when you read the story of the Cellist of Sarajevo.   As you may recall, Verdan Smajlovic was horrified by witnessing a bombing which killed 22 people, and felt moved to do something about it.  And so for 22 days in a row – one day in honor of each person killed – he dressed up in his performance tuxedo, carried a plastic chair to the bombsite, and proceeded to play the most poignantly beautiful music on his cello. 

          As you recalled the story, did you have even a vague sense of Smaijlovic in his tuxedo carrying the chair, sitting amidst the rubble, his hand moving the bow over the strings of his cello, the sound of the music?

       Did your mouth ever start watering as a friend described a meal or a dessert they really enjoyed? Why does that happen? Because your mind, whether you’re aware of it or not, is busy constructing images of the food they describe – how it looks, smells, tastes, feels in your mouth as you chew it – and your brain responds to the imagined treat the same as it would to a real one.

          Whether vague or vivid, conscious or not, your mind is creating images every moment. Each of those images activates neuronal circuits in your brain that are associated with your past experiences of the image.  And all that brain activity generates emotions, sensations, thoughts and memories, that are related to the image.  So without necessarily being aware of it, the images you create are constantly affecting your mind, your emotions, and in fact, every cell of your body – for better or for worse.

          So why leave something so potentially powerful in the hands of your subconscious mind or some half-conscious habit?  Why not learn to use imagery consciously to generate thoughts, emotions, and bodily changes that will have a positive and constructive effect in your life?

The Many Uses of Mental Imagery

          Mental imagery can be used for a wide variety of purposes.  The following are just a few:

          In the realm of physical healing, mental imagery can help to: 

  • lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels
  • decrease headaches and back pain
  • improve the effectiveness of a weight loss program
  • give you more energy
  • increase the activity of your immune system

          In one study, two groups were trained over a period of six weeks to use imagery in order to influence their levels of white blood cells (part of the body’s immune system).  What was most striking, was that each group was able to devise specific imagery that targeted a specific type of white blood cell – in one group it was the level of neutrophils that changed, in the other, it was the level of lymphocytes.

          With respect to emotional healing, mental imagery can help to: 

  • decrease anxiety and depression
  • increase overall feelings of well-being

          In the area of skill-building, mental imagery can help to:

  • improve your proficiency in sports such as skiing, skating, tennis etc.
  • enhance your creative abilities in areas such as writing, acting, singing, etc.

Mental Imagery and the Brain

          How can imagery have such powerful effects on the mind and body?

          Interestingly enough, your brain can’t tell the difference between an experience you actually have and one that you vividly imagine.  Whether you actually see the ocean or simply imagine it, the same part of your visual cortex will be activated.

          Similarly, if you feel calm and deeply peaceful when you’re sitting by the ocean, your brain releases certain hormones and neurotransmitters which affect your mood and your overall physiology in a positive way. But if you just imagine sitting by the ocean, your brain releases the same chemicals with the same positive effects.  

          This lack of discrimination on the part of the brain can also be very advantageous when you want to improve a skill.  Many studies show that when you vividly imagine practicing a skill, your subsequent performance of the skill will improve almost as much as if you had actually practiced it for the same period of time.

          In one study, a group of basketball players were tested for accuracy in their shooting skills and then split into three groups.  The first group was told not to practice at all for 20 days.  The second group was told to practice shooting baskets for 20 minutes a day.  The third group was asked to just imagine they were shooting baskets for 20 minutes a day. 

         After 20 days the shooting skills of all three groups were retested.  As you might imagine, the first group hadn’t improved at all.  However the second and third groups improved almost to the same degree – by 24% in the group that had actually practiced, and 23% in the group that had only imagined practicing.

          Imagery activates the right hemisphere of your brain, and that gives it the capacity to integrate your thinking, feelings and sensations.

          In addition, it mobilizes the emotional and motivational power of your “downstairs brain” (that is, the emotional brain and instinctive brain).  This can add enthusiasm and vigor to any effort you make to change your life, greatly increasing your chances of success.

          Imagery also impacts nerve cells throughout your autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the nervous system that helps to stabilize your energy level.  

          Because mental imagery involves so many parts of the brain and nervous system, exercising your imagination is a wonderful way to help integrate your brain.  And as you may recall, an integrated brain is the key to well-being.

Using Imagery to Change the Past and Create the Future

          We may not be able to change what happened in the past, but thanks to neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change throughout our lives – we can certainly change the way the past affects us in the present.

          In terms of our brains, the past lives on in us by virtue of our neural circuitry – that is, through groups of neurons that have wired together and continue to fire together, recreating the memory of a particular event along with particular emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations that are associated with it.  Some of the memories, emotions etc. are painful to relive, and can prevent us from our living our lives more fully.

          Imagery is one very powerful way of helping to break up old neural patterns that may be limiting or debilitating. We go more into this process of “healing the past” – along with the role imagery can play in that process - in the CBT section of the site.

          Imagery is also a powerful way to help create new, more positive neural patterns that will better serve our overall well-being and sense of purpose in life.  Even before we actually experience a new way of responding to people or situations, we can imagine what it would be like.  And since the brain interprets what we imagine as the real thing, it goes about creating the neural circuitry that will enable us to have the actual experience in the future.  

          We explain how you can use imagery to create a better future on the Creative Visualization page.

Making Your Images More Powerful

          Imagery can be a wonderful tool for helping to change your physical condition, change your mood, improve your skills, and even to develop a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in your life. The more vivid your imagery, and the more you feel the emotions that would accompany what you imagine, the more powerful that tool becomes.  

          And the more focused your mind is as you practice, the more you will activate your middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which makes any technique you’re using more powerful.  Or, to say it another way, the extent to which you “remember to breathe” – that is, center yourself at the “hub” of your wheel of awareness – the effects of your imagery will be far more powerful, not only in bringing about what you visualize, but in helping to integrate your brain and bring balance to your life.

A Virtual Reality

          Using imagery can be a very relaxing and enjoyable experience – almost like taking a vacation in a very pleasant virtual reality. That makes it a good place to start to get a feel for how it’s possible to make a concentrated effort, and at the same time, remain relaxed.  That is, how to strike the right balance between using focused concentration and maintaining an overall sense of ease.  We go into this more on the Concentration page of the site.

Moving On