Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?

piano study brain scansJudging by the brain scans in the image, it doesn’t seem so. The scans are from one of my favourite pieces of research.

Volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes each day for five consecutive days. Their brains were scanned each day in the region connected to the finger muscles. Another set of volunteers were asked to imagine playing the notes instead, also having their brains scanned each day.

The top two rows in the image show the changes in the brain in those who played the notes. The middle two rows show the changes in those who simply imagined playing the notes. Compare this with the bottom two rows showing the brain regions of the control group, who didn’t play nor imagine playing, piano.

You can clearly see that the changes in the brain in those who imaged playing piano are the same as in those who actually played piano. Really, your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary!

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. The stress response evolved in humans to give us the ability to fight or flee when faced with danger. Chemicals including cortisol and adrenalin help kick start the body, pushing blood towards the major muscles to give you strength.

But the exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and adrenalin and pushing blood around the body. The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.

What does all this mean in real life? It means that what you imagine to be happening is actually happening as far as your brain is concerned.

Earlier this year I spoke at a corporate conference, something I enjoy doing as I get to share science that gives extra credibility to self-improvement strategies. Sally Gunnell spoke first. She won the 1992 Olympic Gold medal in the 400m hurdles. Sally explained that winning gold was 70% mental. After failing to win at the 1991 world championships she started practicing visualisation. She did it every day, imagining sprinting, hurdling, and even having the strength to hang on in the home straight.

Through visualising like this, her brain would have undergone changes that improved her muscles, giving her body the capacity to do what she had been imagining.

You can apply the exact same technique in your own life to improve your ability in sports, and even in rehabilitation after illness or injury should you need to. Several studies on stroke patients, for instance, have shown that visualisation speeds up recovery.

Even if you imagine eating, the brain thinks you are eating and there is evidence to suggest that it turns on the ‘I’m full’ signals afterwards. In a simple experiment, scientists showed that if a person imagined eating, if they imagined the entire chewing and swallowing sensations as clearly as they could, they had less appetite for more food afterwards, just as the same would be true if you had actually eaten. This has obvious implications for weight loss strategies. (See my blog, ‘How to Think Yourself Slim‘)

People all around the world also use visualisation to imagine themselves healed or healing from illness and disease. The strategy involves focusing on wellness instead of illness.

You can even use visualisation to give you extra confidence. You can imagine yourself in a situation where you would usually be lacking but see yourself acting with confidence, conveying the body language of confidence.

Whatever you apply visualisation to, you have more of an ability to shape your brain circuits and the physiology and health of your body than most people think.

25 thoughts on “Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?

  1. Bill Rayfield

    As always David that is very interesting. If as you say “your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary!” could such visualization help people with phobias like fear of flying ?
    Assuming only imagining this would not terrify them they could practice and overcome the fear ? Visualize flying as a boring bus journey perhaps which is what I see a flight to a foreign holiday as most like.
    Regards and best wishes Bill

  2. Thank you for your article with brain scan support. Studies of having groups practice sports, imagining practicing, and no practice have consistently replicated for many decades the fact that the subconscious (mind-body) cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Thank you again for your fine article. SG

  3. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks for your kind words Steven. 🙂

  4. shakiba

    That was amazing thank you so much.it would be better if you tell us what should we exactly do for these visualization and what are the steps?

  5. I found your article very helpful and refreshing. Being a hypnotherapist, the first coaching frame I explane to my clients is about real and imagined and how it efects the body and our behavior. I utilize mental rehearsal in each and every of my sessions. Future pacing is what -I believe- makes my success rate so high among my clients. Thank you again for the valuable image and article.

  6. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks Anita. 🙂

  7. I had heard the brain looks the same when it is activated through imagination and experience. I was looking for some info on this and came across your website. I have been thinking a lot about daydreaming recently as it is something I do almost addictively. This article may have changed my life. I wonder how hard it will be to change my unconscious daydreaming to conscious visualizing? My thoughts are that you get addicted to fantasy because it causes your brain to release dopamine the same way as actually accomplishing something in real life might. Since it is hard to fight addiction without a replacement, I think that visualization could be a good fit!

  8. Woo, Super. I am writing a post about building writing habit from scratch. And the number one step is to use imagination for writIng.
    I was looking for this kind of research and also the piano is so related to the writing on learning skill base.

    Thank you! keep on awesome work.

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