Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?

piano study brain scans

image: J. Physiology, 1995, 74(3), 1037-1045

Judging 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, in many ways, 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.

For live online talks covering all aspects of the mind-body connection and more, check out my Personal Development Club.

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  1. Bill Rayfield on November 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    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

    • Max on August 1, 2022 at 8:46 pm

      Hey Bill,

      I’m sure a phobia of flying can be reprogrammed by rebuilding positive associations.
      Als try slowly exposing yourself to it over time (maybe going to hang out at the airport first, then maybe doing a flight simulator, etc.) and constantly building positve emotional assocations, thinking about WhY this is safe (find concrete proofs)

      Good luck

  2. Steven Gurgevich, PhD on February 3, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    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

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on February 5, 2015 at 10:30 am

      Thanks for your kind words Steven. 🙂

  3. shakiba on April 9, 2015 at 6:01 am

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

  4. Anita Saldana on September 23, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    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.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 5, 2016 at 6:58 am

      Thanks Anita. 🙂

  5. Greg Kamphuis on February 15, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    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!

  6. Zada on March 28, 2017 at 10:39 am

    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.

  7. love spells on June 17, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    What’s up,I read your blog named “Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? | David R Hamilton PhD” like every week.Your writing style is witty, keep doing what you’re doing! And you can look our website about love spells.

  8. Dr Magno Pereira on September 8, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    Very informative and thanks.

  9. Cris on July 8, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    Wow, this is so apropos for what I learned in church. Proverbs 29:18a Where there is no vision, the people will perish. This is another one of those times for me when science has proven the bible to be true. Thank you and God bless

  10. KAREN on July 15, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    Has no one heard the All American Jim Thorpe’s story? Google him . He was an Olympian . ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE , because our subconscious does all the work. I don’t understand why people choose to not know this . Thank You for speaking out on this . Have you read Dr. Joseph Murphy? He explains this and many other ways we can accomplish anything we want to …THANK YOU FOR HELPING TO MAKE PEOPLE AWARE …

  11. Gus on August 9, 2018 at 1:02 am

    Thank you for the article I really have learnt something extra as I was researching for my own take on writing my own piece on the Law of attraction. I have also been reading the Maxwell Maltze book Psycho Cybernetics he talks about the same idea. Thank you for the information. I was wondering if I can link to your site from my article

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 14, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Gus. Yes, feel free to link to my site from your article. 🙂

      • Gus on August 14, 2018 at 10:24 pm

        Thank you so much for your help will do

  12. Rajesh Pandey on November 15, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    A very revealing study that may help people to reach cherished dreams through visualisation.

  13. B.Y.Byun on December 12, 2018 at 5:18 am

    Hi, This is a great post which I definitely would like to cite in my book being written. Can I have your permission Please?


    • David R. Hamilton PhD on December 19, 2018 at 2:48 pm

      Yes, of course. 🙂

  14. John Gilbert on February 22, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    Good evening.
    Thank you for your post and supporting evidence. My question is a simple. Why? Why does the brain not know the difference between real and imagined activities? There are plenty of articles claiming and supporting as you do. But not many that say how or why this is the case. (I’m like the driver of a car who knows how to drive the car but does not know how the engine works.)
    Could it be because the brain does not HAVE to tell the difference between real and imagined activities as it is only a perceived intrepation which creates the realness in the first place?

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 5, 2019 at 11:10 am

      I think you’re right there, John. As far as evolutionary theories go, imagining danger, regardless of whether it is real or not, would increase survival changes. In addition, according to some theories of perception, whether perception takes place mentally or physically, both may just be different forms of perception, but it’s the perception that counts. The Interface Theory of Perception suggests that all events are mental.

  15. Wayne Cameron on May 10, 2019 at 6:24 pm

    Many years ago I heard that vivid imaginings and vivid dreams cause the exact same effect upon the brain as does reality. This article adds credence to that belief. But now I wonder if in reading this article and realizing the subsequent impressions it makes upon my brain (as in my imagining the effects), will cause my brain to accept it as true fact.

  16. The Cadss on September 13, 2019 at 9:59 am

    I Go through Your article and believe me it is amazing.

  17. Dan Stillman on October 3, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    Best kept secret that most don’t know about. Just imagine if everyone took a class on how your brain works and got this little piece of information. You would then know that most of your thoughts are made up stories based on a belief you stored in your subconscious and all you need to do is make a new decision backed with logical facets based evidence to cure your angst and anxiety. Using deliberate practice to reinforce the new belief will create a new healthy habit (Neurosculpting)

  18. Michael on January 22, 2020 at 10:05 pm

    I think it points to the benefit of simulation. Or should I say the benefit of simulation in combination with real life experience. Many top athletes wind down by playing a video game of their sport, watching an actual game, and/or visualizing good plays. It’s not a question that simulation to the mind acts as a growing house for character and skill where improvement happens at rates that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Great article!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2020 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Michael. 🙂

  19. Md. Ahad on April 20, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    Awesome article. I have learnt a lot from this.

  20. Gary Halbasch on September 13, 2020 at 7:48 pm

    Scientific corroboration of GOD’S HOLY WORD. “ As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7

  21. Karol Phd on January 15, 2021 at 4:17 pm

    when I tell you: “I like you ” ( even if I lier ), you got information that I like you ( your brain or maybe subconscious ) doesn’t know that I am lier…
    Great article- Karol Phd psychoilogist from Poland

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  28. namrutha v g on August 6, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    hello dr david hamilton,
    i have been filming a documentary about fear response.
    i would like to include this particular research into the documentary as an example of how our minds cant differentiate between real and assumed danger. i would be crediting you as i speak about this article.
    i would like to get your permission for it.
    kind regards,

    • David Hamilton on August 9, 2022 at 11:36 am

      Yes, please feel free. Good luck with your documentary. 🙂

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