6 ways your brain can’t distinguish real from imaginary

brain real from imaginary

image: iStock Photo

1) Belief
Research shows us that when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a drug, and subsequently experiences a placebo effect, it is because their brain has produced the substances necessary to give them what they expected the drug to do. For example, when you receive a placebo for pain, but you think it’s a real painkiller, you expect a reduction in pain. Thus, your brain produces its own natural painkillers to meet this expectation – ie. a reduction in pain.

2) Stress
Your brain doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re facing a stressful situation right now or imagining it happening. Your brain produces stress hormones (like adrenalin and cortisol) when you feel stressed in a stressful situation, but it also produces them when you imagine a stressful situation.

3) Kindness
When you’re kind to a person or an animal and you feel a sense of warmth or connection, your brain and heart produce oxytocin (aka, the kindness hormone, love drug, hug drug, or cuddle chemical). Oxytocin acts on your brain circuits (to create a sense of bonding), on your arteries (to reduce blood pressure) and on your immune system (to combat stress damage). But if you close your eyes and vividly imagine the same kindness, your brain will also produce oxytocin. It’s down to how you feel, and you can feel the same warmth and connection whether you’re being kind in reality or simply in your imagination.

4) Eating
Some research shows that when you imagine eating (the full process of biting, chewing, imagining the taste, and swallowing), your brain can process it in much the same way as if you were actually eating. When you eat something, there comes a point when your brain says, “I’m full” and thus the brain begins to supress your appetite (so you don’t eat until you burst). Research where people imagined eating sweets or cubes of cheese found that their brain had processed it as if they really had ate the sweets or cheese, and thus also supressed their appetite for more.

5) Movement
Research with athletes and stroke patients repeatedly show that imagining specific movements improve the ability to perform those movements. As such, imagining lifting weights makes you stronger, imagining swinging a golf club helps you hit the ball better, and imagining lifting your arm when your movement has been impaired improves your ability to lift your arm. According to brain scans, this is because imagining movements activates and builds the same brain circuits as actually moving does. Visualisation (mental imagery) techniques have subsequently helped sportspeople improve their performance as well as helping stroke patients recover more movement and much quicker.

6) The immune system
Research shows that if we imagine increasing the numbers of particular immune cells or antibodies, we can actually increase these numbers. It has even been trialled in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, where one group of patients, in addition to receiving their treatment as normal, also visualise their immune system destroying cancer cells. These studies show that patients visualising their immune systems working have higher numbers of T-cells and more active killer cells than those not visualising.


Further info:
A discussion of the mind-body connection and how to harness it can be found in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ (Hay House, London, 2018)

I teach the mind-body connection and how to harness it in my Personal Development Club. Click on the image below to learn more.

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47 Comments

  1. Faye Hinde on August 27, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    This is very interesting work. Do you believe that for people with neuro-diverse brains, this approach can have their brains produce more dopamine, for example?

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 28, 2019 at 10:46 am

      Hi Faye, there is certainly evidence from placebo research where the brains of people with Parkinson’s produced dopamine when given a placebo. The research was done by Fabrizio Benedetti, of the university of Turin school of medicine. Here’s a reference: https://www.nature.com/news/parkinson-s-patients-trained-to-respond-to-placebos-1.19341

      • Faye hinde on August 28, 2019 at 1:16 pm

        Thank you very much for that link. Also, what about people with ADHD and ASD, is there any evidence that their brains can also generate more dopamine?

        • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 28, 2019 at 3:50 pm

          I’m not aware of any studies with ADHD or ASD, sorry. It might be there some research has been done, but it’s not an area that I’ve personally looked into, sorry. I would expect, though, that their brains could develop more dopamine too as the concept of belief producing biology seems to apply to most people.

  2. Ylva on August 28, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Thank you, this is so super interesting!

  3. Faye Hinde on August 28, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    Yes, that’s what I’m thinking too. Thanks.

  4. Nicola Shawyer on October 20, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Hi, is there any research regarding MS, I am finding it difficult with what to visualise because I know my immune system is attacking itself causing pain n difficulties in walking. So do I visualise my immune system not attacking or the myelin sheath being repaired or me walking well. Any advice would be really appreciated.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 1, 2019 at 10:35 am

      Hi Nicola, with autoimmune conditions, people typically visualise the immune system changing its behaviour, so not attacking the myelin sheath with MS. Often times, they add a second and third part to the visualisation, where they imagine any damage being repaired and movement being restored to normal, ie. visualising walking. I hope that’s helpful.:-)

  5. Ruchi on February 12, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Hi Dr Hamilton, great article! Thank you for sharing this knowledge with us.

    Do you have any guided visualisations available that we can listen to?

    Thank you 🙂

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