Real vs Imaginary in the Brain and Body

Head with colored cogs inside

The brain, in many ways, doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary.

Take a simple example of stress. Your brain responds to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones. But your brain also releases the stress hormones when you remember a past stressful event or even when you vividly imagine one. Whether you’re really there in the stressful situation, you’re remembering it or imagining it, is all much the same to your brain. It releases stress hormones each time.

Another thing to consider is that a stressful event is not absolutely a stressful event. All you can be certain of is that it is stressful for you. The same event might be experienced differently for someone else. So, the event itself is not stressful. It’s how you think about it that’s stressful and that results in your feelings of stress. And it’s your feelings of stress that produce the stress hormones. So, you produce stress hormones because of how you feel, regardless of whether you’re there (in the stressful situation) in person or there in your mind.

In other blogs and in my books, I’ve written than kindness is the opposite of stress. Most people assume that peace is the opposite of stress. Peace is an absence of stress, not it’s opposite. In physiological terms, the feelings associated with kindness produce opposite effects to the feelings associated with stress. So, does the same type of real vs imaginary effect apply to kindness?

It seems so. The feelings associated with kindness, what social scientist Jonathan Haidt has called elevation, are produced regardless of whether you’re having a direct experience of kindness (as the giver or receiver or even as a witness to it), or whether you’re remembering an experience of kindness, or even whether you are vividly imagining one. The same feelings are produced in each instance. And just as with stress, it’s the feelings that produce the hormones. In the case of kindness, it’s kindness hormones.

The main kindness hormone is oxytocin, otherwise known as the love drug, the hug drug, the cuddle chemical, or any other similar affectionate name. It’s the feelingsof warmth and connection that produce oxytocin.

So, whether you’re being kind, receiving kindness, or witnessing kindness in a real or imaginary setting, you feel the same feelings and therefore produce the same kindness hormone. Just as with stress, your brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.

Can the same be said with other systems of the body? It seems so. Numerous studies have shown that imagining touching or moving a part of the body activates the corresponding brain region as if we really did touch or move that body part. For example, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that when a person imagined moving fingers, toes, or even their tongue it activated the fingers, toes, and tongue regions of the brain as if they really were moving their fingers, toes or tongue.

The famous ‘piano study’ is an excellent example from neuroscience. Researchers at Harvard University, led by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, compared the brains of people playing a sequence of notes on a piano with the brains of people imagining playing the notes. The region of the brain connected to the finger muscles was found to have changed to the same degree in both groups of people, regardless of whether they struck the keys physically or mentally.

It is this phenomenon – the fact that the brain processes imaginary as if it were real – that allows sports people to benefit from visualisation practices. Several studies have shown that players can improve on their golf shots, tennis strokes, net shots in basketball, ice skating, football, or just about anything. Studies have shown people increasing their muscle strength by imagining themselves flexing muscles or lifting weights. In a study, for example, at the Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, imagining flexing the little finger for 15 minutes daily for 3 months was shown to increase muscle strength by 35% … and the volunteers hadn’t even lifted a finger. 🙂

The technique has also allowed people who have had a stroke to recover faster, as has been demonstrated in several studies that compare patients receiving physiotherapy with patients doing visualisation of movements as well as the physiotherapy. According to these research studies, those who do the visualisation practices recover faster than those who do physiotherapy alone. A 2014 meta-analysis of the use of ‘mental imagery’ in stroke rehabilitation noted this compelling evidence and concluded that it could be a ‘viable intervention’ and that it renders ‘unlimited practice opportunities’.

The benefits rely on the fact that when a patient visualises movement, the brain processes it as if they really are moving, and so imagined movement becomes like extra physical practice as far as the brain is concerned.

We can even extend the idea onto eating. In a study led by Carey Morewedge, at Carnegie Mellon University, volunteers either ate or imagined eating small sweets. Some volunteers were asked to imagine eating several sweets and others were asked to imagine eating only a small number. When given the chance to eat real sweets later, those who imagined eating the most had less appetite for more. It was concluded that imagining eating impacted the brain like real eating does and actually supressed the appetite for more, just as real eating does. It was as if the brain were saying, “OK, that’s enough. I’m full now” even though the person hadn’t actually eaten anything but had just imagined it.

In other words, in some ways the brain processed imagining eating as if the person really was eating. A word of caution here, though. Research hasn’t investigated whether imagining eating affects the body in other ways, like perhaps without actual food a person might deprive their bodies of needed nutrition. But the point is, again, that the brain isn’t making a noticeable distinction between real or imaginary.

How far does this go?

Studies even suggest that the immune system responds in a similar way. Volunteers asked to imagine increasing levels of certain antibodies, or immune cells, were able to increase their numbers. Furthermore, in a randomised controlled trial of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, around half of the patients were asked to also imagine their immune cells like piranha fish and to imagine them destroying cancer cells. In those who visualised, immune system activity was higher than it was in those who didn’t visualise. In fact, the immune systems of those who visualised were showing high levels of cytotoxicity even after the fourth (and final) cycle of chemotherapy.

So, generally speaking, insofar as the above examples go, it seems to be that the brain and body don’t distinguish between whether something is real or whether we just imagine it as real.

The question now becomes: what does that mean for us?

 

References

All references and more complete discussions can be found in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, (Hay House, 2019). Individual references are below.

Fingers, toes and tongue study
H. Ehrsson et al., ‘Imagery of voluntary movement of fingers, toes, and tongue activates corresponding body-part-specific motor representations’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 2003, 90(5), 3304-3316. Link to study

Piano study
Pascual-Leone et al., ‘Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of fine motor skills’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 1995, 74(3), 1037-1045. Link to study

Little finger strength study
K. Ranganathan et al, ‘From mental power to muscle power – gaining strength by using the mind’, Neurophysiologia, 2004, 42(7), 944-956. Link to study

Stroke rehabilitation meta-analysis
Y. Kho et al., ‘Meta-analysis on the effect of mental imagery on motor recovery of the hemiplegic upper extremity function’, Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 2014, 61(2), 38-48. Link to study

Immune system visualisation for cancer study
O.Eremin et al., ‘Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodal therapy: A randomised controlled trial’, The Breast, 2009, 18, 17-25. Link to study

Can you visualise drugs working?

I recently chatted with a girl who has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child. Now in her late 20s, she’s taken painkillers for years.

When she was first diagnosed, a nurse instructed her to imagine her painkillers travelling to her joints and then dissolving into little particles and spreading out over the joints, soothing them and reducing swelling and pain. After a moment or two, the nurse would ask, “Can you picture it?” And when she said she could, the nurse would add, “Can you feel it? Can you feel it dissolving into the joint and taking the pain away?” And she could! She believed that the visualisation really helped her and has been using it regularly for over 20 years now.

Even as an adult, she spontaneously does the visualisation every time she takes a painkiller, closing her eyes and visualising for a moment or two right after she swallows the tablet with some water.

It’s a terrific way to use visualisation. I’ve written about visualisation and how it works in other blogs, and also teach it in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’. Mostly people use visualisation to imagine a state of illness changing into wellness, or to imagine their immune systems working to destroy bacteria or viruses, but like the girl above, some people visualise their medicines doing their jobs too.

Some people who take antibiotics imagine them destroying infection. From the moment they put the tablet in their mouth and take a sip of water, they imagine antibiotic particles travelling inside their body and going straight to where they need to go, neutralising infection there. The visualisation only takes a moment but is done consistently each time they take a pill.

Common among cancer patients is to visualise chemotherapy drugs as piranha fish or pac men chomping on cancer tells or tumours. In their minds’ eyes they imagine the cells being destroyed or tumours shrinking smaller and smaller until they vanish. Rather than thinking of the drugs as poison, then, which a number of people do and which can make them feel stressed as a consequence, they picture the drugs doing what they are supposed to do and only destroying the cancer while leaving everything else intact. It gives them a sense of control and seems to reduce stress.

Similarly, people undergoing radiotherapy imagine the radiation as bolts of lightning burning tumours and leaving all other areas intact.

A friend once had to take the chemotherapy drug ‘carboplatin’ as a treatment for lung cancer. She asked me to help her think of something to visualise. I explained that carboplatin is shaped like a square with an atom of platinum at the centre. I explained that it works by sitting across the strands of tumour cell DNA, essentially grabbing hold of the individual strands (the technical term is ‘bonds’ to), thus interfering with the DNA and preventing cancer cell replication.

I drew a little diagram (above) showing how the platinum rigidly holds the DNA strands. She loved it and used that visualisation through her treatment. She’d never tried visualisation before, but she told me that it gave her something positive to do with her mind.

Could these visualisations be helping? I don’t know of any research specifically around visualising drugs working, so any conversations I’ve had with numerous people who’ve visualised in this way might only be considered anecdotal. But I feel it’s worth knowing what some people do because at the very least it gives a person something positive to do with their mind while they take medicines, which might be a welcome replacement for worry or stress.

Perhaps, as some believe, any benefits are simply due to a reduction in stress or the person gaining a more optimistic attitude. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence for the different ways that the mind impacts the body, my hunch is that visualising like this does add something extra a lot of the time.

Maybe it’s something to do with the action of imagining the physical condition improving. In other blogs, I’ve shared that the most common use of visualisation that I know of is where a person thinks of the site of injury, illness or disease, and imagines it being repaired or healed. And they do this repetitively. Perhaps this repetitive visualisation of the drug doing its thing is producing a real effect.

Some research has shown that repetitively visualising the immune system working can enhance the immune system and this technique has now even been shown to be beneficial in randomised controlled trials of patients undergoing treatment for cancer. In these trials, patients who visualised experienced a higher clinical response to their treatment than patients who didn’t visualise.

We also know through placebo research that some drugs work better when a person believes in them, or believes in the doctor who prescribed them, so the mind certainly seems to deliver an effect.

So, I’m inclined to believe, just like the girl who has imagined her painkillers working since childhood, that visualising medicines working might well have beneficial effects over and above the action of the drug alone – some, or even a lot, of the time.

 

The above piece is based on research and content from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.

Visualising Illness into Wellness

For several years now, I have been writing about, and teaching, a visualisation strategy of imagining illness turning into wellness. People often ask me how it works. I believe there’s a few things that contribute so I thought I’d briefly sketch out some of them in this blog.

1) Impact on the immune system
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that guided imagery elevates the immune system. Studies have shown positive changes in NK cells, neutrophils and lymphocytes, as well as in secretory immunoglobulin A, for example.

2) A person feels empowered rather than hopeless
Many people, when suffering from injury, illness or disease, feel a sense of hopelessness and that there isn’t anything they can do to facilitate their recovery. This can be stressful. Understanding that the mind impacts the body often gives people a sense of hope and a belief that they can, in fact, do something to help themselves, which can therefore reduce stress.

Thus, a consistent cultivation of hope or positive feeling might head a person in the direction of wellness just as a consistent experience of stress can have the opposite effect.

3) The impact of positive belief
The placebo effect is no longer viewed as just psychological. There is no question, now, that expectation and belief cause changes in the brain and body. The apparent limits of the placebo effect are now being explored and we’re learning that, to an extent, and depending upon the condition studied, the brain can create the chemistry it needs to create to give a person what they’re expecting to happen. Placebo pain relief comes, for example, because a person’s brain produces its own version of morphine.

4) Focusing of willpower
There’s a lot to be said for the impact of a will to live or a will to get better. Sometimes, it is the main ingredient some people need. It may not always produce seeming miracles, but it can certainly help.

5) The positive impact of repetitive visualising
I believe this plays a large role and suggests that neuroplasticity is taking place in the brain, which is where the brain undergoes physical changes. It takes consistency (repetition) to effect such change.

Essentially, the brain is ‘wiring in’ what a person is imagining taking place. It is well known to occur when a person visualises movement, for example, as in sports or rehabilitation. I personally believe, even though there is limited research on this, that the same kind of thing happens with visualisation to improve many other conditions.

Thus, repetitive visualisation might create physical change in the brain, which is accompanied by a physical change in the body, particularly in the region that a person’s attention is focused upon, but also in other systems of the body that are relevant to the change. There is some evidence that this might happen in the immune system.

In addition, visualisation studies show an increase in white blood cells over time as a person practices visualisation on a consistent basis. This might correlate with neuroplasticity in the brain, which also occurs over time.

6) Natural recovery or other positive factors
It’s also important to mention the natural course of something. Sometimes, a person might be on the road to recovery anyway. Visualisation might speed the process up or have little or no additional effect because the body is already doing what it needs to do.
Also, many people make lifestyle changes that positively impact their circumstances, which might involve changes in physical activity, diet, stress levels, change of environment, etc.

So, very briefly, this is what I believe is going on, or contributing, when a person uses visualisation techniques.

And please note, I’m certainly not suggesting that we use our minds instead of following medical advice, but that we use our minds in addition to medical advice. Many people, in fact, actually visualise their medicines doing the desired job. Some people receiving chemotherapy for cancer, for example, have visualised the chemo drugs as piranha fish or Pac men nibbling the tumour so that, in their imagination, the tumour (or tumours) is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

PS…
I’m currently working on the 10-Year Anniversary Edition of my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’. I intend to include several new examples of the use of visualisation in this edition, as I did in the 1st Edition. If you have personally used visualisation as part of your recovery from injury, illness, or disease, and would like your visualisation story to be considered for the book, please email me on [email protected] Please include what you visualised, how often you visualised, and what the outcome was. Thanks. 🙂

How a child with Chickenpox stopped itching

teddy bearAs you know, I’m a big fan of visualisation.

As I’ve explained before, in many ways the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. As we imagine something, to the brain, what we imagine is actually happening.

In previous blogs I’ve shared scientific evidence of how people have altered physical strength through visualisation, how visualisation can help weight loss, lots on the power of placebos, as well as how visualisation is used to help people heal from illness.

During a workshop I taught last weekend on this subject, a woman shared an amazing technique that her little 3-year-old daughter used to avoid scratching her face when she had chickenpox. It is such an amazing strategy that I just had to share it with you.

Her child’s face was so itchy, the woman told me. Having learned about visualisation from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, she explained, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

She asked her daughter to go find a teddy bear whose face tickled as much as hers. When the little girl returned with a teddy, her mother told her that she should scratch teddy every time her face became itchy and that it would help stop her own itch.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Amazingly, the itch faded on her own face and she didn’t scratch her face once.

It reminds me of how mirror boxes can be used to help people who have lost a limb to deal with phantom limb pain and itches. Say the person had lost their right arm. A mirror box can be placed on the table and the person would lay their left hand down. The mirror then shows a reflection that looks like the person has both a left and right arm.

And that’s what the brain processes. The mirror box tricks the brain into acting as if the person does have a right arm, enabling them to then scratch it. In other words, scratching the left hand, now reflected in the mirror as a right hand, can relieve a phantom itch in the right.

These kinds of techniques work because when you focus on any area of the body, the corresponding region of the brain is activated. Focus on a finger, for example, and the finger region of the brain is activated.

It’s likely, given the teddy-chickenpox example, that even a representation of a body part can have the same effect. In other words, something that we decide represents a part of the body might activate the brain in the same way.

This is how what I call ‘symbolic visualisations’ work. A gentleman who had suffered terrible depression once shared his symbolic visualisation with me. He said he felt broken, so he symbolised his broken feeling as broken shards of a mirror.

In his mind’s eye, he then gathered up the shards, heated them in a cauldron to melt them, and then poured them into a new mould. In effect, he took his brokenness and made himself whole again.

A month or so of daily visualisation like this was a huge tonic for him and brought him out of depression.

He represented the mirror as his feelings, just as the little girl represented the teddy’s face as her own face.

How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!

 

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How your mind can affect your strength

meditationI’ve written quite a bit about the mind-body connection in my books and in some of my blogs. Among other things, I’ve written about strength improvements through visualisation, rehabilitation following a stroke, and even how to reduce appetite by tricking the mind into thinking you’ve eaten, so I’m always on the lookout for new pieces of research.

Well, in October 2014, researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) published a great piece of research in the Journal of Physiology that showed how visualisation can slow down the loss of muscle, say after a person has had an accident and has limited use. The research is a demonstration of the mind powerfully impacting the body.

In the experiment, 29 people wore a cast from their elbow to their fingers for 4 weeks. Around half of them (14 people) did a visualisation exercise 5 days a week during this time and the other half (15 people) didn’t.

The training sessions were as follows: They had to mentally contract their wrist, given the instruction, “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push … and stop.” This would take 5 seconds and they would then get 5 seconds rest. They did it 4 times in a row and that would constitute 1 round. Each daily session was 13 rounds.

Of course, both groups lost strength in that time, which is to be expected when you’re not doing any exercise at all, but what was amazing was that the group who visualised lost much less strength than the group who didn’t.

The group who didn’t visualise lost 45% strength over the 4 weeks but the group who visualised only lost 24%. That’s half as much! It’s a significant difference.

I used to be an athletics coach and loved it. A few years after I stopped doing it formally, a young sprinter came to me devastated that he was to have a shoulder operation that would put him out of training for 3 months. So we devised a visualisation plan where he would go to the gym in his mind and run on the track in his mind.

He did about 45 minutes of this a day, 5 times a week, going to the gym in his mind and running on the track in his mind. He was totally committed to his mental workouts. I remember laughing when he told me he had just surpassed his bench press PB (personal best) in his mind. He said he could feel the great weight and the strain but had imagined pushing the bar up.

The mental effort worked wonders for him. Not only did he defy the odds and was back in training in half the time (6 weeks instead of 3 months), but he had barely lost any strength or leg speed at all. And his improvement from that point was dramatic. Within a few months he had improved so much that he was chosen for the first time ever to represent his country in an international competition.

The mind is far more powerful that most people assume. I love that there is now a great many pieces of credible scientific research in the area.

The key is that imagining something repetitively has a huge impact on the brain. It creates ‘neuroplastic change’, which is where the brain actually moulds around what you’re imagining, effectively not making any distinction between whether you’re doing the thing or imagining doing the thing.

This is great, because if you’re not yet able to do something perfectly, you can certainly imagine yourself doing it perfectly. And to your brain, that’s really the same thing. Your brain then affects how your muscles perform, whether that’s in running, jumping, swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, or even whether it’s speeding up the healing process following injury or disease, which of course I’ve written a great deal about in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, so I don’t want to regurgitate it here.

So never doubt your ability to do something. If you can imagine it, you can do it!

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.

5 Reasons Why You Should Visualize

Butterfly flyingWe’ve all heard of visualization. Many people visualize daily, either to improve their health or their life situation. Some people try it from time to time.

My personal experience of visualization is that it is highly powerful for a few different reasons. And it’s good to know why! Maybe that’s just my science training, where I need to know the how’s and the why’s. But, honestly, there is no question that understanding the how’s and why’s actually bring you more belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. That’s why I’ve written this short blog about the reasons why visualization is so powerful.

Whether you are visualizing on a health goal or a life improvement one, visualization helps a lot … for the following reasons:

 

1) It makes you feel empowered

When you visualize on better health or achieving a goal, it brings you a sense of inner empowerment. This is because you start to notice small changes in your life as you move in the direction you want to go in.

With health, you start to see improvements and it brings you a belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. The effect of this is that it shifts the sense of power away from the outside world, where you often feel powerless, to the inside, where you feel you are more in control of what happens. And this makes all the difference because it breeds motivation, creativity, and positive emotion.

With life goals, you start to realize that there is actually a lot you can do to move yourself in the direction you wish.

2) Your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary

Research shows that if one person does something and another person visualizes doing the thing, the same brain areas are activated in both of them. And if they keep doing the thing or imagining doing the thing, their brain regions undergo actual physical change (called neuroplasticity) to the same degree.

You can harness this for health. A growing body of research shows that when you visualize improving health, the body moves towards health. And you can harness it for life goals. When you imagine living your dream, your brain processes it as if it is happening now. In fact, afterwards, to your brain, it’s a memory.

3) It focuses your willpower

Regular visualization helps to focus your mind on what you want. One of the problems many people face when aiming for goals is that they lose focus, becoming distracted by the goings on of life. When you visualize on a regular basis, especially if you set aside some definite time each day, it focuses your mind. It trains you to hold your focus despite what else is going on.

And as you stay focused you spot opportunities to move towards your goal. If it’s a health goal, you tend to learn extra insights that can help you. If it’s a life change goal, you’re more likely to be in the right place at the right time.

4) It has health benefits

Countless people all around the world use visualization to help facilitate their recoveries from illness and disease. The most common strategy is where they imagine changing a picture of illness into a picture of wellness, and they do it over and over again, 2 or 3 times a day.

And you can get as detailed as you like. Some people visualize cleaning individual cells, restoring them to health and wellness, and others simple visualize a whole body region in perfect condition. Both scenarios work equally well.

There is now a growing body of research that shows this working. Whether it is through a harnessing of willpower, a sense of empowerment, or that the brain processes what you are imagining as real, or a combination of all three, there is no question that visualization for better health has positive benefits.

5) If you believe in visualization, it works even better

Belief carries great power! The placebo effect shows us that belief can heal. Belief changes brain chemistry and brings about immune, hormonal, and physiological changes throughout the body.

When one person takes a painkiller and the other a placebo, for instance, brain scans look strikingly similar. This is because the person’s belief produces its own chemistry that brings about what they expect to happen – ie., a reduction in pain. In this case, the brain produces natural painkillers (endogenous opiates).

When you do anything and believe in yourself, your ability is enhanced. Any elite athlete will tell you that. When you visualize better health, believing that what you are doing has powerful effects, your own belief amplifies the power of what you are doing. The same is true with life goals; your own belief brings you more energy, motivation, and helps you spot opportunities when they arise.

 

Oh, and one final point: You don’t need to be a great ‘visualizer’. It’s the quality of your intent that matters most. Some people ‘see’ clearly, others just have a vague picture. Some people see out of their own eyes, others imagine looking at themselves from outside. All of these different versions work equally well. We’re all different and we all have different ways of doing things.

My experience is that your intention matters most. If your mind is pointed towards where you want to go, then you’re doing it right.

Can your mind influence your genes?

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Yes!

It’s doing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s impossible, actually, to disentangle your mind from your genes.

When you learn something new, or think the same thing over and over again, the brain lays down neural pathways. But they don’t just spring out of thin air. They are the consequence of a series of events that result in the activation and deactivation of hundreds of genes. But here’s the thing – these events are set in motion by something you’re thinking about!

Setting aside the details for a moment, what we’re left with is that thinking leads to the activation and deactivation of genes. This is what I call the mind-gene interface.

We see the same thing with meditation. Consistent meditation has been shown to bring about structural changes in the brain. With meditation it is mental focus on something – an idea, perhaps, or breathing – that brings about theses effects. An 8-week meditation study at Harvard even showed that meditation impacted 1,561 genes in novice meditators and 2,219 genes in experienced meditators. In the novices, 874 genes were switched on and 687 were switched off.

Some people might wonder why this is important to know.

It’s important because we grow up believing that the mind is impotent, something that we only use to think with and to analyse life events. But this is disempowering. It leads us to think that we can’t do anything to help ourselves or to change anything.

A good friend of mine spent some weeks in hospital over the past year. Being a proactive person with a determination to do what he could to facilitate his own recovery, when he asked what he could do to help himself, he was told, ‘nothing’.

But this response is only a habit of thinking that’s based on the notion that the mind is impotent, and I’d probably have given the same response myself if I was wedded to that notion. Actually, the mind can be thought of as a force, in that the mind’s focus can bring about biological and physiological effects in the brain and body. Knowing this, there is never nothing that a person can do. We have to think, so how about we learn what to think about?

On a totally obvious level, for instance, if a person is sick, thinking about stressful things is not going to help. Chemicals of stress can be produced and circulate around the body. So thinking about calming things can help. Similarly, thinking affectionately is good for the heart. Thinking hostile and aggressive thoughts isn’t.

We’re all chemists in a way. The chemistry of the brain and body responds to what we focus on and how we feel. If we learn what to focus on we can, to an extent, switch on and off different chemistry. We then take our chemistry skills onto a new level. I see this as the next great development in mind-body medicine.

I believe we have a much greater ability to affect our health than we think. We just need to get over the notion that the mind has no effect on the body. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the mind has no effect on the body, ask them if they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy.

The reason I explain the science of mind-body medicine is to give people faith in themselves. I believe that this faith can make a real difference.

Believing in a medicine or in a doctor leads to better outcomes than not believing, so clearly belief has effects. So how about we learn to believe in ourselves? Not at the expense of medical advice, of course, but in addition to it.

Your mind is more powerful than you think. And you are the one who directs it.

How about we learn to focus on things we’re grateful for? How about we learn to feel empathy and compassion more? How about we learn to cultivate thoughts of love and affection? You are a chemist and that would be some nice chemistry.

It’s a start. And at the very least we’re doing something positive with our minds.

 

Resources:

Some good books on the mind-body connection are:

Mine 🙂 ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ & ‘It’s the Thought that Counts

I’d also recommend, Lissa Rankin MD, ‘Mind over Medicine‘ and Bruce Lipton, ‘The Biology of Belief‘.

I also have some mp3 audios: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (live lecture) and ‘6 Principles of Mind-Body Medicine

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5 tips for making visualisation work

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Here are 5 tips that can be used to help you get the most out of your visualizations, whether you’re applying them to heal your body, to change your life, or to improve your sports performance.

 

Believe in yourself

This is why I write about and teach the science behind the mind-body connection. If you understand that you’re always affecting your body with your mind, and that the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary, you realise that your mind is not some floaty, ethereal, thing that only interprets life events, but something that actually causes changes in the body. This way, you develop faith in yourself, that what you imagine, hope for, or intend, does have effects.

You can only do it right

This is something I say every time I guide people through a visualization process. Many people think they can’t visualise because they think everyone else sees in high definition (HD). Trust me, they don’t. But it’s the thought that they do that makes us think we’re doing it wrong. Actually, most people just get a vague set of images. What matters most is your intention and that you’re not thinking that you’re doing it wrong. I like the word, ‘imagine’ rather than visualise, because we all imagine in our own way. When I imagine, I have images in my mind’s eye but they are rarely that clear. For me, it’s more a feeling and sensing thing.

Relax

This can be easier said than done, but a regular practice of relaxing goes a long way to reducing stress in the body, which can only be a good thing. Meditation is great, as is yoga. Physical exercise is also a good way of relaxing. Eating a good diet can also help, one free of stimulants and high amounts of sugar and saturated fat.

Lighten up

I often suggest that people add a tiny bit of humour to their visualizations. This helps get around the worry that it might not work. When we worry, we activate brain areas associated with fear and anxiety. So if we inject a little lightness into the visualization, we retain our concentration on what we’re imagining and we might even help wire our brain networks away from the worry centres so that optimism and hope are born instead of worry. I encourage people to create a ‘victory dance’ to end their visualization. Basically, you do a silly dance of victory after you finish, and you have to do it until you find yourself smiling. This helps wire lightness into the brain.

The 3 R’s – Repetition-Repetition-Repetition

Research shows that we change brain structure through repetition of imagining movements. Brain scans of people playing piano versus people imagining playing it showed the same degree of changes in the same areas of the brain. But to get the changes required repetition of the movements – real or imaginary. When we stop doing the work, the brain regions shrink again. This is why consistency is key. You don’t become Olympic champion by going to the gym once. It’s important to do consistent visualization practice to get the best results.

 

References:

David R Hamilton PhD, “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body”. Paperback kindle