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, 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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106 Comments

  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

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

  4. […] new book I Heart Me. You have to listen to this man talk. He really does inspire with science. His piano playing story and Power Pose technique go down a treat in my coaching […]

  5. […] new book I Heart Me. You have to listen to this man talk. He really does inspire with science. His piano playing research and Power Pose technique go down a treat in my coaching […]

  6. How A Simple Realization Can Change Your World on December 21, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    […] scientifically proven that your nervous system is unable to tell the difference between an event that’s real and one you vividly […]

  7. Amazing brain hack | Lam Huynh on August 31, 2016 at 7:49 am

    […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?  This is based on the scientific research here: Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. […]

  8. […] No circumstances changed in your present reality, but how you felt did. You made it real by your attention to it. Science shows that our minds don’t register the difference between something that is actually happening vs. something we imagine is happening. Here is just one link I found if you would like to read more about this. http://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/ […]

  9. […] subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s not. According to research, the brain makes files based on information it is given, usually through our senses but sometimes […]

  10. 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. 🙂

  11. […] leads us to negative feedback loops and endless frustration. This is where visualization comes in. Neuroscientists and Chemists are learning that amazingly the brain cannot differentiate between what…. Visualizing our goals in great detail on a regular basis our brains actually begin to create new […]

  12. […] leads us to negative feedback loops and endless frustration. This is where visualization comes in. Neuroscientists and Chemists are learning that amazingly the brain cannot differentiate between what… Visualizing our goals in great detail on a regular basis our brains actually begin to create new […]

  13. […] problem is that your brain really can’t tell the difference between what you view on television and social media and reality. So if you unplugged for a while and paid attention to your local life long enough, you might […]

  14. 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!

  15. How to Overcome Fear and Worry Once and For All on February 19, 2017 at 7:59 am

    […] into the future, because it’s not real, it’s imaginary and it’s always ahead. Your mind can’t distinguish real from imaginary and that causes you to feel […]

  16. 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.

  17. Brain Hacks – Site Title on March 30, 2017 at 7:08 am

    […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?  This is based on the scientific research here: Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. […]

  18. […] show that your brain does not distinguish between a memory, a real event, or an imagined event. The more you can create a positive experience […]

  19. Daydreaming | Shaun Rosenberg on April 11, 2017 at 3:25 am

    […] this dream world. Our brains have a difficult time deciphering between what is real and imaginary http://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/, which leads to an obvious problem. Why would we ever chose to be in the real world when we can […]

  20. […] that’s right! It’s just pretend. Or is it? Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So if you start to imagine what you want to be, then you will become […]

  21. […] minds cannot distinguish real from […]

  22. […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? – David R. Hamilton PhD […]

  23. […] minds cannot distinguish real from […]

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

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  25. […] yourself and bring to life your wildest dreams. Our minds are purely tricked in the sense that they cannot tell what is real or fake. That’s why we often get scared of the smallest sounds after watching a horror film. However, the […]

  26. […] that says, “Words are free, it’s how you use them that’ll cost you (author unknown).” The brain believes what it is repeatedly told. It will automatically create the situations that you think or […]

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

    Very informative and thanks.

  28. […] imagined practicing the piano every day physically strengthened the muscles in their fingers. Other studies also found that your brain does not distinguish between imagination and […]

  29. […] imagined practicing the piano every day physically strengthened the muscles in their fingers. Other studies also found that your brain does not distinguish between imagination and […]

  30. […] safe with our religious home team. Recent scientific research suggests that our brains interpret whatever thoughts or ideas we imagine as true, even if the information may not actually be […]

  31. […] 2. The brain cannot tell fact from fantasy. […]

  32. […] and fiction there are times that this line becomes foggy. At these times the human brain can become confused as to what is real and what is merely a fantasy. This is why placebos can be so effective in treating various […]

  33. […] and fiction there are times that this line becomes foggy. At these times the human brain can become confused as to what is real and what is merely a fantasy. This is why placebos can be so effective in treating various […]

  34. […] imagined practicing the piano every day physically strengthened the muscles in their fingers. Other studies also found that your brain does not distinguish between imagination and […]

  35. […] do them.  That’s because if we visualize & really imagine & feel an action mentally, our brains sometimes can’t tell the difference between physical reality, actually “doing…. So you can have the same affect in regards to building […]

  36. The Power of Imagination - One Life Hypnotherapy on February 15, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? […]

  37. […] to Doctor David Hamilton’s article Does your Brain Distinguish Real from Imaginary, the human brain processes real and fake experiences the same […]

  38. AWARENESS – Down Dog Athletics on February 23, 2018 at 5:50 am

    […] thoughts a habitual way of thinking? I’m big believer in the law of attraction and there is evidence that the mind can’t distinguish between what is visualized and what is […]

  39. […] on your couch. Your brain doesn’t really draw a hard line between the real and the imagined. Research shows that imagining an event stimulates the same neural pathways as experiencing that same event. Have […]

  40. […] 1 is important because it prepares your mind and body to receive whatever you’re asking for. Our brains don’t know the difference between reality and imagination. When you engage in full, sensory imagination, your brain fires up […]

  41. […] as possible. That’s going to keep you in a state of high vibration. Plus, the subconscious mind does not differentiate between what’s real and imagined, which means that by continually visualising a certain scenario, you can trick the brain into […]

  42. 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

  43. 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 …

  44. 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

  45. […] that, as we just discussed, the ability to analyze is found in the conscious mind. For this reason, the line between reality and imagination can become blurred. This is the underlying reason for the power of […]

  46. How your state of mind affects your productivity on November 13, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    […] When you create a portrait of yourself and truly believe in it, it becomes your driver either for fulfillment and success or anxiety and depression. Also if you believe in your fear it will appear in reality for you. Dr. David R. Hamilton discusses this in his article. […]

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

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

  48. 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?

    Regards,
    B.Y.Byun

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

      Yes, of course. 🙂

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  50. […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? […]

  51. Guided meditation for sleep · Sleepytime Club on January 9, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    […] Our brains cannot really distinguish the difference between real and imaginary events.   […]

  52. […] [Pic Courtesy of DAVID R HAMILTON Ph.D.] […]

  53. 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.

  54. […] Something incredible amazing about the human brain is the following: it cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined threat. […]

  55. […] Plus, your body doesn’t know the difference between something that is actually happening to you, and something you imagine happening to you. (here is a study on this) […]

  56. […] Research has shown, that your subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So, don’t wait for your dreams to come true, to experience the joyous vibrations of love and happiness you wish for. […]

  57. 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.

  58. […] questo articolo del Dottor David R. Hamilton, viene spiegato che, prendendo in considerazione le scansioni del cervello tra un gruppo di […]

  59. […] we become an average of the five people we spend the most time with. Considering our brains make no clear distinctions between real and imaginary, it follows that we’d similarly adapt to whatever media environments […]

  60. All Media Is Social | BudSYN on June 13, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    […] we become an average of the five people we spend the most time with. Considering our brains make no clear distinctions between real and imaginary, it follows that we’d similarly adapt to whatever media environments […]

  61. […] This letter excels with getting the receiver to visualize and experience the better days ahead. The vivid imagery and emotive words create the experience as if it already happened. And science shows that visualization is as real as actual events to your brain! […]

  62. […] Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? […]

  63. […] that saying everyone says, “fake it til you make it”? Well, a recent study can prove that it actually […]

  64. […] Because, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a fantasy win and a real win. So as you gain more points, smash aliens, and earn rewards, your brain will release more […]

  65. […] Research has shown, that your subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So, don’t wait for your dreams to come true, to experience the joyous vibrations of love and happiness you wish for. […]

  66. […] important because it prepares your mind and body to receive whatever you’re asking for. Our brains don’t know the difference between reality and […]

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

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

  68. […] example of how similiar brain scans were on people playing piano and another group imagining it ( https://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/)    It’s all sensory information which the brain learns from. So using the law of […]

  69. 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)

  70. […] you know that the mind cannot distinguish imagination from reality? We can take advantage of this psychological loophole and practice Soul […]

  71. […] 1 is important because it prepares your mind and body to receive whatever you’re asking for. Our brains don’t know the difference between reality and imagination. When you engage in full, sensory imagination, your brain fires up […]

  72. […] 1 is important because it prepares your mind and body to receive whatever you’re asking for. Our brains don’t know the difference between reality and imagination. When you engage in full, sensory imagination, your brain fires up […]

  73. […] is scientific research that shows that the brain cannot distinguish well between images that we vividly […]

  74. […] For me, the appeal of switching from third-person perspective to first-person was that it enabled me to literally engage with a reader’s emotions, by describing the physical impact of being part of the story in a way that’s much more difficult in third-person. For example, by writing “my hands balled into fists” you know your heroine is angry, without having to say so (the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule) but you’ll also find the reader balls their hands up into fists; because they’re experiencing the same emotional journey as your character is, and they instinctively mirror the same physical reactions. This isn’t just hokey writer talk, either. It taps into a very specific scientific principle that the brain can’t tell the difference between reality and imagination.  […]

  75. […] it’s a scientific fact that the brain can’t actually tell the difference between what’s real, and what’s imaginary. If you describe a character shivering in the snow, you’ll often have the beach-side reader […]

  76. […] is, the brain does not know the difference from reality and fiction. Well documented in psychology and […]

  77. […] a real memory and what is imagined. David R. Hamilton, PhD., explains in his article “Does Your Brain Decipher Real from Imaginary” that this phenomenon is evident with fear. When you are scared of something happening in […]

  78. 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. 🙂

  79. Walking on sunshine – Site Title on March 12, 2020 at 6:46 pm

    […] way.  Be careful what you wish for!   Is Dreaming Visualization?   I’ve been reading about sports visualization. And I wonder if I can take advantage of the finding that your body experiences muscle movement […]

  80. […] physiological level we, as humans, fall somewhere between being highly influenced by media to being unable to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary.  Experiencing stressful situations in real life triggers a fight, flight or freeze sympathetic […]

  81. Walking on sunshine – all the nerve on March 28, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    […] good way.  Be careful what you wish for!   Is Dreaming Visualization?   I’ve been reading about sports visualization. And I wonder if I can take advantage of the finding that your body experiences muscle movement […]

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

    Awesome article. I have learnt a lot from this.

  83. […] Hamilton, D. R. (2014, October 31). Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? David R Hamilton Ph.D. Retrieved from http://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/ […]

  84. […] survival. Fear is often key to survival, triggered by a real or perceived threat. However, the brain does not know the difference between an actual threat and the thought of it. That’s how complex and powerful the human brain is. It can deceive us, tricking us into believing […]

  85. […] It doesn´t know the difference between what you imagine and what is real. It just sends the signal to your mouth to produce the saliva it needs to break down the acid in the lemon. […]

  86. […] would something so unnatural as a round of Xbox trigger such a primordial response? Studies show the brain actually has difficulty discerning between real-life events and those that are imagined. […]

  87. […] unique that researchers have found is that the brain basically cannot distinguish between performing an activity and vividly […]

  88. 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

  89. […] would something so unnatural as a round of Xbox trigger such a primordial response? Studies show the brain actually has difficulty discerning between real-life events and those that are imagined. […]

  90. Tro inte på allt du tänker! - Livsmotivation on November 8, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    […] och forskaren inom organisk kemi David R. Hamilton har gjort en undersökning för att undersöka om hjärnan kan skilja på det som är verklighet och […]

  91. […] visualize yourself shifting your thinking. Visualization used this way is a type of repetition and research shows that our brains can tell the difference between something we image doing and an action we […]

  92. […] Also Read: – Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary? […]

  93. […] subconscious mind can experience the same brain stimulation from reality and just your imagination. So visualizing having money affects your brain and raises […]

  94. […] Well-known research involved an experiment where the researchers recruited two groups of volunteers, one to play a real piano and the other to simulate playing the piano. In this two-part experiment, they took brain-scans over five consecutive days. Then, they compared brain scans of both the groups with a third control group that neither played nor imagined playing the piano. The brain activity was identical between the real piano players and those that simulated playing the imaginary piano. It was a breakthrough finding.  (https://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/) […]

  95. 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

  96. […] é importante porque ele prepara a sua mente e seu corpo para receber o que você está pedindo. Os nossos cérebros não sabem a diferença entre a realidade e a […]

  97. […] would something so unnatural as a round of Xbox trigger such a primordial response? Studies show the brain actually has difficulty discerning between real-life events and those that are imagined. […]

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