Altering Perception and Experience with Mental Imagery

by Demetra Monocrusso

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See, sense and feel that you are standing in a valley, surrounded by trees and snowy mountains. Golden sun rays warm your face and the chirping of birds fills the air. A cool breeze gently caresses your skin, carrying a fragrance of flowers.

Not everyone has the perceptual ability to vividly produce this image in their mind’s eye as they would see it in photographs. In our everyday life, however, we are all able to generate Images to a varying degree of clarity, be it visualizing where our lost keys may be or Imagining the thirst-relinquishing effect of a glass of cold water in the scorching heat.

Perceptual ability is the brain’s capacity of collecting information through the senses and it is also discussed in the fields of cognitive and motor abilities. Mental Imagery, in particular, can be referred to as a quasi-perceptual experience, mental representations evoked from memory that allow one to re-experience a situation involving the initial or a new version of stimuli (Pearson et al., 2015).

Consistently with Sheikh’s (2003) assertion that individuals who use Mental Imagery have the capacity of voluntarily altering their experience in a desirable direction, it may be possible to re-write our life story through the application of Mental Imagery. In fact, Mental Imagery practitioners are able to arouse various beneficial visual suggestions in their clients that aid in their diagnosis, help their clients gain a better understanding of themselves, and improve their health (Davenport, 2016). A number of reports have shown the beneficial outcomes of applying Mental Imagery, such as, and not limited to, lessening pain and anxiety (Gagan, 1984), alleviating symptoms of fatigue in patients with breast cancer (Goodwin et al., 2005), as well as healing depression (Gilbert, 2009). This implies the capacity people have to take control and become active and empowered participants in their treatment through the practice of Mental Imagery.

Shorr (1975) described the process of Mental Imagery simply as thinking in pictures. Just as one could say that an image is worth a thousand words, experiments with healthy participants have shown that the effect on subjective emotion is greater when emotionally charged information is processed through Mental Imagery, than through verbal processing (Blackwell, 2019). But, how do we think in pictures?

Visual perception and Mental Imagery depend on shared neural structures (Singer, 1974). In short, the Mental Imagery process can be thought of as a form of induced top-down visual perception (Knauff et al., 2000) and, while affective and sensory experiences are inextricably linked, their relationship is influenced by past experiences and ongoing cognitive processes (Ochsner et al., 2012). However, both perception and Imagery may not engage certain sensory processes to the same degree. For example, an experiment conducted by Schifferstein (2009) shows that the senses of vision and audition consistently produce the highest image quality, compared to the sense of smell. As in our Imagery exercise of the valley, one may be able to visualize a sunlit valley or imagine the chirping of birds with greater clarity than actually smell the fragrance of the flowers. Nevertheless, the experience can be real. How can this be so?

Using functional MRIs and PET scans, Ganis et al. (2004) have demonstrated that we can map out what occurs in the human brain when using Mental Imagery and see that the parts of the brain related to the unconscious mind do not have the ability to tell the difference between what is real and a figment of the Imagination. They provide the example of how an involuntary response of salivation occurs when the brain perceives that one is sucking onto a slice of lemon. In other words, we can say that the brain perceives the Image of sucking on a slice of lemon as a true experience.

Interestingly, however, some people seem to have no Mental Imagery experiences at all; a phenomenon called aphantasia. Clinical literature has distinguished two main forms of neurogenous visual Imagery disorders, one being visual memory impairment, which causes visual agnosia and Imagery loss, and the other deficiency of Imagery generation (Farah, 1984). On the other hand, we cannot exclude the possibility that this may be entirely inaccurate, since recent studies of patients with dual dissociations between vision and Imagery abilities have evidenced that occipital damage has neither a positive nor negative effect on our ability to visualize images in our mind (Bartolomeo, 2002).

Memory provides us with the ability to connect the dots of our experiences, learn from them and make sense of our lives. Kosslyn (2005) suggests that the more we practice Mental Imagery, the more the images are stored in long-term memory as a complex arrangement of neurons via a process called neuroplasticity. Practicing Mental Imagery rarely causes the loss of this arrangement of neurons over time. In fact, with the regular exercise of imagining the transition from a state of anxiety into a state of emotional calm, it is more likely that this transition will be embedded in the long-term memory of an individual as an actual experience, and it may even evolve into a newly learned behaviour of restoring emotional balance in situations of stress. On the other hand, the irregular practice of this exercise will cause this experience to be forgotten and, therefore, it may not be readily available to be called upon and applied when needed.

This is an encouraging concept in that, since we all have, to varying degrees, the ability to experience Mental Imagery, we may further improve this ability, at will, and store new memories that redefine our perception and experience. In point of fact, it has been shown in healthy patients that repeated positive Images are more likely to induce more positive interpretations of ambiguous circumstances (Holmes et al., 2008; Nelis et al., 2012).

Be that as it may, Guided Imagery is a generally safe intervention, but certain precautions must be followed. This is because when Images that are perceived via guided directions are positive, the neuroplasticity that is generated is beneficial; however, the opposite may also happen if the perceived Mental Imagery experience is traumatic (Kosslyn, 2005). This is why Rossman and Shrock (2016) advise that expertise is required both when applying Mental Imagery and in treating conditions in patients with a history of psychosis or other mental illness who find it difficult to separate their mental representations from the external world. They add that the same applies to patients with traumatic histories who may experience increased anxiety when invited to relax. Stress that is not handled properly and is prolonged can trigger symptoms of disease and/or worsen them. Nevertheless, Mental Imagery is a safe treatment that is consistent with almost any other method of medicine and healing (Rossman & Shrock, 2016).

Mental Imagery may be used to improve psychological, cognitive, and behavioural functioning. As clinicians become more aware of research in this field, their confidence in the empirical basis for the importance of Mental Imagery will most likely increase, leading to the possibility of empowering their clients to actively become the best version of themselves, psychologically and physiologically.

First published as a scientific article in Wrexham Glyndwr University and in the magazine ImagiNews of the organization Imagery International.


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