Wednesday, April 21, 2010

...using your imagination...

Did you know that the body/mind cannot tell the difference between a real experience and a very well-imagined one? 
For example, one really well-imagined experience is a nightmare.  Perhaps you have awakened after a particularly frightening one to find your heart pounding, your body frozen or conversely ready to pounce, your skin damp with perspiration?  Then you realize it was not a real experience and the body symptoms fade away. 

Or perhaps you have heard sounds and seen behaviors that have made you imagine something terrible is about to happen.  You become very alert, your breathing becomes shallow, your fists are clenched, your eyes are as wide as saucers ... and then you realize that you have misunderstood the situation and there is no danger at all.  The experience was not real, but because you believed it could be your body/mind prepared in consequence producing automatic bodily responses.

Let's try a little experiment here.  Try to really imagine the following as if you were really doing it: 

You are in your kitchen, about to prepare a thirst-quenching pitcher of lemonade.  The lemons are big, round, juicy and bright yellow.  You put one on the cutting board and bring your knife to slice it.  As you slice, you see droplets of lemon juice squirt from the lemon and your notice the impulse to bring a piece of the lemon up to your mouth and run your tongue along the juicy pulp ....

Now, notice what is happening in your mouth.  Is your mouth producing some extra saliva based on this well-imagined experience?  If you imagined well, you should notice extra saliva being produced in your mouth.  Even the slightest bit of 'watering' in your mouth is evidence that your body/mind cannot tell the difference between a well-imagined experience and a real one.  There is no lemon near you.  You merely imagined it.  Yet your body produced a physiological response (salivating), as if there were actually a piece of lemon being raised to your mouth.

Sports psychologists use this phenomenon to help their athlete clients prepare for competitions.  A well-imagined practice session can be almost as effective as a real one - and if done using all the senses can prepare an athlete for the event.  Of course, this is not magic and other factors weigh into the equation (environment, your health on the day of the event, other competitors preparation, intent and behavior, etc.).  However, the body/mind will produce the chemicals, hormones and muscle reactions of the required moves by means of a purposeful visualization.

Any person can use this technique to prepare for an upcoming event - a speech, a presentation, an interview, a medical procedure, etc.  It has often been called "fake it 'til you make it", but I prefer calling it "acting as if".

Years ago I heard an interview of the then aging Richard Burton (star of stage and screen).  Up until then he had been well-known for his bouts of drinking and depression.  The interviewer noted that Burton seemed to have his drinking under control and did not seem as moody or depressed as he once was.  Burton replied by saying something to the effect:  "Well, one day it dawned on me that I was a good actor ... so why not act as if I were happy.  That's what I did ... I acted as if I was enjoying life and before I knew it, I was!"

Any of us can act as if.  If you are lacking confidence for a social gathering - act as if you are very comfortable in your skin.  Remember the acting has to convince your body/mind (be well-imagined) in order to produce the effect you want.

If you are terrified of needles in any medical procedure, try acting as if you are no more terrified than anyone else.

If you are nervous around members of the opposite sex, try acting as if you have a high level of comfort and experience in that domain.

If you are terrified about an upcoming employment review, act as if you have every confidence that your performance will be found satisfactory.

If you feel shy and/or inept in large social gatherings, act as if you are the host and need to make sure everyone else has a good time.

Prepare yourself for any kind of 'performance' by visualizing it going well, in advance.  When at the 'performance', act as if you were totally confident of the outcome.  Remember, for your body/mind to believe you and produce the ensuing beneficial bodily reactions, it must be well-imagined.


Another important piece of information is that worry is usually a well-imagined experience.  We worry about the worst possible scenario in a given situation - imagining every horrid consequence or possible humiliation. 

Again, your body/mind does not know the difference between a real experience and a well-imagined one.  So think about what you are doing to your body/mind when you worry.  Your body/mind is perceiving the worry thoughts as indication of an imminent threat (physical or emotional). You are producing chemical and hormonal reactions to prepare for the well-imagined, impending threat ... created by a well-imagined event called worrying.  Worry stresses the body and all its systems.  Worry is a well-imagined experience we would all do well to avoid.  If you catch yourself worrying, you can remind yourself that your body/mind does not need to be put through the stress, and decide to stop.

New age gurus have usurped this information and tell their often needy, desperate followers that applying these principles of visualization and acting as if to concerns about success and wealth, will produce the same effects.  To my mind, and based on my experience, this is a distortion of the principles.  The only ones I have seen get rich using this technique in this fashion are the ones who make the claims and write the books.  Of course, you are free to employ the principles in any way you want and see what results you get.  You are much more likely to be satisfied with the results if you are applying them to inner feeling states, rather than trying to attract outer good fortune your way.

I have worked with several people in therapy who, on the advice of a guru or book, tried to apply this technique to attracting a mate, a job, or money.  When it did not work they did not blame the guru, book, or faulty use of the technique.  Rather they blamed themselves and struggled with a sense of failure and disappointment.   You can try the technique any way you want, but just know that it works better with regard to building inner strengths than attracting outer benefits.


  1. Bonnie,
    This is a GRRRREAT post!

    A wonderful reminder about not worrying (which I spend far too much time doing) & spending more time "acting as if..."

    Victor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning) used the visualization techniques you've mentioned... visualizing his future, visualizing reading his manuscript to an auditorium full of people...

    Again, great post~ thanks!

  2. It has been said that "worry" is the strongest prayer there is and will always come to pass one way or another...I am wondering , since this is so mouth watering effective- how this sort of thinking can help make people more healthy- without diving into the christian science craziness...How is it any different than hypnosis- probably isn't except that one has their own hand on the control. Cool post, Dear Bonnie. As always!Question, if I am really angry -rightfully so, some sort of outrage, should I pretend that I am actually happy? Let it slide?

  3. great post bonnie...i have seen this work in so many ways...and my tongue kinda curled too, expecting the tart...but we like it tart...smiles.

  4. Very interesting. As a teacher of VERY young children many of whom spend many of their free moments shooting everything in sight in a combat simulation video games, the implications are alarming to say the least!

  5. I did this when I performed my recent first-ever solo at church! I simply decided that I was singing to God alone, and all those people sitting out there were just bystanders. At one point, I think I even closed my eyes, and was swaying as I belted out what I thought was the best rendition I'd done of Wayfaring Stranger. It worked beautifully, and it made the experience so good that I now know I CAN do it! Again, and again, and again... and not be nervous or worried.

    What a great post Bonnie!

  6. Beautifully said! And it is so true.
    Thanks for sharing this

  7. This is such a well presented argument for not being negative or worrying needlessly and thus avoiding some stress to the body. One I will pass on to others in my life. I hate hearing a negative if...If it can't be said with a smile...don't even think it.

  8. becky: Thank you. Frankl has so much wisdom to share - love that book.

  9. Linda Sue: You raise two great points.

    Yes, all kinds of reputable authors offer guided visualizations for healing. One with a Buddhist perspective is entitled, "Boundless Healing". One for cancer is "Fighting Cancer from Within" by Martin L. Rossman, M.D. My favourite is an older book entitled "Rituals of Healilng - Using Imagery for Health and Wellness" by Jeanne Achterberg.

    Should you act as if you are not angry if you are justifiably angry about something? NO. Your body/needs to experience the ebb and flow of all your emotions. Feel what you are feeling (without acting out too much!) and the feeling should pass. If you have been stuck for years in old anger - you could then try the technique.
    Feelings come to tell us about our inner experience - we need to listen and express - and the emotion should flow away as another arises. This is life. Supression or repression of our emotions plays havoc with our bodily functions. This technique is more for dealing with pervasive stances to life that interfere with optimal functionning in the world.

    Thanks for asking these questions! Important information and distinctions for everyone.

  10. Hey Brian: The lemon exercise is a great one to demonstrate the point one on one - I use it all the time with clients - and with no images! Only once did someone claim that they did not salivate - but they were a rather oppositional sort, so I had my doubts about the veracity of their claim.

  11. Dan: Perhaps when time allows and it feels appropriate you could intervene to CONTINUE their imaginary scenario by having them imagine the pain and suffering of the person they just shot ... perhaps a completed version of the game would at least develop some empathy and conscience.

    Interesting point Dan. Oh my!

  12. Jayne: Isn't it amazing how that works. Our body/mind always responds to our beliefs. What a great example of how to use this 'technique'.
    Singing to God alone ... wonderful ... how could you not sing well.

    A similar one is good for shy people: I suggest they imagine they are one of the hosts of any event taking on the job of making other people comfortable. As they assume the imagined role, they forget their own (often self-absorbed) discomfort and focus on other people.

  13. Wanda: So true. We cannot go around thinking scarey, damning, warring thoughts and think it does not affect our precious tissues. Of course, problems have to be considered, solutions sought, losses grieved - but emotion does contain the word 'motion' perhaps to remind us that they need to move and flow through us.
    We don't want to become pollyanna-ish - were we are in denial about reality - but there are things we can do if we see that we are stuck in a negative attitude or stance toward life.

  14. Ah, the Secret. Imagine you're filthy rich and money will fall from the sky... to whoever wrote that book...

    I want Lemonade!

  15. Hey Jazz: lol!!! What a great gimmick - call your book The Secret ... and the masses will flock to your cash register. I would be interested in a book listing all the disappointments of the people who are still waiting for the money to land on their doorstep.

    The key is you have to visualize, write a book telling people that magic will happen if they do too, AND THEN the money comes from the writing of the book!

  16. Wonderful post, Bonnie. This is something I need to remind myself of often - not always with the greatest results but it's a start. You'd think we'd learn that most of what we worry about and fear, never comes to pass. It's such a waste of emotion. Thanks for the reminder. It's a timely one for me.


    Great post - and tool(s) for survival :-) and my example, is very simplistic - My Mom always said to me that when I was really feeling uncomfortable in the heat and humidity to "imagine" myself sitting on a huge ice block!! It works every time :-)

    Love to you

  18. Very interesting read. I've read things on this subject before, but I like how you worded it. Visualization is a wonderful tool.

  19. The workings of the brain and mind never cease to amaze me. This was a fascinating post, Bonnie. Thanks.

  20. Interesting post, Bonnie - and yes my salivary glands did work when thinking about that lemon.

  21. I love this post, very interesting, the art of visualization. I am working on it....I tend to worry too much, so this will be my goal Thanks.

  22. The power of the mind is so under estimated..I love this post..I believe that thoughts are energy..Thoughts become things..choose the good ones..I love that phrase..but I agree, people forget this is not a tool for attracting outer benefits as you say..too many people distort this to make money.. the the concept is true.

  23. Hilary: I think there is a worry gene implanted in all mothers at the moment of conception. I can easily slip into worry mode, but when I recall what I could be doing to my body I try to stop. As you say, it is such a useless management of a limited resource - our energy!!

  24. Gail: Now that's a great tip! I do not like the heat - so will give it a try this summer!!

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Pat: An effective little demonstration that almost always works!

  27. Cinner: As Hilary said, most of what we worry about never happens, so we are sitting creating an imminent threat for our body to respond to - producing adrenalin and all kinds of other chemicals that over time hurt our body. Good incentive to stop.

  28. What a wonderful blog!
    Obviously we accord in "tone"
    and I'm delighted that you discovered mine.

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral

  29. Bonnie, this is an extraordinary post--rich with information and insight! Thank you! I LOVED THIS! You write such fabulously interesting, intriguing and profound posts! ~Janine XO

  30. Great post! I am trying to use visualization to work my way thru panic attacks! I love the lemon experiment!

  31. Cloudia: I glad to have discovered your blog too.

  32. Cloudia: Usually I speak better English than the previous response to you! TYPO :-)

  33. Missy: Panic attacks are sometimes a result of worry and obsessively thinking the same catastrophizing thoughts ... Good luck with that - panic attacks are SO not fun.

  34. Bonnie, As a fiction writer, I can only say that there is some wierd connection between the scenes I write (action scenes or transitional scenes) that gives me some kind of wierd rush. Like I can disappear into it. Like, for a few minutes (or hours) I can be part of that world and not this world. It's crazy. But having been missing my own writing for a while now, I can say I miss that rush into my imagination and feel a little like a dog who's misplaced it's favorite toy...:p) Fascinating post, as always.

  35. I once had a boss (whom we all disliked!) who said "You make yourself happy or unhappy." Like Richard Burton, I decided to act like I was happy. I never really liked my boss. But I stopped being unhappy. Damn the boss; he was right!

  36. Hi Bonnie, My new age guru never speaks of success and wealth, just Love and Happiness... i also believe that if i believe that i can heal my body, i can and i have personally seen people achieve this through sheer belief...
    i believe that in truth my body does not know the difference between a positive suggestion or a negative one and if there is one thing i have learned through the experience of cancer, a body does indeed listen...
    i have watched a doctor to say to one person you will die in 3mths and so they have accepted their fate and died on time, i yet i have watched another say no i donot accept your words and go on to live...
    Perhaps it really is this simple?
    Vicki xox

  37. I arrived/discovered your blog via a link from a link to a link via the Garden Bloggers. I love it. The lemons don't make my mouth water as much as a dill pickle does. I can conjure up that thought in a heartbeat. The same imagination techique goes for feeling the adrenaline rush after getting stung by a bee or a horsefly by just seeing the bug.

    There are certain aspects of this blogpost that put me in mind of Barbra Ehrenreich's Book "Bright Sided." With that being said, the preschool education commenter who wrote above about all the guns and violence she sees being acted out by little kids does make one wonder. If what you see is really what you get...can a culture with the biggest hugest Army in the world be thought of as a peaceful people/nation?

    Reality is one thing, Imagination is quite another. You can meditate all day on that one and never derive any other real meaning than all the violence is real and not going away anytime soon.

  38. Well this may not be very popluar to say...but violance has been part of humanity throughout all history...As a History major..I have always been amazed as to the violance between humans due to race, religion and terrotory..I have come to believe it is in our nature..the children exposed to all this violance around them????
    Well remember "Lord of the Flies" even without exposure I believe
    there are certain traits that are part of who we are...visualize or not some things "just are" Can we suppress these traits..or use empathy to suppress them??? some can..but most won't..


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