Imagine That — Imagination Is Lot Like the Real Thing (To Your Brain)


Albert Einstein once famously remarked that imagination was better than knowledge, since knowledge is limited. It may sound like a justification of ignorance to some, but a recent study suggests he was onto something. New research in brain imaging conducted by researchers at the University at Colorado Boulder and the Icahn School of Medicine, suggest yet a new way in which imagination can stimulate progress — a way for people to conquer their deepest fears, even offering a novel perspective on treating anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders — which include phobias, described as persistent and irrational fears — affect one in three Americans. Nearly 8 percent suffer from the condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, in which the body’s fight or flight response remains long after a terrifying experience. Clinicians have encouraged patients for decades to face their fears — be they real or imagined, in controlled settings. Many of the case studies suggested that patients got better, but little was known about how basic psychological methods such as modeling, affected the brain. The research, performed at the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at CU Boulder marks one of the first times that researchers have been able to observe how our brains react to an imagined fear compared to when we see the real thing.

“These novel findings bridge a long-standing gap between clinical practice and cognitive neuroscience,” says the study’s lead author, Marianne Cumella Reddan, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder. For the first time, a neuroscience study has demonstrated that envisioning a threat, such as a spider, can in fact, reshape the way it is represented in the brain.”

The study, published this month in the journal Neuron, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology on 68 healthy test subjects. Sensors on the skin also monitored how the body responded throughout the assessment. Before the study, they were conditioned to associate a specific sound with receiving a mild electrical shock. They were then split into three groups. One was required to listen to the same unpleasant sound they were conditioned with, while a subsequent group was asked to reproduce the same sound in their heads. The third group was asked to imagine sounds they found pleasant — such as bird songs or country rain. No one in the three groups received shocks following their conditioning.

The first two groups showed very similar brain activity. Lights came on by the auditory cortex (used for processing sound), the nucleus accumbens (necessary for reward learning) as well as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (associated with risk and aversion.) Being exposed to the sound long enough eventually led to extinction in the first control group, and they eventually had no fear reaction to the sound.

The third group, that had imagined pleasant sounds, however, continued to elicit a fearful response to the initial sound.

“I think a lot of people assume that the way to reduce fear or negative emotion is to imagine something good. In fact, what might be more effective is exactly the opposite: imagining the threat, but without the negative consequences,” said Tor Wager, the lab director and co-author of the paper.

There is already a body of research suggesting that simply imagining an act will activate and strengthen the brain regions necessary to perform it in real life. Dancers recovering from injury have been known to imagine their maneuvers, sometimes using their fingers as a guide. In doing so, they can jumpstart neural connections related to moving the muscles in their legs and feet. We also constantly update our memories without realizing — each time you tell a story from your past, you are in effect, reliving it, embellishing it with each retelling as you trigger other memories in the brain.

“If you have a memory that is no longer useful for you or is crippling you, you can use imagination to tap into it, change it and reconsolidate it, updating the way you think about and experience something,” said Reddan, emphasizing that imagination is a much more powerful tool than we often realize. Just a few notes in the sound her subjects listened to affected a number of neurons. While she and her team plan to research further, she advises to pay attention to what you imagine — shape it from what you learn in your day to day life.

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