How imagination can help you overcome your fears

Our imagination is limitless. Humans have long used it to get through difficult times, create new things and come up with new solutions. It allows us to consider different scenarios than those we can see.

It was shown that imagination affects our minds: according to a 2009 study, our minds and bodies are able to anticipate an action that we are only imagining. Another 2013 study found that our perception of the world might be altered if we imagine to see particular shapes or hear certain sounds.

Imagination is a very useful tool when it comes to addressing your phobias or anxiety disorders.

The power of imagination

In order to desensitize a person to stimuli that trigger anxiety or fear, experts may suggest “Exposure therapy”. Exposure therapy means that you will be repeatedly exposed to what causes you fear in a safe environment. This will make you dissociate the cause of fear from the sense of threat you feel when you come in contact with it.

A study investigated how imagination can help us eliminate negative associations from our mind. The 68 participants were conditioned to associate a particular sound with an electric shock that was uncomfortable but did not cause any pain. They were then split into three groups: the first group continued to be exposed to the same sound, the second was only asked to imagine it, and the third was asked to imagine another pleasant sound.

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, researchers found that the brain activity in the first and the second group showed a very similar brain activity. The parts of the brain that were activated were:

  • Auditory cortex, the brain region that processes sound;
  • Nucleus accumbens, associated with learned fear;
  • Ventromedial Prefrontal cortex, which signals after exposure to risk.

The participants in these group, after repeatedly heard or imagined hearing the sound without receiving the electric shock, stopped being afraid: imagined exposure worked as well as the real one. In the third group, on the other hand, other brain regions activated, but the negative association between the sound and the electric shock never disappeared.

“Updating” bad memories with imagination

Imagination can be used to change or “update” an unpleasant memory and the emotions it is associated with. This can be done with memories that are no longer useful or that cripple you.

However, only certain individuals, those with particularly vivid imaginations, can effectively benefit from this sort of memory manipulation.

More research needs to be done, because the powers or imagination are endless and we might be missing unimaginable experiences.


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