Most mental health professionals are familiar with mental imagery in some capacity, and a large body of scientific evidence highlights the essential role that it plays in all aspects of cognition, memory and emotion — and even physical experience. Studies have shown, for example, that it can influence respiration rates,1 pain perception,2 and even post-surgical healing.3
Researchers continue to expand and deepen their inquiry of mental imagery, including its role in both psychopathology and treatment. It is not surprising that imagery has such wide-reaching and profound effects, considering what scientists have learned about its neurological underpinnings.
“The brain areas and physical responses evoked by mental imagery overlap considerably with the brain areas and physical responses evoked by the corresponding real actions,” Carey Morewedge, PhD, an associate professor at Boston University who has studied the use of mental imagery in reducing food cravings, told Psychiatry Advisor. “If we imagine a spider crawling across our leg, for example, we’re likely to experience an increase in our heart rate and the other physiological responses that would be evoked by the real presence of a spider.”
The similarity of imagined experience and actual experience can be detrimental or beneficial, depending on the person and context, whether it is used purposefully, and how it is used.
Mental imagery is a frequent occurrence for many people. Most recently, a study of 70 college students showed that “involuntary cognitions were common, predominantly visual in nature, emotional, often about social relationships, and often related to a hypothetical function of emotional processing.”4 Approximately two-thirds of these involuntary cognitions were memories (which were found to have similar content and emotional valence to non-memories, supporting the evidence of neural overlap between real and imagined experience), while the other types of cognitions included daydreams, imaginary scenarios and ruminations.
The type of imagery appears to be less important than its content. “We found that participants who reported a more negative view of themselves also reported a higher number of negative intrusive cognitions and a higher level of psychopathology,” study co-author Julie Krans, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium, told Psychiatry Advisor.
“This supports the idea that information related to a person’s current concerns — e.g., related to their psychopathology — is highly accessible in memory and guides both recall and mental imagery related to this concern,” she added.