Imagination Can Be Used to Control Fear
But it’s not about ‘thinking happy thoughts.’
A new study of the brain’s response to threats suggests a way to overcome phobias and anxieties that draws on the power of imagination — but not in the conventional, ‘just think happy thoughts’ sense.
“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,” says Tor Wager, the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, US.
The researchers, which included faculty at Icahn School of Medicine in New York, say their findings build on previous research that has found mental visualization of performance can boost related neural networks and improve real-world execution, as in the cases of athletes or musicians, as well as related research that suggests memories are fluid and easily updated with new and additional details. These conclusions, combined with their own findings, the researchers say, may help people with phobias, anxiety disorders and potentially even post traumatic stress disorder.
Wager is the co-senior author of a study, published in the journal Neuron, that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity when 68 participants were exposed to a real threat, versus an imagined threat. To start, participants were trained to associate a specific sound with a threat, by receiving an uncomfortable electric shock in accompaniment to hearing the sound.
After so learning to fear the sound, participants were divided into three groups — one that continued to hear the sound, one that was asked to imagine the sound playing in their heads, and one that was asked to ‘think happy thoughts’ like the sounds of birds twittering or rain falling. No group received any further shocks.
In the first two groups — those who continued to experience the shock-sound, and those who imagined it — the brain, over repeated exposure to the sound (real and imaginary) without the accompanying shocks, stopped responding in a fearful pattern. However, the group asked to ‘think happy thoughts’ continued to have brain activity indicative of fear in response to the shock-sound.
“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 re-consolidate it, updating the way you think about and experience something,” says the study’s lead author Marianne Cumella Reddan, a graduate student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the university. “You can use imagination constructively to shape what your brain learns from experience.”
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Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.