You have been using imagery your entire life but you did not even realize it!

By Nurwina Anuar

Have you ever lost your car key? To find them, you might have thought back to the last place and time you held them in your hands, mentally retracing your steps.  Without even realizing it, you were using mental imagery. Following on from Fernanda’s post explaining why imagery is a skill for life, I will explore this theme further by giving you lots more reasons how it can benefit you.

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What is imagery?

Imagery is a mental activity.  Using your mind’s eye, you can recreate experiences you have had before or picture new experiences before they even happen.  In a classic study by Harvard University’s Prof Stephen Kosslyn and his colleagues (1990), they discovered that most spontaneous images experienced in every day life are visual in nature.  However, you may also use your mind’s ear to hear imaged sounds, your mind’s noise to experience imaged smells, and so on for the other senses.  Helping to make the images even more realistic, it is also possible to experience feelings and emotions during imagery.

Although imagery is most often considered to be a technique used by top sports people, it can be applied to almost every type of profession.  For example, imagery is used by writers, dancers, actors, musicians, psychologists, entrepreneurs, and surgeons.  Because most of everyday images are spontaneously created, we probably do not realize how often we use imagery to help us through our daily lives.

By becoming more aware of imagery and optimizing your ability to image, you will be able to use this technique to benefit in many ways.  In Kosslyn et al.’s (1990) study, they found that everyday images were used to:

  1. Solve problems (e.g., decide what to eat)
  2. Rehearse future encounters (e.g., asking your boss for a raise)
  3. Jogging your memory (e.g., putting a face to remember a forgotten name)
  4. Producing descriptions (e.g., giving directions to your house)
  5. Understanding descriptions (e.g., picturing a character in a book)
  6. Emotional/motivational (e.g., imaging a calm lake to relax)

Imagery can also have no particular purpose, such as when we are day dreaming.  However, to benefit most from imagery we need to be aware of inner experiences and focus the mind on what we are creating/recreating.  Like other mental techniques, you can improve your ability to image by practicing it regularly and deliberately.

Still not convinced why you should start to use imagery more often in your life? Here are five more reasons.

1. It is free

Imagery is a tool that does not require a single penny in order to use it. You don’t need an ap or a CD – just the power of your mind.

2. It can be used any time/any place

You can use it at any point of the day (or night!), whether it is first thing in the morning, during a break in work, or just before trying to fall asleep.  You can also use it anywhere you like. For example, athletes have reported using imagery at school, at home, as well as on the training pitch.

3. There is a scientific explanation for its benefits

Dr Aymeric Guillot, a professor at the Centre of Research and Innovation in Sport at University Claude Bernard Lyon in France has explained that experiences in real and imaginary worlds produces similar responses in the central nervous system.   During a “mental workout”, your sympathetic nervous system which governs our fight-or-flight response will react with increases in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. He further said, “Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks—paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it. You can use this to your advantage in different ways.”

4 You get to preview experiences before you take the action.

You don’t just relive old experiences through imagery but also can preview new experiences before they happen.  Why is this helpful? Imaging the situation before you experience for real can give you a sense of having done it before and build your confidence that the actual situation will go well.  Also, this mental rehearsal can help you to gain information on how to handle the situation, giving you the opportunity to try out different scenarios, changing your tactics, and reviewing possible outcomes.  This kind of imaged planning may even save time and money, allowing you to consider creative solutions to problems.

5. Imagery have been used for healing and medicine.

Imagery can help you to reduce pain and promote healing from injury and illness.  Pain can be reduced by using imagery to distract yourself, relaxing your muscles, and holding less tension.  You could image the sensation of getting massage, sitting on warm beach, taking hot bath, the muscles relaxing, or imagining the pain being released from the body.  As for healing, athletes will image image the fractured bone stick back together and other types images. This gives them a sense of control over their rehabilitation and perhaps confidence that it is working. Interested to know more about using imagery for pain and healing? Check out this resource.

In sum, imagery can be used in every day life to achieve many benefits. I would love to hear how you use imagery in your life by leaving a comment below.

About the author: Nurwina Anuar is a final year PhD student at the University of Birmingham.  

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