When you imagine something does your brain think you see it?

What is the difference between imagination and reality? Sometimes, not that much.

The February 2014 edition of the Monitor on Psychology (v. 45:2, p. 18) lists a brief note about a study published in Psychological Science that looks at eye pupil constriction when imagining light. Here’s the abstract from the link above (emphasis mine):

If a mental image is a rerepresentation of a perception, then properties such as luminance or brightness should also be conjured up in the image. We monitored pupil diameters with an infrared eye tracker while participants first saw and then generated mental images of shapes that varied in luminance or complexity, while looking at an empty gray background. Participants also imagined familiar scenarios (e.g., a “sunny sky” or a “dark room”) while looking at the same neutral screen. In all experiments, participants’ eye pupils dilated or constricted, respectively, in response to dark and bright imagined objects and scenarios. Shape complexity increased mental effort and pupillary sizes independently of shapes’ luminance. Because the participants were unable to voluntarily constrict their eyes’ pupils, the observed pupillary adjustments to imaginary light present a strong case for accounts of mental imagery as a process based on brain states similar to those that arise during perception.

So it seems that thinking about something causes your brain to respond as if it is really seeing. What might this mean about those who are trying to break free of addictions?

  • Would imagining heroin use create observable changes in they body that would make it harder to maintain abstinence
  • Would recalling sexual images create responses that make sexual addictions harder to break?

So, what is the difference between imagining an affair and actually engaging in one? From a brain perspective, maybe not that much. Certainly Jesus’ expansion of the seventh commandment suggests there isn’t a difference between the two from God’s perspective. And yet, we know that actual adultery creates more damage to more people than merely fantasizing about having an affair.

Rumination: the health killer!

I’m currently teaching students a course on psychopathology. Each week we consider a different family of problems. Thus far we have explored anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression, mania), anger/explosive disorders and addictions. Soon we’ll look at eating disorders, trauma, and psychosis.

There is one symptom that almost every person fitting one of those above categories experiences–repetitive, negative thought patterns.


The content of the repetitive thoughts may change depending on the type of problem (i.e., anxious fears, depressive negative thoughts, illicit urges, fears of weight gain, fears of being hurt, irritability, etc.) but the heart of the problem is the vicious cycle that negative thought patterns produce.

While there are many very good ancillary mental health treatments (Did you know that daily exercise, getting a good 8 hours of sleep each night, and eating a diet rich in protein supports good mental health and may even prevent re-occurrence of  prior problems?) it is essential for those of us who struggle with imagining negative events to find ways to shut down the production of rumination. Mindfulness techniques, thought-stopping, alternate focus may help to interrupt imaging bad feelings, thoughts, events and thereby interrupt the body reacting as if those bad things are indeed happening.


Filed under christian counseling, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

3 responses to “When you imagine something does your brain think you see it?

  1. I have always wondered: what is the difference between rumination and “taking an honest inventory”?

    I hope I don’t want to “ruminate” or “wallow” in negative thinking, but I don’t want to pretend it away, either, because we all know that doesn’t work.

    How do you distinguish, and functionally protect yourself while still being proactive and facing your problems

    • Great question Amy Jane! I would suggest that the difference between rumination and honest inventory would be found in the outcome. Rumination rarely leads to decisions, solutions, etc. So, if I am awake in my bed and wondering about how I performed in teaching the night before, does this thinking lead to changes, decisions, etc. Or, if you are worrying ruminating over a difficult relationship, does it lead to a good response? Most often, rumination “feels” like productive work but rarely leads to any good conclusion. In addition, if you can’t solve a problem then (e.g., it is the middle of the night and you can’t fix a relationship or choose a different teaching method, then mostly likely the “thinking” is wallowing. Make sense?

      One more thing. Choosing to have an alternate focus rather than think about a problem doesn’t mean we are denying the problem. We are just saying that for right now, we can’t solve it.

  2. There are interesting implications here for helping people who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors, especially pornography use and subsequent “replaying” or imagining of the videos/pictures/etc in one’s mind.

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