Guided Imagery: How does it work?


Recently I have been involved in developing a website for a former client who specialises in guided imagery therapy (sometimes called hypnotherapy) for obesity, insomina, stress, self-esteem, etc. This evoked an interest in guided imagery, especially as to the mechanism by which it works.  (This is related to previous postings on consciousness and empathy.

 “Imagery is the currency of dreams and daydreams; memories and reminiscence; plans, projections, and possibilities. It is the language of the arts, the emotions, and most important, of the deeper self.

Imagery is a window on your inner world; a way of viewing your own ideas, feelings, and interpretations. It is a means of transformation and liberation from distortions that may unconsciously direct your life and shape your health. “ – from ML Rossman, 2000

Through guided imagery you can make changes to your body functions that are usually inaccessible through conscious thought. Here is a simple example from ML Rossman:

 “Touch your finger to your nose. How did you do that? You may be surprised to learn that nobody knows.

A neuroscientist can tell us the area of the brain where the first nerve impulses fire to begin that movement. We can also trace the chain of nerves that conduct impulses from the brain to the appropriate muscles. But no one knows how you go from thinking about touching your nose to firing the first cell in that chain. You just decide to do it and you do it, without having to worry about the details.

Now make yourself salivate.

You probably didn't find that as easy, and may not have been able to do it at all. That's because salivation is not usually under our conscious control. It is controlled by a different part of the nervous system than the one that governs movement. While the central nervous system governs voluntary movement, the autonomic nervous system regulates salivation and other physiologic functions that normally operate without conscious control. The autonomic nervous system doesn't readily respond to ordinary thoughts like "salivate." But it does respond to imagery.

Relax for a moment and imagine you are holding a juicy yellow lemon. Feel its coolness, its texture, and weight in your hand. Imagine cutting it in half and squeezing the juice of one half into a glass. Perhaps some pulp and a seed or two drop into the glass. Imagine raising the glass to your lips and taking a good mouthful of the tart juice. Swish it around in your mouth, taste its sourness, and swallow.

Now did you salivate? Did you pucker your lips or make a sour face when you imagined that? If you did, that's because your autonomic nervous system responded to your imaginary lemon juice.

You probably don't spend much time thinking about drinking lemon juice, but what you do habitually think about may have important effects on your body through a similar mechanism. If your mind is full of thoughts of danger, your nervous system will prepare you to meet that danger by initiating the stress response, a high level of arousal and tension. If you imagine peaceful, relaxing scenes instead, it sends out an "all-clear" signal, and your body relaxes.”

A simplistic view of how the brain works is that there are two sides to the human brain – one thinks with words and logic, the other in terms of images and feelings.

“In most people, the left brain is primarily responsible for speaking, writing, and understanding language; it thinks logically and analytically, and identifies itself by the name of the person to whom it belongs. The right brain, in contrast, thinks in pictures, sounds, spatial relationships, and feelings. It is relatively silent, though highly intelligent. The left-brain analyzes, taking things apart, while the right brain synthesizes, putting pieces together. The left is a better logical thinker, the right is more attuned to emotions. The left is most concerned with the outer world of culture, agreements, business, and time, while the right is more concerned with the inner world of perception, physiology, form, and emotion.”  -- ML Rossman

The right brain has a special relationship with imagery and emotions and has a major part to play in the healing experience. It specialises in recognising facial expressions, body language (empathy), speech and music. Although verbal or logical thinking is considered “left-brained’, and symbolic or imagery thinking is “right-brained” is an oversimplification, it is a useful model for thinking about the uses of guided imagery.

“Imagery allows you to communicate with your own silent mind in its native tongue. Imagery is a rich, symbolic, and highly personal language, and the more time you spend observing and interacting with your own image-making brain, the more quickly and effectively you will use it to improve your health.” (ML Rossman)

(Note: Excerpted from ML Rossman, see: