Imagery and Physiological Change

     Imagery in healing is probably best known for its direct effects on physiology. Through imagery, you can stimulate changes in many bodily functions usually considered inaccessible to conscious influence. Here is a simple example: touch your finger to your nose. How did you do that? You may be surprised to learn that nobody really knows. A neuroanatomist 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 even having to know how.

     Now make yourself salivate. You probably didn’t find that as easy, and you may not have been able to do it at all. That’s because salvation 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 physiological 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 that you are holding a juicy yellow lemon. Fell its coolness, texture, and weight in your hand. Imagine cutting it in half and squeezing the juice of on halving 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 sour lemon 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? 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 through a similar mechanism, what you do habitually think about may have significant effects on your body. 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 send out an “all-clear” signal, and your body relaxes.

     Research in biofeedback, hypnosis, and meditative states has demonstrated a remarkable range of human self-regulatory capacities. Using focused imagery in a relaxed state of mind seems to be the common factor among these approaches. Imagery of various types has been shown to affect heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory patterns, oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide elimination, brain-wave rhythms and patterns, electrical characteristics of the skin, local blood flow and temperature, gastrointestinal motility and secretions, sexual arousal, levels of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the blood, and immune system function. This tells us that imagery can affect the major control systems of the body. But the healing potentials of imagery go far beyond its simple effects on physiology.