6 ways your brain can’t distinguish real from imaginary.
Research shows us that when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a drug, and subsequently experiences a placebo effect, it is because their brain has produced the substances necessary to give them what they expected the drug to do. For example, when you receive a placebo for pain, but you think it’s a real painkiller, you expect a reduction in pain. Thus, your brain produces its own natural painkillers to meet this expectation – ie. a reduction in pain.
Your brain doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re facing a stressful situation right now or imagining it happening. Your brain produces stress hormones (like adrenalin and cortisol) when you feel stressed in a stressful situation, but it also produces them when you imagine a stressful situation.
When you’re kind to a person or an animal and you feel a sense of warmth or connection, your brain and heart produce oxytocin (aka, the kindness hormone, love drug, hug drug, or cuddle chemical). Oxytocin acts on your brain circuits (to create a sense of bonding), on your arteries (to reduce blood pressure) and on your immune system (to combat stress damage). But if you close your eyes and vividly imagine the same kindness, your brain will also produce oxytocin. It’s down to how you feel, and you can feel the same warmth and connection whether you’re being kind in reality or simply in your imagination.
Some research shows that when you imagine eating (the full process of biting, chewing, imagining the taste, and swallowing), your brain can process it in much the same way as if you were actually eating. When you eat something, there comes a point when your brain says, “I’m full” and thus the brain begins to supress your appetite (so you don’t eat until you burst). Research where people imagined eating sweets or cubes of cheese found that their brain had processed it as if they really had ate the sweets or cheese, and thus also supressed their appetite for more.
Research with athletes and stroke patients repeatedly show that imagining specific movements improve the ability to perform those movements. As such, imagining lifting weights makes you stronger, imagining swinging a golf club helps you hit the ball better, and imagining lifting your arm when your movement has been impaired improves your ability to lift your arm. According to brain scans, this is because imagining movements activates and builds the same brain circuits as actually moving does. Visualisation (mental imagery) techniques have subsequently helped sportspeople improve their performance as well as helping stroke people recover more movement and much quicker.
6) The immune system
Research shows that if we imagine increasing the numbers of particular immune cells or antibodies, we can actually increase these numbers. It has even been trialled in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, where one group of patients, in addition to receiving their treatment as normal, also visualise their immune system destroying cancer cells. These studies show that patients visualising their immune system working have higher numbers of T-cells and more active killer cells than those not visualise.
David R. Hamilton PhD