CU Boulder Study Finds Imagination Could Be As Effective As Reality

December 9, 2018 GMT

Imagine one of your greatest fears. Now imagine it again. And again. And again.

After confronting the fear enough times in your head, your mind may stop reacting to it and you could find there’s not much fear left at all, according to a new study from researchers at University at Colorado and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York that was published in the journal Neuron.

The study found that imagining fears may be just as effective as exposure therapy as facing them head-on, according to a news release from CU.

“This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our well-being,” Tor Wager, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at CU and a senior author on the study, said in a statement.


Clinicians are using the imagination more and more often as a tool to affect the brain, so the authors of the study say that more research into the area is necessary.

Wager said people should actively manage their imaginations, as it can be used “constructively to shape what your brain learns from experience.”

About one-third of people in the United States have anxiety disorders, including phobias, according to the release. For decades, clinicians have used exposure therapy — asking patients to face their fears — to treat anxiety and phobia disorders.

In the CU study, researchers trained 68 participants to associate a sound with an uncomfortable electric shock. The participants were then divided into three groups: some were exposed to the same sound, some were asked to imagine the sound in their heads, and some were asked to imagine pleasant sounds, like birds and rain. None of the groups experienced further shocks.

Researchers then measured the participants’ responses to the sounds, both real and imagined, in their minds and bodies using skin sensors and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

They found that participants who imagined the threatening sound and the participants who actually heard it had “remarkably similar” brain activity, according to the release. The three parts of the brain that process sound, fear, and risk and aversion all lit up on the fMRI.

After repeated exposure to the sound, whether real or imaginary, those two groups also experienced “extinction.” This means they lost their fear of the sound. After facing its fear in a safe setting, the brain learned to no longer be afraid — even when it only faced the fear in its imagination.


The group of participants who imagined pleasant sounds, like birds, had different brain reactions and maintained a fearful response to the threatening sound associated with the electric shocks.

“Statistically, real and imagined exposure to the threat were not different at the whole brain level, and imagination worked just as well,” said Marianne Cumella Reddan, the lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU.

There was greater variance in brain activity within the group who imagined the sound, however, Reddan said. This suggests people with more vivid imaginations might experience greater brain changes when trying to simulate something inside their heads.

Reddan said the new study shows that the imagination could be even more useful for updating memories than previously believed.

By using the imagination, people can repackage the memories that cripple them. It can help people change the way they think about memories that aren’t useful, and might stop you from taking on new challenges or make you irrationally fearful of certain things.

Prior research has shown that using the imagination can activate neural connections in the brain related to doing the tasks in real life, which can improve one’s performance of the tasks. Research also has shown it’s possible to update or change memories stored in the brain by adding new details through the imagination.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212,