Positive Thinking - Can you imagine yourself into happiness?

Fantasy has been around for as long as humanity. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will”. Creative visualization is widely written about these days. Imagery is also used by cognitive behavioural therapists, amongst others. This study looks at the effects of self-guided imagery. Specifically, researchers Velikova et al. investigated whether self-guided imagery can increase wellbeing.

The research is important because up till now only the efficacy of guided imagery has been researched. Imagery is used in cognitive behavioural therapies to help individuals overcome issues such as phobias, anxiety and depression.  For example, someone worried about doing a public presentation would imagine themselves getting through it and successfully coping with any challenges. According to Laing, imagery influences both physiological and behavioural responses whereas changing one’s thoughts as per cognitive therapy, does not. Guided self-imagery has also proven effective for healthy individuals to increase optimism, improve relationships, promote empathy and social behaviour. It can be tailored to cover issues that individuals are struggling with. Therefore, self-guided visualisation is a potentially cheap and effective approach to improve wellbeing on a large-scale, whilst meeting the needs of individuals. In these times of cash-strapped public health services with long waiting lists, or expensive private therapies, this is an attractive alternative.

For the research, the 30 participants did 12 weeks of self-guided imagery sessions lasting 15-20 mins each. These were sandwiched in between two visualization training workshops at the beginning and end of the 12-week period which included and EEG.

One of the reasons for the lack of evidence about the effect of self-guided imagery is due to the lack of evidence of how visualizing affects the brain. Therefore, the researchers developed hypotheses to address this. They hypothesized that 1) psychological test results would reflect increased wellbeing after the training was completed 2) there will be changes in EEG results explainable by the training specifically a) changes in the regions participating in the imagery and emotional processing, b) increased EEG connectivity generally and specifically of theta waves which are linked to creativity.

The training consisted of learning techniques to:

·      cope with past traumatic events, working with it till they could see the story with a positive ending.

·      goal achievement of future events. To describe in as much detail as possible the goals and steps to achieving them and then visualize as if already achieved.

·      To improve social interactions. To imagine future relations as having tranquility, openness.

·      To feel more positive on the day-to-day. When visualizing tomorrow thinking of calmness and freshness and peace and satisfaction at the end of the day.


The psychological testing after the training programme showed that participants felt less depressed, perceived themselves as more effective, experienced life as more meaningful and felt more satisfied with life.

The EEG results did show increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex which is linked with imagining pleasant scenes. Therefore, it could be argued that this was because of the imagery training.

The EEG results also showed increased activity between the inferior temporal gyruses from both hemispheres during delta waves. These waves are present during deep sleep. There was also increased activity between the posterior cingulate cortex and right Inferior temporal gyrus during theta waves. Theta waves are experienced during light sleep or an intensely relaxed state such as deep meditation.

The researchers recognized that some of the same brain changes, for example in theta and delta waves could also occur in relaxation, however they pointed out that the changes in the DMN network would not occur in relaxation. It was also suggested that research would need to be conducted using more active imagery to ascertain whether the brain changes occurred due to the imagery and not due to the relaxation.

There were a small number of participants (30) so more research is needed to corroborate these results. Further research is also needed on which parts of the brain are implicated in visualization, to ascertain that the improved wellbeing is due to the self-guided visualization.  There was also a bias towards women, 24 out of 30 and towards those who already had sub-threshold depression, 22 out of 30. One could wonder if there is a gender difference in the ability to visualize and whether this would affect results. One could also question whether the results would be significant if all participants were emotionally healthy. The research also doesn’t talk about those individuals that struggle to visualize anything. Despite this, the results are exciting.

If as George Bernard Shaw says, ‘imagination is the beginning of creation’, then this is a potentially powerful tool to shape our worlds.


Journal Reference:

Svetla Velikova, Haldor Sjaaheim, Bente Nordtug. Can the Psycho-Emotional State be Optimized by Regular Use of Positive Imagery?, Psychological and Electroencephalographic Study of Self-Guided Training. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00664