What is Mental Imagery?

The simplest definition or description of mental imagery is the process of ‘thinking in pictures’. It is also referred to as visualisation. A more formal definition would be: the inner representations (usually, but not always, in pictorial form) produced by the imagination. These representations might have external referents such as memories of lived experiences or they may be purely imaginary with no external referents. Put more simply, mental images are the productions of the imagination.

Overview

There is a rapidly expanding range of applications of mental imagery across several disciplines and guided imagery techniques are well-established methods in popular self-help literature. This interest is relatively recent. During the premodern period people believed that imagination played a role in causing illnesses and could be used as a method of healing. This view persisted in Western Europe until the Cartesian mindbody split became established as the dominant discourse during the 18th century. From then on the faculty of imagining was understood to be purely the contents of the mind and, therefore, in theory, it could no longer affect the physiological workings of the body. Furthermore, imagination was compared unfavourably with another mental faculty i.e. rational analytical reasoning. Consequently, it was regarded as an inferior type of mental processing that was immature and untrustworthy.

What is Mental Imagery?

The simplest definition or description of mental imagery is the process of ‘thinking in pictures’. It is also referred to as visualisation. A more formal definition would be: the inner representations (usually, but not always, in pictorial form) produced by the imagination. These representations might have external referents such as memories of lived experiences or they may be purely imaginary with no external referents. Put more simply, mental images are the productions of the imagination.

Overview

There is a rapidly expanding range of applications of mental imagery across several disciplines and guided imagery techniques are well-established methods in popular self-help literature. This interest is relatively recent. During the premodern period people believed that imagination played a role in causing illnesses and could be used as a method of healing. This view persisted in Western Europe until the Cartesian mindbody split became established as the dominant discourse during the 18th century. From then on the faculty of imagining was understood to be purely the contents of the mind and, therefore, in theory, it could no longer affect the physiological workings of the body. Furthermore, imagination was compared unfavourably with another mental faculty i.e. rational analytical reasoning. Consequently, it was regarded as an inferior type of mental processing that was immature and untrustworthy.

Overview cont/d

Imagination as a healing modality languished on the side lines until the latter half of the 19th century when there was upsurge of interest in the nonrational mind. The pioneering work of Janet who viewed patients’ mental imagery as indications of communications from a potentially helpful unconscious source, helped to lay the ground for Freud’s psychoanalytic method. From the inception of psychotherapy, nearly all therapeutic schools and approaches have to a greater or lesser extent accepted the therapeutic potential of clients’ mental imagery. Some of the most significant clinical innovators of the 20th century contributed to the development of its therapeutic application in talking therapies. It would be fair to say that Jung’s work on imagery and symbols stands out as one of the main enduring influences.

However, it took longer for other related disciplines such as psychology to engage with mental imagery. It was only halfway through the 20th century when a body of uncontrovertible empirical evidence had amassed , that mental imagery became an acceptable and legitimate area of study. The resultant flowering of interest in the 1970s laid the ground for widespread popular interest in using mental imagery and visualisation techniques for self-development and self-help. The new humanistic psychotherapies such as gestalt embraced the potential for mental imagery to bypass the restrictions of the intellect. Alongside its use in talking therapies, increasing interest in the reintegration of mind and body prompted explorations of the use of mental imagery in pain relief and bolstering the immune system in cancer patients. Behavioural techniques were developed that used imagery to model desired behaviours.

Contemporary practices with mental imagery

By the end of the 20th century, mental imagery had become an established approach and techniques such as guided imagery and visualisation were being developed and used in a range of disciplines. In talking therapies, contemporary cognitive approaches have embraced the therapeutic potential offered by clients’ mental images and are at the forefront of new developments in research and practice. New imagery-based methods have been developed such as imagery rescripting for treating trauma. In psychology, early behavioural techniques for modelling desired behaviour have rapidly evolved into sophisticated imagery-based sports coaching methods. In holistic nursing practice, practitioners can now draw on a wide repertoire of guided visualistion scripts designed to help patients manage health conditions. And in popular culture, guided imagery is an accepted and everyday technique used in many different contexts for reducing anxiety and increasing relaxation.

The future direction of mental imagery applications is likely to be towards a deeper integration across several disciplines. There is a greater appreciation of the fundamental role that imagination plays in shaping cognitive processing. This has been influenced by the theoretical developments arising out of new disciplines emerging in the later part of the 20th century such as cognitive linguistics and psychoneuroimmunology. The clinical experience of early psychotherapists led them to believe mental imagery was a means of communicating between the conscious and nonconscious parts of the mind. We are now in a position to deepen the ways in which we understand and use this language (the ‘forgotten’ language as Fromm termed it) and integrate it more fully in all activities that heal, develop and nurture human life (see resources for further reading).