As many as one in three Americans deal with anxiety and phobias. One common treatment is “exposure therapy” where people are asked to face their fears in a safe setting. But new scientific findings have shown us that even just imagining a threat can change the way it is represented in the brain.

This means that imagining your phobia, say, a creepy spider, a scary snake, or a barking dog, repeatedly, in a safe environment, may, over time, cause your phobia, and your brain’s response to it, to subside.

"This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing," said Tor Wager, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at CU Boulder and co-senior author of the paper, published in the journal Neuron.

How Did the Study Work? 

Sixty-eight individuals were given an uncomfortable, but not painful, electric shock while a specific sound was played. Then, they were divided into three groups and either exposed to the same sound, asked to "play the sound in their head," or asked to imagine pleasant bird and rain sounds—all without being exposed to further shocks.

The researchers measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain activity was remarkably similar in both the groups that imagined and heard the threatening sounds, with the auditory cortex (which processes sound), the nucleus accumbens (which processes fear) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (associated with risk and aversion) all lighting up.

After multiple exposures without the accompanying shock, the subjects in both the real and imagined threat groups experienced what is known as "extinction," where the formerly fear-inducing stimulus no longer ignited a fear response.

In these participants, the brain had unlearned fear associated with the sound.

"Statistically, real and imagined exposure to the threat were not different at the whole brain level, and imagination worked just as well," said Reddan.

Updating Our Thinking

Through this study, we are learning that imagination may be an incredibly powerful tool for overcoming fear, a way to face a threat without negative consequences.

"If you have a memory that is no longer useful for you or is crippling you, you can use imagination to tap into it, change it and re-consolidate it, updating the way you think about and experience something," said Reddan.

The possibilities of this research are exciting. How can this help children with anxiety, trauma survivors, individuals with substance use disorders? How can we use our imagination constructively, to shape the way we experience the world around us?