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Biopsychological Effects of Mental Imagery Studied

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: October 29, 2009

There may be new scientific evidence supporting the idea of “mind over matter,” a subject Dr. Ulas Kaplan, a Psychology professor teaching his third year at JMU, explored in a study of mental imagery last semester.

“Mental imagery is a practice of visualization, of picturing in your mind a certain experience towards a desired state of feeling [or] acting,” Kaplan said, “and with that process you can basically change your experience. That’s kind of the promise of mental imagery.”

This isn’t a completely new idea - people worldwide have practiced meditation for centuries as a way to control their sense of personal balance. Although mental exercises like meditation or thought monitoring are generally held to affect a person’s sense of psychological or emotional wellbeing, most studies conducted can only offer qualitative evidence of how participants feel, which is difficult to prove in scientific terms.

“Although similar to meditation, which is more focused on clearing the mind, mental imagery is more concerned with strong focus on the task currently being envisioned,” senior psychology major and research assistant John Clarke said.

Mental imagery can be used in psychotherapy to improve a patient’s psychological and emotional health, and can be a treatment for conditions like anxiety. Applying mental imagery to physical conditions is a specialty of psychiatrist Dr. Gerald N. Epstein, director of the American Institute of Mental Imagery. Epstein’s practice incorporates mental imagery and similar techniques into treatments for both mental and physical problems.

In the mid-‘90s Epstein participated in a study through the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, which examined the use of mental imagery by adult asthma sufferers. Of the group that used mental imagery as treatment, 47 percent of participants reduced or discontinued use of their medications, compared to only 19 percent of subjects in the control group that did not practice.

Building on this idea to test the quantitative effects of mental imagery practice, Kaplan developed a study to analyze its correlation to heart rate variability (HRV), determined by HRV coherence. This measurement of psychobiological balance is the focus of the Heartmath Research Institute, which defines coherence as “a mental and emotional state that people experience…when the heart, brain and nervous system are working in harmony.” Kaplan measured the HRV coherence of participants with the EmWave PC system developed by Heartmath, a software system available for personal use that allows users to view their heart rate in real time and see the effects emotions have on heart rate variance. Heartmath claims this empowers users to harness their emotions to achieve desired physiological balance.

Kaplan’s study randomly assigned 85 student participants into three groups: one practicing mental imagery, one practicing thought monitoring exercises (a similar mental activity to direct and control emotions for physical effects), and a control group that practiced neither.

“All participants came in on the first day of the experiment and filled out surveys which included demographics and various assessments of stress and mental wellbeing,” Clarke said. “In addition, we obtained a saliva sample from each participant in order to analyze cortisol level [a stress hormone] before and after the treatment.” Stress can directly affect body functions, especially heart rate.

“Ideally you would like a heart rate pattern that has optimal variability, to experience an optimum level of wellbeing.” Kaplan explained. “If it’s too low it can be detrimental because you have a heart function that is variable, but if it’s too random or chaotic, that could also be unfavorable.”
Epstein personally assisted the study by coaching the mental imagery group subjects in two exercises to practice each morning, which aimed at reducing stress and contributing to an overall physical and psychological experience of balance. Kaplan taught the thought control group their respective exercises, and the control group practiced nothing. Twice a week for a three-week period in JMU’s Human Development Lab, Kaplan and his eight undergraduate researchers recorded data directly to a computer using a small sensor placed on the subjects’ finger or ear lobe.

“We first obtained a set of baseline data while participants sat resting, in the ‘Pharaoh’s posture,’ Clarke said. “Next we obtained another set of data while participants were practicing mental imagery, thought monitoring, or simply resting.”

Looking at the patterns in HRV measurements within each group and compared to one another, Kaplan saw a positive correlation emerge between mental imagery practice and HRV coherence. He concluded that mental imagery exercises improved the coherence of participants during the actual testing session, and that the baseline levels of coherence improved steadily throughout the three-week period. The thought monitoring group saw some increase in HRV coherence overall, and its levels generally measured between those of the imagery group and the control.
This semester Kaplan is conducting a smaller-scale follow-up study to continue the evaluation of mental imagery’s effects on heart rate variability, psychological functioning and physical coherence.
“Instead of having three groups, we are solely observing a mental imagery group,” research assistant Rachel Rosenburg said. A senior Psychology major, Rosenburg also worked on last semester’s study. “Additionally, instead of having participants come in over the course of a semester and practice mental imagery or thought monitoring on their own, participants will come into the lab one time and we will assess their baseline measurements and experimental measurements in one session.”

In addition to this supplemental study, the group will continue to analyze last semester’s data for a complete write-up of the results. Kaplan also plans to present his results in poster-form this November at the U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Conference in Nevada. Although a small study, the work is another step towards scientifically weighing the effects and benefits of mental imagery.
“Personally, I believe mental imagery has the capacity to positively affect any individual who is willing to try it,” Clarke said, adding that before the study he had little knowledge of the practice and no opinion on its clinical implications. “When done properly and often, I think mental imagery can significantly reduce stress and enhance your ability to focus. If this study and others prove that mental imagery is effective in reducing stress, I think the general popularity and familiarity of mental imagery could be significantly enhanced.”

Rosenburg agrees these experiences have shown her that while it requires effort and is not for everyone, the practice can be effective. “Mental imagery is a free alternative to treating several problems and can be done in a variety of settings without the supervision of medical professionals,” she said. “In this sense, it is very adaptable and useful as a treatment technique.”