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The Power of Imagery In Our Lives

Psychologists have found that children’s imaginative activities play an important role in their emotional life and help them endure troubles.

Jim Forest/ Flickr
Jim Forest/ Flickr

In Bill Watterson’s comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” Calvin is a 6-year old child whose blithe spirit in the face of overwhelming reality helped many of us cope with our own horrible-terrible-no-good days. Calvin is accompanied by Hobbes, a stuffed animal to the rest of us, but a very alive and sentient bipedal tiger to Calvin. Every time a human enters a scene in the comic, all they see is an animal blankly staring into space. Calvin, however, sees Hobbes as a faithful confidant, a partner in crime, and also a voice of reason, albeit one that’s rarely heeded. Imagination is a splendid thing. 

2021 was the year when we were trapped inside of our houses with little or no access to green spaces or other humans. Children, however, were able to transcend the boundaries of space and time by engaging with fictional characters and make-believe hereafters. One dreary work-from-home morning I chanced upon my nine-year-old son projecting voices and creating this fantastical and wondrous world with his Lego figurines. At first, it sounded two-dimensional. You had to listen very carefully to light upon the incredible details, minutiae – including very particular constructions of backstories, some of them intensely suspenseful. One superhero that peeked my interest was called “Lego Minute Man.” Minute man was not only Lilliputian but he also stayed in the “here and now.” Unfortunately, this meant that Minute-man forgot pre-arranged dates unless he was reminded that very minute to leave. This annoyed his other superhero friends. Our son anthropomorphised the various cats that passed by the window during his play including them as twists in the plot – sometimes undercovers, sometimes gate-crashers and at other times lookouts. He eventually enlisted my whole extended family to participate. What started off as engaging a lonely child ended up helping us escape the tedium of our own mundane lives.

Psychologists know for a fact that children’s imaginative activities play an important role in their emotional life and help them endure troubles and everyday drudgeries. In fact, a lot of their motor development including climbing, swinging balancing, jumping, skipping, and coordinating develops during imaginative adventures. It is delightful to see a child personify animals and greet them “Hi Mr.Dog, how was your dinner? Did mom shout at you? She can do that sometimes, don’t mind her, she’ll come around” or use magical concoctions to achieve the fantastical, “pass me the whatchamacallit and let’s add some doodah to it because I’m making a flying rocket that will take us to space.” This unique ability to indulge in make-believe situations and self-soothe, “it’s a car, now it’s a train, now it can fly and go over the hills and the big blue ocean” greatly simplifies their quality of life. Another example of children coping with fears is through wishful thinking and self talk such as “Woof. Woof. You cannot hurt me darkness, I am a dog and my fur protects me.” Sadly, as we grow older we are encouraged to let go of our make-believe worlds.  Not everyone does it, though. Did you know that many famous writers report vivid experiences of engaging with the fictional characters in what would become – their future books ? These writers become “expert pretenders,” knowing fully well their indulgence is phantasy and visualisation.

In fact, mental imagery is a prescribed tool and mechanism of psychological intervention that is frequently used in mood and anxiety disorders. A whole new science of neuromodulation, which is cross disciplinary and involves exposing a client to repeated positive imagery has started showing promising results. When used with clients who are depressed and who suffer from pronounced negative biases, this practice helps to moderate the negative biases i.e. position their worst-case scenario estimates to be less negatively skewed. The manner in which this is done is still being refined. The basic premise is that each time we imagine something, it makes us feel a certain way. Non-invasive functional imaging is used to study the neural substrates of these feelings. You can now “see” the feelings.  

Emotions that arise from poetic (verbal) descriptions of a rose are less strong than emotions that arise from asking you to visualize a beautiful rose, smell and all. A review of this data has been undertaken at the school for Mental Health and Neurosciences at Maastricht University, Netherlands by Drs.Leon Skottnik and David Linden. The implications of such data for a practising psychologist are limitless. Can you imagine the many ways one could integrate visual imagery with inventive play and fantasy and use it to modulate emotional states, in the body, the mind and the spirit? 

Guided imagery as a healing tool has been used for centuries in indigenous traditions all over the world. This tool is immersive and incorporates all your five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We see examples of the use of visualizations through oral traditions and stories. Take for instance the famous Indian folk tale “Birbal ki khichadi.” Birbal was known to be a wise and witty adviser to the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1500s.  On a cold winter day the Emperor and Birbal are engaged in a passionate discussion on how poverty and the need for money could motivate a man to go to extremes. The Emperor Akbar dips his finger into the ice cold lake and opines that no living human can spend an entire night in this lake for money. To this Birbal asks that they hold a public contest, the winner of which would receive 1000 gold coins and see for themselves. The short version of the story is that one poor man achieves this task. Guards are posted near the lake to make sure they no one cheats. The poor man Is taken to the Emperor. In the presence of the court, Akbar asked him how he achieves this impossible feat? To this the old man replies, “I gazed upon the image of a street lamp that was far away, and felt warm.” He has used his imagination to conjure up and simulate the physical sensation of warmth. The Emperor is upset and claims that this is a form of cunning. He withholds the reward and sends the poor man away. The next day Birbal, is absent from court. The Emperor sends for him but is told that he would arrive only once his Khichri (rice) is cooked. Although the Emperor waits for hours his adviser does not arrive. Perplexed, Akbar decides to pay Birbal a visit at his home. He finds Birbal sitting on the floor next to a burning charcoal pit. Way above him, close to the roof is tied the pot of Khichri (rice). Akbar exclaims how ridiculous this is, and asks how in the world is Birbal expecting any heat to reach the Khichri. To this Birbal replies, “the same way the poor man received heat from a street lamp that was more than a furlong away” – the Emperor at once understands his error, recalls and apologises to the poor man and gives him his reward. The power of mental imagery should not be underestimated. 

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