The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Imagination Can Change Perceptions of Reality

What we see and hear can be reshaped by our imagination.

Researchers in Sweden have found that our imagination can change our perceptions of reality. Your mind can literally play tricks on you by changing illusions of what you think you hear and see into what seems like reality. The new study from the Karolinska Institutet is published in the scientific journal Current Biology. The findings offer new clues on how the human brain combines information from the different senses and how imagination can alter mind-brain function.

"We often think about the things we imagine and the things we perceive as being clearly dissociable," says Christopher Berger, doctoral student at the Department of Neuroscience and lead author of the study. "However, what this study shows is that our imagination of a sound or a shape changes how we perceive the world around us in the same way actually hearing that sound or seeing that shape does. Specifically, we found that what we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear."

The Swedish study consisted of a series of experiments using illusions in which sensory information from one sense changed or distorted one's perception of another sense. These findings suggest that you can use mindfulness training to tint your world with a rose-colored hue. You can choose to look at the world through optimistic ‘rose-colored glasses’ or through a cynical and pessimistic lens. These explanatory styles can alter your perceptions of reality.

Rose Tint My World

In the first experiment, participants experienced the illusion that two passing objects collided rather than passed by one-another when they imagined a sound at the moment the two objects met. In a second experiment, the participants' spatial perception of a sound was biased towards a location where they imagined seeing the brief appearance of a white circle. In the third experiment, the participants' perception of what a person was saying was changed by their imagination of a particular sound.

These findings suggest that your explanatory style and mindfulness training can influence how you perceive reality at a neuronal level. Other research from the Weizmann Institute in Israel released on June 25, 2013 found that mental training can reshape brain waves and leave an archive of experience and expectation for 24-hours and longer.

As an athlete, I have always used mental imagery, olfaction, and music to create not only a mood and mindset but to alter my perceptions of the world around me. The smell of sunscreen and an upbeat pop-song always takes me away to a place of clear blue skies and bright sunshine even when the weather is dark, gray, and the world seems dreary. For more on this please check out my Psychology Today blog: The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation

Encoding a perception that "Sweat = Bliss" at a deep neural level allowed me to transcend physical discomfort as an Ironman triathlete and ultra-runner. As an athlete, pain became a subjective experience that I could reframe as being a source of joy. Every ‘sufferfest’ genuinely became an ecstatic process while I was competing in ultra-endurance events. The ability to use my imagination to reshape perceptions of reality allowed me to win races. Anyone can use his or her imagination to overcome difficulty and achieve success in life and sport.

Conclusion: The Power of Positive Thinking

Mental imagery and visualization can alter how we perceive the world around us. To a large extent, your mind can create reality at a neuronal level. By choosing to look on the bright side and see the proverbial glass as perpetually half-full the world around you will seem more hopeful and full of possibility.

According to the scientists at the Karolinska Institutet, the results of the current study may also be helpful for understanding the mechanisms by which the brain fails to distinguish between thought and reality in certain psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. Another area for future research will be on brain-computer interfaces for people who are paralyzed to use their imaginations to control virtual and artificial devices.

"This is the first set of experiments to definitively establish that the sensory signals generated by one's imagination are strong enough to change one's real-world perception of a different sensory modality" says Professor Henrik Ehrsson, the principle investigator of the study.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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