When Imagination Is Mistaken For Perception

Does the plane fall out of the sky? Only when imagination and perception merge.

Posted Feb 23, 2013

Has a wing ever come off a jet airliner? Do planes really fall out of the sky? No. Does that put the matter to rest? Not for everyone. Though wishing cannot make something true, a certain form of imagination can cause concern about things that are not true.

This problem arises if a person does not fully grasp that what is in the mind and what is real are not directly connected. What a person has in their mind is - at best - a representation of what exists in the world. What a person has in his mind is a combination of perception, memories elicited by perception, and imagination. When a person does not have excellent reflective function - the mental ability to reflect on - and to critique - the accuracy of the mind's construction, there can be an important difference between reality and a person's "take" on reality. And yet, the person may not have a clue that there is any discrepancy at all.

What can be done about this? First, it is vital to understand that what is in the mind is a construction. We built that. We built it inside the mind. And what is outside the mind is separate. Only if we build carefully, consciously, and critiqued do we produce a "take on reality" that has any chance of being accurate.

The more what is in the mind is critiqued, the more internal reality matches external reality. The more imagination plays a free-wheeling uncritiqued role, the less internal reality matches external reality.

When the difference between imagination and perception is not understood, a person believes that what is in the mind and reality are one and the same. Thus, if he can imagine a wing falling off the plane, he believes it is possible, and thus is concerned about it.

His conjecture about the wing may have started off as a theoretical issue. But when his imagination places him on a doomed plane, what started as theoretical becomes intensely personal. He imagines what he would feel on a doomed plane. He imagines knowing he is about to die. His heart races. He becomes tense. These physical sensations are caused by stress hormones released when we encounter a situation that is non-routine, unexpected, or unfamiliar.

But he is not in such a situation; he is only imagining being in such a situation. Yet, he is responding as if he were in the actual situation. If questioned about his reaction, he might say he has a vivid imagination. It is more than that; he - at least at times - is unable to separate imagination from perception.

Awareness Of Mental Processes And Psychic Equivalence

The ability to distinguish what is imagined from what is perceived involves what psychoanalytic theorist Peter Fonagy calls "mentalization," the ability to monitor, reflect on, critique, and correct cognitive processes. Ability to mentalize varies from person to person. Fonagy believes mentalization ability does not develop when the mother does not attune herself to the child's inner experiences, in particular, the child's feelings. Some persons develop enough metallization to recognize the difference between imagination and perception when cool, calm, and collected, but when under stress, imagination is believed to be perception.

Whenever mentalization falters, whatever is in the person's mind - whether it is perception or imagination - is experienced as though it were perception. Not only perception, but accurate perception. Under stress, doubt about the accuracy of what is in the mind vanishes. Fonagy calls state this "psychic equivalence."

Psychical-Reality And Factual Reality

Freud proposed terms to deal with this phenomenon: "psychical-reality" and "factual reality." He wrote, "What characterizes neurotics is that they prefer psychical to factual reality, and react just as seriously to thoughts as normal people do to realities." (Totem and Taboo. 1912-13. p. 159). Freud's view lays bare the fearful flier's psychological facts of life. In the air, psychic equivalence takes place and the fearful flier responds to imagination as though it were reality.

Psychic Equivalence During Turbulence

During turbulence. the plane remains within inches of its intended altitude. A secure passenger experiences the plane's movements accurately: up, down, up, down, up, down, etc. An insecure flier attempts to control anxiety by blocking awareness of the flight. Though he has no trouble keeping upward motions out of awareness, downward motions intrude and he perceives down . . . down . . . down . . . down. This perception is accurate, as far as it goes. But there are gaps. The gaps in his perception are unwittingly filled in by his imagination. Thus, down . . . down . . . down . . . down becomes down, down, down, down, down, down, down. The combination of perception and imagination can be called "permagination."

The perception of the secure passenger (up, down, up, down, etc.) is that the plane's up and down movements average out. But the permagination of the anxious passenger (down, down, down, down, down, down, down.) is that the plane is falling. Stress hormones are released. Mentalization ends. Psychic equivalence takes place. Permagination - unexamined and unquestioned - masquerades as reality. He "knows" the plane is falling out of the sky.

Terrified, the anxiety flier reacts, as Freud said, to "psychical-reality" as if it were "factual reality." No doubt some flights I experienced in the cockpit as boring, were experienced by some in the cabin as life-threatening.

Preventing Permagination

If a person is already in imagination, it is a short step to go to permagination. If a person is trying to keep reality out, only partial reality seeps in; that obviously means reality is distorted. One of the principles of the SOAR fear of flying program is to experience flying just as it is, without adding anything (imagination) and without attempting to subtract anything (keeping reality out). Doing either gets a person into trouble.

And, to keep the mind working properly, stress hormones must be regulated. How? Look for trouble; be resolved to notice anxiety when it first appears. Then, use the 5-4-3-2-1 at www.fearofflying.com/free-video/5-4-3-2-1-exercise.shtml