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Can Visualization Techniques Treat Serious Diseases?

The amazing power of the mind-body connection and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI)

Let me start by saying emphatically that visualization and imagery techniques are not medically recognized as first-line treatments for cancers or for most any serious diseases but as adjunctive therapies, they can be very helpful. Indeed, as I’m fond of saying, “The mind and the body are different sides of the same coin and they intersect most strongly at the level of imagination.”

In fact, the brain and the nervous system weave into all the tissues of the body and affect them in very important ways. And because of the two way street that connects the mind and psychology with physiology and biology, the mind itself can affect the body in many powerful ways.

One neat way to personally experience this amazing mind-body connection is with a method first used in hypnosis called Chevruel’s pendulum. If you’d like to give it a try, tie a small, lightly weighted object (like a metal nut or bolt) to a thread about 12 inches long. Then hold the tip of the thread between your index finger and thumb so the object hangs straight down. Next, place the elbow of your arm holding the thread on a surface like a table top while sitting so the object hangs about ¼ inch above the surface. Sit up straight and let your fingers holding thread hover about 6 inches in front of your nose. Breathe and blink naturally and start to imagine the object on the bottom of the pendulum start to move in small circles like it’s orbiting a point directly beneath it. While keeping your eyes open (remember to blink naturally) picture in your mind’s eye the circles getting bigger and bigger as the pendulum sweeps out larger and larger concentric orbits. It might take a minute or two for the pendulum to start moving, but it does in most cases.

This very cool phenomenon is called the ideomotor response (“ideo” for idea or mental representation, and “motor” for muscular action) and happens because by visualizing movement in the pendulum, the brain sends imperceptible signals to the muscles of the fingers that contract, thus imparting movement to the pendulum.

In this way, a clear and concrete demonstration of how the mind can influence the neuromotor system can be seen. But it’s not just the motor system that the mind can exert control over. As stated above, any system of the body can in theory be affected by mind power.

One of the more important systems of the body that the mind can likely influence is the immune system. Briefly, the immune system protects and defends our bodies from dangerous invaders or unhealthy cells with special proteins called antibodies, or immunoglobulins, and with and army of similarly specialized white blood cells, some of which are called macrophages – literally “big eaters” – which engulf and digest everything from normal cellular debris to foreign substances, microbes, and even cancer cells.

Since the pioneering work of Hans Selye in the 1930’s, who demonstrated that stress can trigger illness and even death in laboratory animals, much research has been done on the pernicious effects of stress as well as how the mind influences the stress response. In 1975, Robert Ader (a psychologist) and Nicholas Cohen (an immunologist) coined the term psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) which derives from the idea that the mind (“psycho”) can activate specific neurological processes (“neuro”) which, in turn, can stimulate the immune system (“immunology") to ward off illness and improve health. Since it’s introduction, a great deal of additional research has been conducted on PNI, much of which suggests psychological factors can indeed enhance immune function. Thus, just as the mind’s reactions to stress can impair immunity and promote illness, it is believed that certain mental processes, like specific images and visualization procedures, can stimulate the immune system to better fight disease.

In clinical practice, PNI methods involve clients first getting relaxed, and then as vividly as possible imagining their immune system fighting an illness. Since all people are unique, and their unique brains are “driving the bus,” they will need highly individualized sets and sequences of images when doing PNI. One example might be visualizing an army of soldiers (antibodies) subduing a platoon of enemy invaders (a disease) and then having the now weakened invaders totally overcome by a battalion of reinforcements (macrophages) so that not a trace of them is left.

Another example could be to visualize an illness at as an invasive colony of toxic, sea anemones destroying a pristine, coral reef. Antibodies can be imagined as a swarm of intelligent octopuses that first subdue the toxic anemones helping a pod of friendly killer whales (macrophages) devour them. (The octopi can be imagined safely swimming off before the orcas devour the invasive colony.)

Thus, in many cases, the images used in PNI are metaphors - representations of actual things like soldiers and/or animals. In other cases, the visualization can be more abstract and non-tangible like imagining a colorful light stream. Like a stream of flowing water, the light stream is pictured as a flowing, luminescent source of perfect, rejuvenating, revitalizing, restorative and healing energy in which one is submerged. The light, which is a color one associates with health and vitality, envelopes the client in it's healing energy, flowing all around while being absorbed into the client's body, infusing it with its healing, healthy energy.

While unequivocal and robust data supporting the efficacy of PNI methods to fight serious diseases are still lacking, what is clear is that the process can have dramatic psychological benefits. The relaxation aspect of the method often produces greater physical and psychological comfort, and the idea that one’s mind can be utilized as a potentially effective medical intervention gives one a sense of more personal control and greater optimism.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

The interested reader might want to peruse some of the following references that provide a more thorough grounding in the actual science of PNI:

Ader, R. (2003). Conditioned immunomodulation: Research needs and directions. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 17 Suppl 1:S51-7

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychological influences on immune function and health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 537-547.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology and psychosomatic medicine: Back to the future. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 15-28.

Lazarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress appraisal and coping. New York: Springer.

Robinson-Whelen, S., Tada, Y., MacCallum, R. C., McGuire, L., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K.
Segerstrom, S. C. and Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 130(4), 601-630.