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Imagery and the Mind and Mindfulness

I’ve only just started reading the new book by fellow PyschCentral blogger Elisha Goldstein, and I’ve already found something useful.

Goldstein is a psychologist in private practice, and his excellent blog is about mindfulness. His book, The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, is a manual for learning mindfulness. The book is short, quick-read chapters that leave you with lots to think about and try.

“See, Touch, Go” is the chapter that twanged a note in my brain–one image, in particular. Goldstein describes the See, Touch, Go method in an anecdote, through the words of a dog trainer trying to help a family frustrated by their rambunctious rescue dog.

“‘See, touch, go.’ When your mind begins to wander off onto all your worries and frustrations with this dog, see that your mind has wandered, touch the thought like you might softly touch your reflection in a pond, and then gently go back to focusing on the training we’ve discussed.”

OK, so the dog trainer is beside the point. What got me is this:

Touch the thought like you might softly touch your reflection in a pond.

For years, I have struggled with the meditation skill of letting thoughts just drift through my mind. My thoughts always seem to snag on something and hang around. But touching a pond … that may be the image I need. I imagine softly touching a pond, the thought, so the water barely ripples out in concentric circles that grow wider and softer and fade to stillness.

Yes, I think I can do that. For whatever reason, that makes perfect sense to me.

Imagery. It’s so powerful. We all use it, for better or worse. Athletes use it extensively and successfully. It can help musicians. It’s used to treat phobias and eating disorders.

One study looks at the images people with social phobia take into interactions. Participants in the study entered two social interactions with a stranger, holding a positive image of themselves in one encounter, a negative image in another.

With a positive image of themselves, the people experienced less anxiety, appeared less anxious, and performed better. And when participant and assessor ratings were compared afterwards,  it seemed the negative imagery caused people with social anxiety to underestimate their performance after the fact, and overestimate how nervous they had seemed. In other words, positive self-imagery not only helps people perform better, but it helps them feel like they performed better, too.

It sorta sounds like a no-brainer but is it really? Plus it’s easier to think about now that we have an image of a person going into a room first with a negative self-image, then with a positive self-image. I can picture that. It gives me something to work with.

Imagery is strongly tied to emotion. One theory suggests that to avoid distressing images, people think about bad stuff in verbal form, which leads to pathological worry or depressive rumination. In other words, maybe we get words spinning around and around in our heads rather than just looking a fear right in the eye. And I mean looking. An image. Worst-case scenario.

A 2010 article titled “Mental imagery in emotion and emotional disorders” includes a useful little rundown on some theories on imagery and emotion.

One theory says that our brain’s emotional systems are sensitive to imagery because emotions appeared pretty early in our evolution, before we had language but when we still had to be sensitive to risks and rewards. It’s possible that emotional responses are unconnected to higher-level processes. Imagery goes straight to the amygdala.

And it appears that imagery can override, to some extent, other perceptual processes. If you hold a visual image in your head, you are likely to miss any “faint visual signal,” in the real world, because imagining and seeing use some of the same brain processes. (Same with auditory images; imagining a sound can cause you to miss real sound.) So whatever we imagine, good or bad, can override at least a little bit of reality. (More fodder for the debate about cell phones and driving, because we probably conjure an image of the person we’re talking to as we talk.)

Imagery also appears to be important in autobiographical memory. When we remember, we are highly likely to do it with images, and those images stimulate emotions.


Touch the thought like you might softly touch your reflection in a pond.

This image is tranquil. I know what it looks like, I know what it feels like, the emotion it elicits is pleasant and peaceful. The imagery of the rippling water also leads me out of the turbulent center of a busy mind to stillness. This image gives me something on which to hang an abstract concept.

Imagery is both personal and universal. Not all images work for all people, you have to find or invent your own. But once you find a useful image, it’s a great tool for your cognitive toolbox. (Can you picture that?)

Imagery and the Mind and Mindfulness

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Imagery and the Mind and Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Feb 2012
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