What is visualization (guided imagery)? Does it work? Specifically, how can you make it work? Visualization is part of an arsenal of mind-body medicine practices that can aid in healing, get rid of toxins, microbes and cancer. Presented here are anecdotal information given in the news and other sources, and personal observations about using visualization for treatment of PTSD, toxin removal, and emotional and physical repair of the brain. Visualization can also be used as a method for understanding how the body works in the level of detail that most physiology courses fail to address. It is most effective when combined with other mind-body medicine techniques. It also helps to be an educated patient/doctor who already have present in their brains images of cells and tissues of the body.
Can Visualization Work?
Mind-body medicine techniques have often relied upon visualization techniques, especially for cancer victims, (Naparstek 1995, Warren 1995, updated 2002, and Natural Health Journals). There are websites where people offer various testimonies to its use for cancer as well as descriptions of the types of visualizations they used (e.g. Healing Cancer Naturally). In the past, many doctors gave pictures of cancers or damaged tissue to the patients to use to help them visualize what is wrong with them, so that they could call upon their own brains to help heal them. One helpful such guide is On Beyond: Cancer Visualization Vehicle Safety.
Visualization or guided imagery and other alternative medical practices, have had only mixed results with no clear evidence of consistent success (see the article Can You Imagine Cancer Away? for a pretty good review without all the references cited, however). PBS Frontline has an episode (The Alternative Fix) which interviewed people who backed alternative medicine (Andrew Weil), people who did not (Marcia Angell, Tom DelBanco), and people who said “we need more time” (Stephen Straus, David Eisenberg, James Whorton).
My conclusion from these sites/people is that in order for visualization to work it needs to be guided and the type of guidance that has been used in the past is not nearly as specific as I present here. I propose ways to use it which can be tested in random, controlled trials.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that visualization works. A famous recent case comes from the movie industry. David Seidler, the writer of the Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech” has said that he imagined his bladder cancer away (see CNN’s “Can You Imagine Cancer Away?“). He did it by changing his attitude of self-pity and depression over an impending divorce and diagnosis of bladder cancer. He had undergone surgery before for the cancer and it had returned, something very common for this type of cancer. But an important part of his self-treatment was imagining “a lovely clean, healthy bladder” for two weeks before his scheduled second surgery. He says his surgeon was really clueless as to how he did it, with strong evidence from pre-surgery biopsies that there was cancer, and strong evidence from post-surgical biopsies of its absence. The only conclusion Dr. Dino DeConcini could reach was that Seidler had a “spontaneous remission” (short for “I don’t know”).
What We Need to Know Before Using Visualization
The studies on the use of visualization have not been consistently administered nor adequately based upon a well-thought-out theory. Visualization is meaningless without thought patterns. In my own use of visualization, I learned that education is probably the single-most important quality determining success with this technique. A patient must know anatomy and physiology before they try to look at photos of cells and tissues because the photos have no meaning to them otherwise. Furthermore, it should be coupled with Muscle Reflex/Response Testing (MRT, Applied Kinesiology) so that the patient can ask questions of the brain to direct it in how to recognize what needs to be done. See MRT 1.0-a (Applied Kinesiology): How it Works and MRT 1.0: Using MRT (Muscle Reflex Testing) for more information on how to use MRT.
If the body has a difficult time getting rid of cancer on its own, there is a reason. In most cases it is because cancer cells are not “foreign” invaders, but altered cells belonging to that body in the first place. The brain has no “eyes” and neither are there any such cells in the body capable of seeing the differences in tissues shown in a photo. Reading aloud a description of the cancer helps, but again, only insofar as the brain has patterns of thinking already set up concerning the terms and concepts read by the patient. It helps to have a list of properties of cancer cells that macrophages and T-cells can readily detect. The patient must also get an education about each of the terms used to describe these properties so that he/she can visualize all properties, either in the form of an analogy or a small video clip of what happens in each property. Most people with a college education in anatomy and physiology have some of these visualizations already stored in memory.
Visualization (Guided Imagery) Works Best
With Mindfulness & MRT
Again, MRT can help a patient by allowing the patient to ask questions about the cells as well as ask the brain “should this be like this in my body?” If it cannot answer this question, all of us have many other nervous systems with which to compare our own because the status of a nervous system is revealed in the voices of people (Sharry Edwards has brought the field of Vocal Profiling to the level of measurement of pathology in internal organs based upon sound characteristics of the voice (The Content of Our Voices). The next directive we give to our brains is “compare my body with others”. Giving it time to complete the assignment, we then ask again, “should the quality you found be present in my body?”. Your next questions depend upon whether the MRT tells us “yes” or “no”.
Using MRT and a standard series of questions, like “is the problem in my: head” (wait for answer), “neck” (wait), etc. through chest, abdomen, pelvis, back, arms, legs, the patient is visualizing each section with each question. You cannot have a response if you have no image in your brain. For a person blind from birth, that “image” may be a sense of touch, and they imagine the feel of each segment. With an education, the person who has had histology will have images of what each tissue type looks like under the microscope, but the blind person must devise other analogies to each tissue/cell type, maybe emphasizing how soft or brittle the tissue is, using a sponge, a dog bone, a piece of very soft foam, a string of beads, etc. to represent different cell or tissue types. The important thing to remember here is that everyone has a different model (paradigm) they can use for visualization and the more consistent it is, the easier it will be to apply to parts or concepts concerning the body.
Brain Patterns Are Hierarchical
How does visualization work in this case? The visual cortex is not the only place in the brain that is critical here. I suspect that by referring to a particular image in our heads, we use a pattern of signals in the brain to represent that image. We put together many such patterns to produce speech, a motor program that allows us to pick up a textbook, a sensory program to keep our balance when ice-skating, etc. Thus ,we use the same method for producing any of these patterns to think about what the body is doing and to direct the brain to produce a desired result. More important than the signal to the visual cortex is the pattern of signals linking that image to other parts of the brain that give depth to the concept with which that image is associated.
This image shows the “two-stream hypothesis” promoted by Milner & Goodale (2006) of visual processing. There are two streams of signals sent by the visual cortex out to other centers. The functions of these two streams seem to be whether an object/person/scene, etc. can be identified (the “what,” or ventral stream), or where the object is in relation to the viewer (the “where,” or dorsal stream). The ventral stream is most active when the viewer is active and appears to be critical for things like hand-eye coordination. The dorsal stream is active during perception, or when a person needs to see where they are, both in concept and in place. It appears that imagination of something involves the dorsal stream more than the ventral one (Schlegel et al., 2013), especially if they are not actively trying to copy the action of someone else (which would involve the ventral stream as well, as in the image at the beginning of this post).
The two-stream hypothesis does not consider what happens in the brainstem & cerebellum with vision, and we know that signals from both streams go there to connect the conscious brain with unconscious activity. This knowledge, as well as research on other primary senses and cognitive processes tells us that patterns of signaling are also hierarchical. Often our understanding about a concept is based entirely upon what we consciously associate with that concept. There is a lot of the concept that is completely unconscious that still figures in the pattern of signaling. Moreover, by learning the pattern of signals used by the conscious brain in thinking about something, the unconscious brain figures out how to duplicate that pattern at the unconscious level, allowing it to un-associate strong emotions with memories of past traumas.
In this way, visualization (guided imagery) can be applied to repairing not just somatic (body) damage but also to what we think of as purely brain damage–emotional trauma. If we pay close attention to what we think about, as we are thinking about it (mindfulness), we will notice many images popping into our minds, some so fast that we often do not remember them later if called upon to describe what we thought about. Language is a powerful filter, and it can constrain what we think we remember. Silent imagination can help us remember far more than we would if we relied upon words, especially if that imagination has a rich repertoire of images. When combined with Muscle Response/Reflex Testing (MRT) a window into the visual information sent to the brainstem, or unconscious brain, can help us make sense of what we need to understand what we could not before.
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