Visualization Techniques

Imagination, from Alex Proimos at Wikimedia

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.

David Seidler, Writer of the movie “The King’s Speech”

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.

Breast cancer (fibroadenoma) which has infiltrated the duct (large purple regular or irregular circles), by KGH at Wikimedia
Breast cancer (fibroadenoma) which has infiltrated the duct (large purple regular or irregular circles), by KGH at Wikimedia
Normal Breast with empty ducts (purple circles/ellipses), by Itayba at Wikimedia
Normal Breast with empty ducts (purple circles/ellipses), by Itayba at Wikimedia

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

Neurons signaling each other in the neocortex, from Neurollero, at Wikimedia
Neurons signaling each other in the neocortex, from Neurollero, at Wikimedia

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.

The Two Stream Hypothesis of Visual Processing (Milner & Goodale 2006), by Selket at Wikimedia
The Two Stream Hypothesis of Visual Processing (Milner & Goodale 2006), by Selket at Wikimedia

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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“The King’s Speech” Writer Visualizes Cancer Away

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN’s senior medical correspondent reports today that David Seidler, who recently won an Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay for the “King’s Speech” was able to rid himself of bladder cancer six years ago through visualization techniques. You can see Elizabeth’s article here:

Mr. Seidler told CNN that when he was first diagnosed with the cancer in 2005, he spent a few days producing “mucus and salty tears I knew prolonged grief was bad for the autoimmune system, and the autoimmune system was the only buddy I had in fighting cancer”. After that, Mr. Seidler decided to visual “lovely, clean healthy bladder” for two weeks, and the cancer disappeared. The cancer has not returned for more than 5 years, which by current medical definition, means the cancer was “cured”.

What should we make of Mr. Seidler’s revelation?

Has senility taken grasp of this 73 year old man? I don’t think so. Is he working on creating another Oscar winning script? Perhaps, but maybe it is a script that should be written and portrayed so that others can see the power of positive thinking.

In the “Show Me” or should I say “Show Me Empirical Evidence” mindset of the pharmaceutical backed western medicine, Mr. Seidler’s statements are viewed as quackery or blasphemy. How can anyone possibly cure cancer with positive thinking? However, the world has witnessed tens of thousands of “cures” that can’t be explained by the medical profession.

I wrote a woman in Canada with an incredible story a few months ago. Her doctors had “written off for dead” three different times in 2009 due to “incurable” cancer. You can link to the story here.

Instead of accepting her “medical fate”, The woman chose to return to her home and began drinking alkaline ionized water provided by her brother who is a dentist. She also started eating an alkaline diet and was the subject of her sister’s prayers.

The story has a happy ending as she survived and is now back working and is living a “normal” life. The story also presented a very interesting twist as the happy outcome caused issues in her family. Her sister believed that her prayers were answered by God. Her brother, the dentist, believed that the alkaline ionized water was responsible for the turnaround. The brother pointed out that the timing of the turnaround coincided almost exactly when his sister began drinking the water. Who is correct? I don’t think it matters. Was it water or faith, or a combination? Or was it just good luck? One thing for sure is that it wasn’t pharmaceutical drugs and doctors and hospitals.

Empirical Evidence and Prescription

There is a small but growing group of doctors that recognizes the fact that our current form of medicine simply can’t explain the numerous instances of healing and recoveries that they have witnessed. They are open to learning and discussing alternatives. However, the majority of doctors, including my own physician, just shrugs their shoulders and admit that some cures “just happen”. Instead of using their brilliant minds and discipline to dig deeper, they continue on their merry way writing endless prescriptions. You can’t blame doctors who claim they are “too busy”, but we can thank those that are opening their eyes and doing something about it.

I hope that the CNN readers who read the article about Seidler’s recovery will give the man credit for sharing his story.

Can you imagine cancer away?

  • Seidler, 73, who just won an Oscar, was told he had bladder cancer
  • He declined chemo, extensive surgery, believes visualization helped beat disease
  • No large-scale studies show visualization can treat disease, ex- medical journal editor say


(CNN) — By now, you likely know David Seidler, who won an Oscar on Sunday for best original screenplay for “The King’s Speech,” was a stutterer just like King George VI, whose battle with the speech disorder is portrayed in the film.

What you might not know is that Seidler, 73, suffered from cancer, just like the king did. But unlike his majesty, Seidler survived the cancer, and he says he did so because he used the same vivid imagination he employed to write his award-winning script.

Seidler says he visualized his cancer away.

“I know it sounds awfully Southern California and woo-woo,” he admits when he describes the visualization techniques he used when his bladder cancer was diagnosed nearly six years ago. “But that’s what happened.”

Seidler says when he found out his cancer had returned, he visualized a “lovely, clean healthy bladder” for two weeks, and the cancer disappeared. He’s been cancer-free for more than five years.

Whether you can imagine away cancer, or any other disease, has been hotly debated for years.

One camp of doctors will tell you that they’ve seen patients do it, and that a whole host of studies supports the mind-body connection. Other doctors, just as well-respected, will tell you the notion is preposterous, and there’s not a single study to prove it really works.

Seidler isn’t concerned about studies. He says all he knows is that for him, visualization worked.

“Mucus and salty tears”

“When I was first diagnosed in 2005, I was rather upset, of course,” Seidler says in a telephone interview from his home in Malibu, California. “After three to four days of producing a lot of mucus and salty tears, I knew prolonged grief was bad for the autoimmune system, and the autoimmune system was the only buddy I had in fighting cancer.”

Seidler said that’s when he decided to sit down and write the screenplay for “The King’s Speech,” which had been simmering in his brain for many years. “I thought, if I throw myself into the creative process, I can’t be sitting around feeling sorry for myself,” he says.

After consulting with California urologist Dr. Dino DeConcini, Seidler decided not to have chemotherapy or have all or part of his bladder removed, common treatments for bladder cancer. Instead, he opted for surgery to remove just the cancer itself, and he took supplements meant to enhance his immune system.

“For years, whenever I walked down the stairs I rattled like a pair of maracas, I had so many pills in me,” he says.

Despite his best efforts, the cancer came back within months. Seidler was forced to rethink his decision not to have chemotherapy or bladder surgery.

Envisioning “a nice, cream-colored unblemished bladder”

As his doctor booked an appointment for surgery two weeks later, Seidler commiserated with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and it was a comment from her that gave him the idea to try to visualize his cancer disappearing. “She said, ‘Well, what happens if in two weeks they go in and there’s no cancer?’ ” he remembers. “I thought to myself that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. This woman’s in total denial.”

But later, reflecting upon her comments, Seidler thought perhaps she might be on to something — perhaps it would be possible for his cancer to just disappear while he waited for surgery. Figuring he had nothing to lose, for the next two weeks he imagined a clean bladder.

“I spent hours visualizing a nice, cream-colored unblemished bladder lining, and then I went in for the operation, and a week later the doctor called me and his voice was very strange,” Seidler remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s no cancer there.’ He says the doctor was so confounded he sent the tissue from the presurgical biopsy to four different labs, and all confirmed they were cancerous.

Seidler says the doctor couldn’t explain how it had happened. But Seidler could.

He says he believes the supplements and visualizations were behind what his doctor called a “spontaneous remission” — plus a change in his way of thinking. He stopped feeling sorry for himself because of his cancer and his impending divorce.

“I was very grief-stricken,” he remembers. “It was a 30-year marriage, and in my grief, I could tell I was getting sicker. I decided to just change my head around.”

“The mind has the power to heal”

While Seidler says he knows his unorthodox recovery techniques sound “woo-woo” to some ears, they sound “like science” to Dr. Christiane Northrup, a best-selling author who’s written extensively on the mind-body connection.

“This doesn’t sound woo-woo to me,” she says. “The mind has the power to heal.”

She says by moving himself “from fear and abject terror into action,” Seidler changed his body’s chemistry. “Fear increases cortisol and epinephrine in the body, which over time lower immunity,” she says.

High levels of the two stress hormones lead to cellular inflammation, which is the way cancer begins, Northrup says. Taking action, as Seidler eventually did, decreases the hormones.

“Hope is actually a biochemical reaction in the body,” she says.

Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” says it’s the same way an athlete uses visualization to improve performance.

“When an athlete visualizes success, their body really is experiencing success. When you imagine something, your body really feels like it’s happening,” says Siegel, a retired clinical assistant professor of surgery at Yale Medical School.

But Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, calls the mind-body connection a “new religion” that encourages false hope.

“There is something so biologically implausible that your attitude is going to cure a disease,” says Angell, a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School. “There’s a tremendous arrogance to imagine that your mind is all that powerful.”

She says stories like Seidler’s are just that — only stories and not proof that the mind-body connection is real. Some other part of the patient’s treatment plan likely explains success against the disease, or in other cases, the success is temporary and part of the natural course of the disease.

For example, she says bladder cancer often returns. “You beat it down, and it comes back, and you beat it down, and it comes back,” she says. “If [Seidler] had bladder cancer, this may very well not be the end of the story.”

More heart attacks on Mondays

While Angell points out there are no large-scale studies showing visualization can treat disease, there are studies that seem to indicate what happens in your mind has an effect on your body.

For example, several studies have shown heart attacks occur more often on Mondays, presumably because people are under increased stress returning to work after the weekend.

Another set of studies shows how you perceive yourself affects your health.

In research done by the Yale School of Public Health and the National Institute of Aging, young people who had positive perceptions about aging were less likely to have a heart attack or stroke when they grew older. In another study by researchers at Yale and Miami University, middle aged and elderly people lived seven years longer if they had a positive perception about aging.

In 2008, Harvard researchers published a study where they told a group of hotel chambermaids their daily cleaning activities counted as exercise and were equivalent to working out at a gym. A month later, these chambermaids had lost weight and lowered their blood pressure without changing anything, yet chambermaids who weren’t told about the benefits of their daily work had no such changes.

“It’s so damned obvious that your attitude effects survival,” says Siegel, the retired Yale surgeon.

But Angell disagrees. To her, these studies show very little. “It’s a huge leap from these studies to saying you can imagine your way out of cancer,” she says.

A visualization guide

Whether you’re convinced of the effects of visualization or not, Northrup says there’s no harm in trying them, as long as you realize that like any other treatment, visualization might not work.

There’s no definitive guide to visualization, but Siegel, who’s instructed his patients in imaging for many years, has a few suggestions.

First, he says to draw a picture of four things: yourself, your health problem, your treatment and your body eliminating your problem. These pictures might tell you what sort of imagery would work best for you.

For example, when one of Siegel’s patients drew her disease as 10 cancer cells next to one white blood cell, he suggested she visualize her body making more white blood cells.

Second, he says to know yourself. One religious patient of his had been visualizing dogs attacking and eating up her cancer, which didn’t work, so instead she pictured her tumor as a block of ice and God’s light melting it away, which he says was more effective.

Third, he suggests not visualizing anything violent, since most of us aren’t violent by nature.

“Children don’t mind being violent, and they’ll visualize blasting away cancer, and that’s fine, but most adults don’t like to kill, so that’s not an image they’re comfortable with,” he says.

He remembers one patient who was a Quaker and a pacifist, and quickly rejected any notion of “killing” or “beating” cancer. Instead, he pictured white blood cells carrying cancer cells away, and he beat his cancer.