Dynamics of Visualization and Imagery In Therapy

In ancient and modern times, in both East and West, visualization has with few exceptions enjoyed an illustrious history. It has been a cornerstone of many healing methods.

The earliest visualization techniques ever recorded are from Babylonia and Sumaria. Histories of all peoples, from ancient Egypt and Babylonia through the middle ages and right up to modern times, include accounts of healing, and these all incorporate visualization in one form or another. The modern exception, which until very recently influenced our conceptions of healing, occurred in the early part of this century when behaviorist John Watson called imagery “bunk” and relegated it to “psychology’s dead past.” Now imagery and visualization are becoming important and influential once again. In 1964 Robert Holt offered a strong argument in favor of imagery research in his article, “The Return of the Ostracized.” Now many psychologists are recognizing imagery and visualization as among the most powerful tools in cognitive psychology.

From the famous healing temples of ancient Greece to present-day pilgrims traveling to Mecca and Lourdes, from the Hermetic rites to help a person visualize himself in perfect health to modern day Christian Science, visualization has been employed as a powerful tool for inner change.

Early uses of visualization in healing were based on a religious or mystical tradition, permeating the thought of the mystery schools including the Hermetic, the Essenes, the Platonic philosophers, and later the Rosicrucians, the Kabbalists, and Gnostic Christians. All had in common a belief in the primacy of spirit over matter, of mind over body. They believed that matter was a manifestation of mind. Many modern thinkers express the same belief. Swami Rama, in explaining his ability to control his heart rate, blood flow, and other physical processes stated, “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.” Ayurvedic medicine, the Swami’s tradition, had, from ancient to modern times, as its real purpose, the development of consciousness rather than simply the healing of disease.

The modern Indian philosopher, Sri Aurobindo, has stated that you can think of spirit as the subtlest form of matter, or you can think of matter as the densest form of spirit. Physical bodies, emotions, thoughts, and spirit are all interpenetrating energy structures in Sri Aurobindo’s system. This is also the basic position put forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dating back to the second century before Christ.

On this continent, initiates of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwas, were instructed in healing and in directing the forces moving through the vital centers of the human body through visualizations. In modern times, American Indian medicine men such as Rolling Thunder, reported on by Doug Boyd in his book of that title, evoke the powers of the mind in healing the body through visualizations.

Among the forty-two books of Hermes, considered to be the earliest-known founder of the art of healing, there are six which are medical, classified as the Pastophorus or “image-bearers.” In the middle ages, Paracelsus (1493-1541) devoted his entire life to the study of Hermetic healing. Many remarkable cures are ascribed to him. Although the medical fraternity of the times maligned him, he was adored by the masses and extolled on his tombstone: “Here lies buried Philip Theophastus the famous Doctor of Medicine who cured Wounds, Leprosy, Gout, Dropsy and other Incurable Maladies of the Body, with wonderful Knowledge and gave his goods to be divided and distributed to the Poor.”

The Essenes, early Christian mystics who are considered the progenitors of modern Freemasonry, were also healers of this order. According to Manly Palmer Hall, the name “Essene” is derived from an ancient Syrian word meaning “physician.” The Essenes are believed to have held as their purposes of existence the healing of mind, soul, and body.

Visualization in Modern Cancer Therapy

Among the many modern uses of imagery in healing, both in psychotherapy and in physical medicine (Freud, Jung, Leuner, DeSoille, Assagioli, Wolpe, Lazarus, Jacobs, Schultz and Luthe, Green and Green, GerardI, the use of imagery and visualization in cancer therapy is a relative newcomer. Carl and Stephanie Simonton are pioneers in this field, and in their now well-known book, “Getting Well Again: A Step-by-Step Self-Help Guide to Overcoming Cancer for Patients and their Families,” they describe how they decided to use visualization. They state:

From our study of biofeedback we learned that certain techniques were enabling people to influence their own internal body processes, such as heart rate and blood pressure. An important aspect of biofeedback, called visual imagery, was also a principal component of other techniques we had studied. The more we learned about the process, the more intrigued we became. Essentially, the visual imagery process involved a period of relaxation, during which the patient would mentally picture a desired goal or result. With the cancer patient, this would mean his attempting to visualize the cancer, the treatment destroying it and, most importantly, his body’s natural defenses helping him recover. After discussions with two leading biofeedback researchers, Drs. Joe Kamiya and Elmer Green, of the Menninger Clinic, we decided to use visual imagery techniques with cancer patients.

The Simontons taught patients to visualize their cancer cells or tumors as accurately as possible. They taught them that cancer cells are weak and mixed up, disorganized, and instilled confidence that bodies could naturally and normally defend against cancer. They also explained the treatment and its desired outcome, and they taught patients to visualize it as powerful and effective, capable of producing a positive outcome. Most importantly, they encouraged patients to develop visualizations of their white blood cells as being numerous and powerful, attacking and destroying the cancer.

Jeanne Achterberg and G. Frank Lawlis developed a diagnostic test to evaluate the effectiveness of cancer patients’ imagery as a means of assessing their prognosis. After a brief relaxation, patients were asked to image their cancer, their immune system, and their medical treatment, and to draw a picture of each of them. Patients were then interviewed in a structured interview. By these means, their unconscious imagery–their beliefs about their cancer and their ability to get well–were elicited.

They were able to isolate fourteen factors which seem to have high prognostic value, involving vividness, activity, and strength of the cancer cells; vividness, activity, and strength of the white blood cells; and the relative size and numbers of white cells as compared to cancer cells. Other important factors were vividness and strength of the medical treatment being received, the overall strength of the imagery, and the emotional investment of the patient.

With respect to the last of the fourteen factors, clinical judgment, they note several characteristics which seem to be predictors of positive health which could not be validated statistically since so few cases share commonalities. These include a continuity of symbolism, that is, symbols in context with each other and integrated into a single perception; those symbols that have a high degree of emotional value attached to them; and the degree to which the person appears to maintain the symbol as a continuous source of comfort or support, e.g., “My watchdogs are usually looking after me,” or “My body warriors are at watch always. ”

This internal experience of constancy, of perfect functioning, is a very important one. When Garrett was dictating his own story to me, I was very impressed by the way in which he told of the surveillance of his body by his white cells. He described how they checked “each quadrant” of his brain, making sure all areas were free of cancer cells or other troublesome invaders, and then he said “and this is the visualization I may do for the rest of my life.” He paused for a moment and then he said thoughtfully, “. . . or, it may change some, who knows?” The depth of wisdom in this is amazing, both in terms of the matter-of-factness with which he contemplated visualizing for the rest of his life and in terms of his recognition of the natural evolution of images.

Another child I worked with, a delightful five-year-old boy from another city, also had had a brain tumor. After hearing Garrett’s tape and having as clear a description as possible, in terms he could understand, of what his immune system “inside his skin” could do for him, John drew a picture of himself and his white cells. He had decided that his white cells would be “The Incredible Hulk,” and in his picture, he had a simple orange stick-figure person in the middle of the sheet and two green stick-figures, one on each side, each with an arm sticking straight out over the orange figure. He explained, “. . . these Incredible Hulks are my white cells. They have their arms around me.”

Toward A Deeper Understanding of Visualization and Imagery

Since the imagery a person holds of the disease process or of the healing process can affect the outcome of the illness to any extent, the question can be asked, how is the imagery related to the condition of the body? Does the imagery precede the condition, influencing or even causing it? Or does it simply reflect the condition as it exists? And if so, why is it so much a predictor of outcome, regardless of or separate from severity of disease? Asking questions like these is like asking the famous old question, which came first the chicken or the egg? The point of the question is, of course, to point out that they do not come separately; every chicken contains eggs, and every egg contains a chicken. They are both a part of a process of being and becoming. This is exactly the relationship between body imagery and the condition of the body. Carl and Stephanie Simonton were impressed by this relationship evidenced by biofeedback. In their book, Getting Well Again, they write,

Elmer and Alyce Green . . . believe that biofeedback techniques have clearly demonstrated the principle that, “Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.” In other words, mind, body, and emotions are a unitary system–affect one and you affect the others.

In our work with cancer patients, biofeedback plays an immensely important role, not only for all of its good effects on reducing stress, pain, anxiety, and fear, but especially because it provides indispensable experiential evidence of mind controlling body, of visualizations influencing physical processes. It is not a question of believing that mind can affect healing, but of knowing from the inside that this is true.

In starting out, it is important and necessary to analyze the individual’s own conscious and unconscious imagery regarding what is presently occurring in their body. Recently there have been many attempts to create ready-made visualizations on video or audio cassettes. But I believe that “canned” imagery can only be of limited value, according to how well it matches the person’s own unconscious belief and knowledge about what is actually happening inside his own body. An important part of self regulation is development of one’s own individual visualization, using internal symbology which has deep unconscious meaning for the individual.

It is fascinating to see evidence of unconscious knowledge of the state of the body. Patients often have dreams about a condition long before symptoms have brought it to their conscious attention or before a diagnosis is made. Carl G. Jung was expert at translating the dream symbols into diagnoses, even when the imagery was obscure. A dream may speak organically both before and after the emergence of bodily disturbance. Dreams do not merely provide information about the psychological situation of the dreamer but may also disclose the presence of organic disorder and even denote its precise location. Two other researchers of psychotherapeutic work with cancer patients, Meredith Sabini and Valerie Hone Maffly, followed the dreams of cancer patients and observed how closely their dreams followed the course of their illness.

Although I occasionally use dreams of patients in my work, in general I prefer to use active imagination by means of guided imagery trips into the body and through drawings. The results of these exploration trips are sometimes immediately confirmed.

One of my patients, for example, injured his back and was in considerable pain. We made an appointment for him with an osteopath. Since the appointment was several hours away, and his discomfort was interfering with the other work we were doing, I decided to have him take a trip down his spine, with the intent of relaxing his paraspinal muscles, thereby increasing circulation and reducing pain. As he moved down his spine in his image, he got a clear mental picture of the third lumbar disk slipped out to the left, and this image was exactly confirmed later that afternoon by X-ray. This occurrence served as confirmation for him of the close connection between his mental and physical processes.

Another person, during a psychosynthesis class in which we were doing “Dialogue with the Body,” received such a clear image of her pancreatic duct that she was able to go to an anatomy book and then to her doctor with this image and thus provide the clue that led to the correct diagnosis of a condition that had been defying identification for more than two years.

Garrett had two instances of seeing inside his body when he was completely relaxed. One was that first evening when, finding him tumor gone, he beheld instead that “funny little white thing.” His second experience of this occurred when he was working with his pituitary, which, following radiation, no longer had the capacity to produce growth hormone. While deeply relaxed, he suddenly saw this gland as clearly as if he were looking with his eyes open.

Experiences of this kind are certainly interesting, and countless anecdotes of this sort abound. More often than not, there is no immediate confirmation of the anatomical accuracy of these investigative images. There can be little doubt, however, that they have symbolic meaning to the individual, and this is the basis on which we begin.

Gradually, through a process of visualization and imagery, a bridge is built between conscious and unconscious processes, which includes cortical and subcortical processes, the conscious and “unconscious” portions of the brain. Evidence is mounting as to neurohumoral and biochemical mechanisms whereby this can take place.

No uniform terminology exists, but I want to distinguish between uisualization and imagery in the following way. Visualization is the consciously chosen, intentional instruction to the body. Imagery is the spontaneously occurring “answer,” qualifier and modifier from the unconscious. Thus, a two-way communication is set up by the interplay of visualization and imagery.

The relationship between visualization and imagery can be thought of as a metaphor, as the relationship between a transmitter and a receiver. The visualization acts as a message to the unconscious, including the subcortical parts of the brain and particularly the limbic system, hypothalamus, and pituitary. The images are messages from the unconscious to consciousness, much as dreams are.

This is beautifully illustrated in the transcription of Garrett’s abstract visualization. His consciously-chosen visualization was that he would destroy his tumor with lasers and torpedoes. During the course of making the tape, spontaneous imagery occurred when he suddenly proclaimed that another unidentified object was entering the solar system. He identified this as a spaceship containing creatures which could build another planetoid like the tumor he presently had. It was clear that this expressed his fear, perhaps entirely unconscious, that he might generate another tumor inside his brain. I recognized this from many other instances of working with visualizations and imagery, and when we were done with our taping session, I remarked to him that it must be scary to think that he could get another tumor. The relief that washed over his face on hearing this interpretation was clear evidence that something of considerable importance was being handled. This was an unconscious and quite possibly repressed fear that was very important for him to bring into consciousness and recognize that it could be managed by him in the same way that he was working on his other tumor.

Over a period of time, through an educative process, through asking the body what needs to be done, consulting the “inner physician,” and through the psychotherapeutic processes, images are modified, if necessary, to become more productive of the results desired. This is the process of building a visualization, and usually, especially with adult patients, it is an ongoing process.

The rare but spectacular phenomenon of spontaneous remission of cancer patients persists in the annals of medicine, . . . a fascinating mystery, but at the same time a solid basis for hope in the future: if several hundred patients have succeeded in doing this sort of thing, eliminating vast numbers of malignant cells on their own, the possibility that medicine can learn to accomplish the same thing at will is surely within reach of imagining


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Written by Patricia Norris PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021