Imagine this: study suggests power of imagination is more than just a metaphor

We’ve heard it before: “Imagine yourself passing the exam or scoring a goal and it will happen.” We may roll our eyes and think that’s easier said than done, but a new study from psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis suggests imagination may be more effective than we think in helping us reach our goals.

“The imagination has the extraordinary capacity to shape reality,” suggests the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Richard Abrams and doctoral student Christopher Davoli, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is the first study suggesting that merely imagining something close to our hands will cause us to pay more attention to it.”

Published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the study shows that imagining oneself in a specific physical posture can have effects similar to those produced by actually assuming the same pose.

The study builds on previous research showing that we spend more time looking at items located close to our hands. The reason for this phenomenon, researchers speculate, is that items close at hand are usually more important to us, more likely to present an immediate danger or benefit, than those further away.

Students participating in the current study were asked to visually search through letters scattered across a display monitor and to press a button as soon as specific letters were identified. While performing this task, the students were asked to imagine themselves with both hands held either behind their backs or around the display monitor in front of them. The researchers monitored the students to ensure that they did not actually assume those poses β€” they just imagined them.

Results showed that participants spent more time searching the display when they imagined themselves holding the monitor in their hands, as compared to when they imagined their hands behind their backs. This slower rate of searching, researchers suggest, shows that participants were treating the monitor as if it was close to their hands, even though they had only imagined holding it.

More generally, these findings indicate that our “peripersonal space” (the space around our body) can be extended into a space where an imagined posture would take us β€” an ability, researchers note, that may provide distinct advantages.

Imagining ourselves in a different position, they suggest, might help us to avoid a collision or to determine if an action is realistic β€” i.e. Can I reach the top shelf?

Having a vivid imagination, it seems, may indeed play a role in helping us reach our goals (as well as our groceries).

Editor’s note: This story is based on a news release issued by Psychological Science, ranked as one of the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. For a copy of the journal article “Reaching Out With the Imagination,” please contact Barbara Isanski at 202-293-9300 or bisanski@psychologicalscience.org.

For more information about the study, please contact: Chris Davoli (ccdavoli@artsci.wustl.edu) or Richard Abrams (rabrams@wustl.edu).