Truth be told, we humans are an eccentric lot. Healthy food, vigorous activity, sleep, sun and shelter represent basic necessities for living, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fully thriving. That’s been the Friday theme these last few weeks. We’re social animals, nature lovers, intellectual organisms, imaginative creatures. The evolved brain begs to be used, and the body is stressed – or at least falls short of optimal functioning – when the mind isn’t engaged. A couple weeks ago I wrote about the power of an enriched environment – how intellectual challenge literally boosts immune function. There’s more to this picture than the Sunday crossword, however. We evolved to be creative, artistic, inventive. Wouldn’t you know it, the natural impetus lingers to this day with practical – and sometimes dramatic – results for our physiological well-being.
Anyone who’s watched young children play for more than a few minutes has witnessed the vast power imagination holds in our early years. Far from being mere childish distraction, imagination is crucial to the development of advanced cognition, problem solving and social empathy. But fantasy isn’t just for kids of course. It can make a boring meeting tolerable, a job interview less anxiety-ridden, a life rut shorter lived and less demoralizing. (We’re all Walter Mitty at some point in our lives, aren’t we?) Imagination arms us through the tumult of adolescence, the disorientation of life’s griefs, and all the ordinary dilemmas of everyday living. Yet, it also spurs us forward – toward higher goals, down more risky but ultimately rewarding paths. Its power allows the relief of momentary displacement and a catalyst for long-term transition.
What does imagination add to a Primal life? On the everyday level, it can fuel the fun of a workout. What is it about that little narrative flourish that breathes life into the same old workout routine? Ancient archetypes at play here? Archeological evidence shows we’ve long populated our cultures with stories, images and icons. These roles and the tales that outline them touch some kind of primitive chord. (Along that vein, look for a little “Grok plot” in the upcoming Workouts of the Week feature.) With a little imagination and some friends, Central Park can become a wildlife hunting ground. A pool can become the English Channel or an Olympic match with Phelps himself. Such scenarios do more than stave off boredom. They motivate and might even amplify our physical performance.
Delve a little deeper, and you find that research has connected imaginative exercise with very concrete benefit. As we’ve mentioned in the past, any activity that induces the relaxation response positively impacts hormone balance and related physiological functioning. Guided visualization, research shows, can ease anxiety and help patients better manage pain, particularly from chronic conditions. In one study, children who used a guided imagery program in addition to standard treatment for functional abdominal pain experienced a significant reduction in pain compared with those only receiving the standard care. The children who used imagery reported their pain levels dropped by more than half, and results lasted some six months for the majority of the group. Visualization also plays an important role in addiction treatment. One study showed the inclusion of guided imagery therapy more than doubled the two year abstinence rate for a group of smokers.
Guided imagery is routinely used as a complementary therapy for cancer patients. While impact on actual immune function has been mixed in studies, the therapy shows more a consistent and long-term effect on stress, side effects and quality of life.
Yet, some research suggests that the difference might come down to how well we can engage our imaginations. While all cancer patient subjects who received guided imagery therapy in one study displayed higher anti-cancer activity, those who assessed their guided imagery sessions as more effective showed more natural killer cell activity than those who rated their imagery experiences as less vivid.
Such results suggest that honing our imaginative powers might reap more than relaxation benefits. What could be the cumulative effect of applying guided imagery and other imaginative practices to the body’s functioning and balance? Perhaps cultivating the mind-body connection over time can offer the most dramatic, albeit hard to measure, advantages. If we favor the path of prevention, indulging, developing and refining an active imagination might be a worthy Primal investment. Not a bad thought for the upcoming weekend, I’d say.
Let me know your thoughts, and get out there and enjoy! Thanks for reading.
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