The Healing Imagination

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.

TAGS:  prevention

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “The Healing Imagination”

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  1. My wife and I are doing guided imagery for fertility. It’s also very relaxing.

      1. Your comment about cooking and creativity really rings true for me. Once I began cooking more complex meals again during summer break from my intense post-bach program, I noticed that I felt more relaxed and happy to be creative. I think creative endeavors like cooking certainly engage the imagination as we use our mind to predict or fantasize an outcome.

        Lately, there’s little I enjoy more than dreaming up new recipes and executing. I’ve noticed anecdotally that taking on these creative projects gives me more relaxing satisfaction than did simply having the extra idle time. Next up, avocado ice cream.

  2. Being creative with your workouts, food choices, play ideas and more seems to be common sense as regard to improving ones health.

    Doing the same workouts every week can get boring unless they are short and intense (my 12 minute push-up, pull-up, squat routine will never get boring – same with my sprints!).

    Making a recipe from the Primal Blueprint Cookbook and then creating your own from from the basis of that recipe is being creative in my mind. It is a neat experience and allows one to come alive.

    Going to the farmers market to buy all your produce forces one to be creative. Buy things you have never seen before and decide on your own what to do with it. Try it – its fun!

    Setting up an obstacle course in your own yard with things that just stand out to you can be a very thrilling experience – this is something that I have been wanting to do for quite some time and now I believe the time has come!

    Or, even dancing to music is being creative. I used to dance and sing along to my favorite music daily. I then stopped and started again just a couple of days ago. My happiness levels have soared through the roof again since doing this. I literally just move all sorts of ways and call it dancing. Be creative!!

    1. Haha don’t know where I was going… imagination is a little different then being “creative.” But, they are similar!!

  3. Indeed, there is a very fine line between what we consider either creativity or imagination. When it comes down to it, aren’t all thoughts coming from some sort of imagination within yourself? Are our “creative” thoughts really that different than the “normal” ones? What makes them different? Perhaps it has to do with bringing your current state of being to a different place within your mind… Can you do this all the time automatically? Is a reality you create within your mind really that different than the one that your mind creates based on what your senses are picking up in that moment? I find being “imaginative” almost seems like a hallucination, in that you can actually see things that aren’t in reality (and you know it) in your mind’s eye and either overlay it onto what you are actually seeing or just think about both simultaneously.

    The mind is tricky and unknowably powerful…

  4. Dear Blogger:

    Your advocacy of “primal living” has caused a sudden decline in our viewer ratings. We suspect that people have turned off their television sets in pursuit of your ideas in this blog post.

    Furthermore, our pharmaceutical advertisers are getting anxious about a drop in depression medication sales. We are losing our ad viewers. As we look outside our office, we’ve observed more people outdoors …smiling.

    We urge you to stop writing your health blogs so that we can keep the world under our mind control. The world doesn’t need any more healthy intellectuals like you.

    Should you continue, we fear you’ll put all major television companies like us out of business.


    Massive Tele Vision

    …wow, this imagination thing sure is great!

    1. Wow this post has done lots for me…

      I’m no longer “Paolo”, I will now be known as “Grok Geist”.

      The normal collegiate you see in school is the primal spirit in disguise!


      …primal living makes me feel oh so good. I really think that all aspects of a primal lifestyle (especially this bit on imagination) boosts self-esteem.

      I wonder if there have been profound discoveries between imagination (and perhaps the overall primal lifestyle) and the extent of its effects on self-esteem… (if there’s a previous post on this, could someone kindly point me in that direction?)

      Grok On!

  5. Oh dear, your are touching a chord here…

    As it turns out, there are numerous studies that cite the benfits of humor in cancer patients.

    That is only 1 aspect of what I consider “holistic” thinking and existence.

    Our overall health (our hormonal balance, immune system, anti-aging systems, cardio-pulmonary, cardio-vascular), are driven by what we eat (good foods matter!!), how we exercise, and are active, and by what we do @ work (to wit, how much of it is stress vs how much of it is inspiration?), and what we do at play (can you even be playful? It is a sure sign that you are a healthy adult if you can do so – only “grown-ups” are too serious to play – read that in a great book ~12 YRS ago).

    But work MUST involve PLAY (inspiration). A great boss I had 35 YRS ago said: “you have to maximize your inspiration to perspiration ratio!!” Your work must stimulate & challenge you. It exercises your brain and stimulates you otherwise.

    And for play & imagination, consider reading fantasy (e.g., Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien). Let it take your mind away! Very good medicine!

    But be able to play.

    Was at the pool today after an unimpressive workout at the track (times were the best so far but the cardio-pulmonary function was in the trash). Got in the shallow end and starting teaching the little kids how to do “depth chargers” splashes. Little girl jumped on my back for a horsey ride, cool! Then at adult swim, got on the diving board and crushed some great can-openers (NOT cannon balls) and splashed the kids sitting at the well (got 10 stars too! (I can crank it!)).

    So you have to play and laugh and get some exercise – even when things are (very) tough. Your immune system needs the therapy & it matures you as an adult.

    It is ALL holistic! Everything matters…

    And, I might add, ALWAYS be emotionally available to your kids and other kids as well. Chicken soup for your soul…

  6. And oh yeah!

    Eat peanuts!!

    They might be legumes, but other than the issues of that toxin (raw peanuts) and leptins (which also hail in those “nightsade” beauties called tomatos and bell peppers); I would say GO FOR IT!!!

    Peanuts (& cashews) are the bomb!

    Sorry for being anti-primal Mark, but peanuts can rock! I am primal in other ways…

  7. Thanks Mark, as always I enjoyed the read and I fully agree with it. I tend to think that being positive is the key to good health, all else follows…

  8. my friends think im nuts for doing what i’m doing now…
    …but i’m the one who turned my body into a fat burning machine losing 8lbs in 10 days!!
    Grok On!!

  9. ..sorry to be a gross pedant but surely there no such thing as the mind-body connection ? We’re a slightly closed( and not to the degree we think we are !) biological system

  10. That’s right, Simon. Actually, to take it a step further, there’s no such thing as mind. Ask any neurologist or Zen practitioner. So-called mental events are nothing more than a special category of physical events.

    PS. You are in the wrong part of the internet. This is no place for the over-educated.

    1. I think Simon should be allowed, who cares if he is over-eduKated?

      One additional thing on mind-body connection. This simply represents a stage of (phsyical) integration.

      Actually, it is the Taurus level of integration.

      That’s where the mind realizes the connection (non-separateness) of the body to the mind.

      The next step is the sense of self outside one’s skin wrapper.

      Oh btw, this is not new. Check out William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Exeperience” from the late 1800’s. He was onto it.

      Turns out the brain scans of areas of activity in those deep in meditation, prayre, etc. are very different than normal scans of activity.

      The feeling of “oneness” is a biological brain state. Or, turned around, “oneness” puts the brain in that state.

      This is cool stuff, btw…

  11. It amazes me that people really think that the mind doesn’t play a part in our daily lives. I am a big believer in using visualization and guided imagery to help achieve my goals, as well as live a more stress free and relaxing life.

    Athletes have been using visualization for years to help them get better at their sport as well as beat their competitors, regardless of the sport that they play.

    Dr. Lipton talks about how your thoughts affect your cells in his book “The Biology of Belief”, which is a fascinating book, by the way.

  12. What about playing the occassional video game? Do they count in this? They do take you to another place, pretending to be someone else, somewhere else.