Richard G. Petty, MD

Your Mind and Your Brain Know the Difference Between the Real and the Imagined

I have just seen a psychologist do a spot on television where, in the middle of some otherwise great advice, she repeated a well-known piece of nonsense: “Your brain can’t tell the difference between organizing your closets and organizing to prepare for a disaster.” This notion that the brain and the mind react the same way to real and imagined events has launched hundreds of self-help programs, but is dead wrong.

We have loads of evidence that the brain is extremely good at telling the difference between an image in external space and something that you are visualizing in your mind’s eye. Your brain wouldn’t be much good to you if it couldn’t tell the difference between an imagined event and the real thing!

Here’s just one example from many. I’ve written about empathy before: a crucial attribute for healthy functioning. There has been a debate going on for many years now: how can you put yourself into some one else’s shoes? Does it somehow involve merging our own view of the world with someone else’s? A new study sheds important light on this topic.

When you are empathizing with someone you can imagine how they perceive a situation and the feelings that they experience as a result. When you imagine someone else’s pain, is it the same as imagining pain on oneself? Many of us become quite emotional when we hear about something sad, but is the genesis of the emotion the same as it would be if something sad is happening to us? These experiments used functional magnetic resonance and participants were shown pictures of people with their hands or feet in painful or non-painful situations and instructed to imagine and rate the level of pain perceived from different perspectives. These results show that imagining someone else’s discomfort or one’s own, activated different regions in the brain. People did not somehow merge themselves with their image of the other person.

That makes good sense: we need to be able to keep ourselves separate from other people, until we have gained a high degree of internal control. I have known dozens of empaths and psychics who have been damaged by being unable to separate another person’s experiences form their own. Many have come to see me as patients, because they were experiencing the distress of others around them. They were helped not by medication, but by energetic work and training in how to control their gifts.

“All persons are a puzzle until at last we find in some word or act the key to the man, to the woman; straightaway all their past words and actions lie in light before us.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet and Essayist, Known as America’s Teacher, 1803-1882)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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