How Imagination Affects What We See and Hear

When you pop open a bottle of sunscreen, does the smell pull your mind back to a family vacation on the beach? How about the screeching sound of steaming milk: Does that awaken your senses and fill your mind with the fragrance of freshly roasted coffee? Odds are good that you don't have sunscreen in front of you or a milk frother nearby, but somehow, those aromas and sounds leaked into your mind and flooded your consciousness, even if only for a brief moment. The world all around us is made of sights, sounds, and smells that trigger memories or feelings that resonate somewhere deep inside our subconscious. We are strung together by life experiences, both good and bad, and we use those recollections to make educated decisions about our current observations.

You've also probably seen firsthand how two people can hear the same loud noise, but one person believes the dog knocked something other in the other room while the other thinks the sound came from the neighbors messing around in their garage. The difference in interpretation is possibly due to a recent experience, perhaps something one was reading at that moment or watching on television. What we see when we hear something can alter what we believe we heard, and the same synergy can be witnessed with all of our senses.

This phenomenon has been studied extensively over the years, and researchers are telling us that our imagination might have more power over what we observe than we realize. In a study published in the scientific journal Current Biology, researchers discovered that what we imagine hearing can change how we see something and what we're seeing can alter what we hear.

The study from Karolinska Institutet consisted of a few experiments that used a combination of illusions and sensory information to see if one sense can distort a person's assessment of what another sense is telling them. Christopher Berger, the study's lead author, told Psychology Today, "What this study shows is that our imagination of a sound or a shape changes how we perceive the world around us in the same way actually hearing that sound or seeing that shape does. Specifically, we found that what we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear."

Despite what you think, you are probably using your imagination on a daily basis more than you recognize, whether you're imagining your plans for the weekend or how that bottle of wine you picked up will taste with dinner tonight. When you watch a story on the news with drone footage of a tornado's aftermath, as you take in the sights of a devastated neighborhood, you might imagine how those affected must feel. The thought of losing your home and personal belongings stings your chest and makes your stomach feel hollow, even though the tornado struck thousands of miles away.

Some professionals use this visualizing process purposely to improve their expertise. Olympic athletes, for instance, use imagery techniques in their practice and preparation. They imagine every aspect of their routine, from arriving and hearing the crowd to feeling their uniform move with their bodies and completing each step of their performance. Some even visualize receiving a medal, attending news conferences, and celebrating their success. Emily Cook, a veteran American aerialist, told The New York Times, "I don't think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process. For me, this is so very key to the athlete I have become."

Visualizing movements and physically making those movements can be intimately linked. When we envision an action, we stimulate our motor cortex, just as we do when we physically perform the action. This visualization process generates more connections within different regions of the brain that are associated with the rehearsal of movement. These connections polish our routines, making them more efficient and increasing our muscle memory without ever physically moving. Over time, our brain becomes more familiar with these actions and learns how to execute them more effectively.

What these accounts illustrate is that our imagination can alter what we see, hear, feel, and smell. By choosing to use our imagination for a specific purpose, we can use our thoughts to command physicality and design our reality into exactly what we want it to be.