• A new study says that your imagination can help you overcome your fears; this involves imagining an encounter with the fear and realizing it is not a threat.
  • Researchers sought to understand how fears are learned and unlearned; this goal led to their conducting an experiment that involved auditory threat conditioning.
  • Study participants were first exposed to different sounds, one of which was followed by an electric shock. They were then split into three groups: one which tested imagination extinction, another performed real extinction, and the last served as the control.
  • Researchers found that imagined extinction and real extinction were equally effective in reducing perceived threats.
  • These findings have the potential to help those with anxiety or fear-related disorders, as it shows that one’s imagination can help them to overcome their fears.
  • There are several study limitations, including the number of participants and a need for further experimentation, as using threat simulation in therapy is a new concept.

Quick Summary

A new study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai titled “Attenuating Neural Threat Expression with Imagination,” published in Neuron, says that your imagination can aid you in a fight against your fears. More specifically, imagining an encounter with a perceived threat can help you overcome your fear of it. This study and its findings are expected to aid the treatment of various disorders that are rooted in self-perceived or learned threats.


This study sought to understand how fears are learned and how they are unlearned. When people learn to fear a potential threat (say a bird flying overhead) their fear is triggered every time they encounter something they associate with the fear: such as sights or sounds (e.g., a bird’s feathers or a bird’s cawing).

These fears can manifest in a way that’s severely troubling to the individual. As mentioned previously, numerous disorders can stem from these fears—anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD—and alter one’s life as he or she knows it. Fortunately, however, the Mount Sinai researchers offer an innovative approach to treating their disorders and underlying fears with these new findings.


In an effort to understand how one’s imagination might come into play in extinction learning, the researchers first exposed their 68 participants to an auditory threat conditioning. They listened to two different sounds; one of these sounds was accompanied by an electric shock. Then, the participants were split into three different groups at random: one group put imagined extinction to the test, another underwent real extinction, and the remaining group served as the control, in that they did not undergo any kind of extinction.

The group that engaged in imagined extinction were told to imagine the sounds they heard previously, to play them in their heads; the group that performed real extinction were again exposed to the two sounds. Meanwhile, the control group imagined two random nature sounds. After each group performed their task, they were all exposed to four shocks, followed by the two sounds again.


In looking at MRIs of each participant, the researchers found that imagined extinction was just as effective as real extinction in reducing the perceived threats, in terms of cues or triggers of their fears. Each activated a certain network of threat suppression in the prefrontal cortex. These findings open the door for therapies rooted in utilizing one’s imagination and further account for the amazing power of our minds. The hope is that those being treated for anxiety and fear-related disorders will benefit greatly from this study.


  • Because this study was conducted in one sitting, as opposed to occurring over multiple visits, researchers weren’t able to test memory reconsolidation—a process of reactivating and reorganizing, which allows for a healthier version to be formed of a memory.
  • The number of participants (68) is relatively small; especially considering each individual differs in their imaginal ability as well as their threat response degree, as noted in the study.
  • Imagination is not a new tool in exposure therapy, but this study’s focus on threat simulation is. Therefore, there is a need for further exploration into these findings and further experimentation.

Reddan, M., Wager, T., & Schiller, D. (2018, November 21). Attenuating Neural Threat Expression with Imagination. Neuron. Retrieved November 23, 2018 from https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(18)30955-3#secsectitle0060