Psychology finally reclaims mental imagery

As mentioned earlier, Watson’s rebuttal of mental imagery had a powerful lasting impact; almost no research was conducted by psychologists into mental images in the following four decades. However, by the late 1950s, this entrenched position began to be undermined by the increasing body of evidence from hard science that everyone dreams and that normal people in abnormal situations, e.g. prison, produced imagery. Faced with this evidence, behaviourists started to revise their hard-line position and began to study how imagery was implicated in behavioural change. In a very short space of time there was an explosion of interest in mental imagery. After a dearth of interest and publications, almost overnight, mental imagery was reclaimed with enthusiasm across several disciplines including psychology. One particularly important factor implicated in this rediscovery was the gathering pace of the human potential movement in America and the UK. New humanistic therapies were being developed that focused on exploring and facilitating creative self-development. Pioneers such as Fritz Perls (1893-1970) were developing a range of innovative mental imagery methods to help people experience their emotions and explore their creative potential (his important contributions will be discussed in detail in the following chapter). A cultural shift was happening and a new generation was attracted to exploring altered states of consciousness, the imagination and nonrational domains of human experience. Seminal books were published at this time, such as Seeing with the Mind’s Eye (Samuels and Samuels, 1975), that introduced the general public to the potential of mental images as a means of self-development. These early texts received an enthusiastic reception and unleashed a flood of popular self-help literature containing visualisation techniques for positive personality and behavioural change.

Academic psychology, too, was freeing itself from the shackles of behaviourism and positivism. Biochemical and neuropsychological investigations prompted interest in mental processes such as visualisation and how the use of mental imagery could influence behaviour. Research studies provided evidence for the positive impact that imagery rehearsal could have on sports performance. Since then imagery as a behavioural intervention has become a sophisticated specialist application used in a wide range of contexts such as sports performance training. Mental images as an instrumental means of shaping the personality along desired lines have become well-established in the repertoire of popular psychology and self-help literature.

Meanwhile, running parallel to the story of how psychology reclaimed mental images, another complex narrative was unfolding - i.e. the therapeutic application of mental imagery in counselling and psychotherapy. The following chapter presents its history, considering the contributions of important innovators and tracking the shifting perspectives on this practice across the different therapeutic schools.

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