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Thoughts of inspiration

The psychologist Fritz Renner studies the ways in which visual imagination can help patients with depression

Freiburg, Nov 23, 2018

Thoughts of inspiration

Photo: Westend61/Fotolia

People with depression often worry a lot about future events. However, imagining these happenings in pictures could help patients to once again feel more motivation and anticipation. The psychologist Dr. Fritz Renner from the University of Freiburg will work with a working group to investigate how the visual imagination affects the behavior of those suffering from depression. He was recently given the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, endowed with 1.64 million euros.

In a study, test persons are asked to plan future events - those who also imagined the meeting visually looked forward to it with more motivation and anticipation. Photo: Westend61/Fotolia

Those who suffer from depression often find it difficult to get out of it because the illness not only puts pressure on their mood, but it also diminishes their internal drive. Withdrawal instead of activity, loneliness instead of sociability - but that only intensifies the symptoms. Depressed people thus become stuck with seemingly no way out. Dr. Fritz Renner from the Department of Psychology at the University of Freiburg is one person who is looking for practicable and empirically sound ways to help these people out of their permanent depression.

The 36-year-old is currently investigating the influence of visual images on depression. For this, Renner, who until recently was a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University in England, recently received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, endowed with 1.64 million euros - one of the highest endowed science prizes in Germany. Renner will use the money to set up a working group in his department to continue his research.

The power of imagery

“We know that it is difficult for people with depression to visualize positive events in the future,” explains Renner. “In addition, negative images from the past often impose themselves on these people.” Patients’ imagination could possibly help to counteract this mechanism.

Renner reports how strong visual imagination can have an effect on human emotions: “If we imagine something, even if it is only an apple, then similar areas are activated in our brain as if we actually have the apple in front of our eyes. This means that visual imagination can get pretty close to the real perception.” That is nothing new. Neuroscience has long since proven it. And it has already been proven that visual imagination can be used to influence moods. What is new about Renner’s research, however, is that it is aimed at changing the patients actual behavior, not just the emotion.

When people image, for instance, an apple, similar parts of the brain are activated as if they were actually looking at an apple before them. Photo: Jasmine Raybon/Unsplash

More motivation and anticipation

Renner has already carried out initial research on this topic in England. Participants in the preliminary study, all of whom were healthy, were asked to choose six activities from a list they wanted to carry out in the course of the next week. Only everyday activities were listed, such as finally meeting a friend for coffee in the afternoon or reading a good book before going to bed. The participants were divided into two groups. Only in one of the two groups were the people supposed to visualize the activities they had planned for themselves so that they could imagine again and again what it was like to sit together with their girlfriend over a cup of coffee and talk to each other. The positive feelings that came up were measured and documented with the help of questions. And indeed: “Compared to the control group, which only planned its activity but did not visualize it with the help of exercises, these participants were able to measure more anticipation and more motivation,” reports Renner.

These results point in the direction in which Renner also wants to go in the future. The aim is to fundamentally clarify how visual imagination affects emotional experience and behavioral activation - both in depressed and healthy people. The Freiburg researcher no longer wants to rely on the self-assessment of his volunteers, however. A bundle of methods is planned in order to approach the topic in its entirety.

With the help of psychophysiological tests, for example on skin conductance and heart rate, and eye tracking recordings, Renner hopes to find out more about the emotional processing and motivation processes of his subjects. Renner also plans to conduct a study with magnetic resonance imaging in which he hopes to investigate how visual imagination can influence the motivation and reward expectations of the test subjects on a neuronal level. In addition, the mood and motivation of the study participants will also be recorded outside the laboratory, i.e. in their natural environment in everyday life, using electronic diaries called “Ecological Momentary Assessments.”

According to Renner, clinical application is the goal he is working towards. To achieve this, however, he first has to understand how the visual image influences moods and motivations and how imaginative exercises can be used to make people with depression want to take action again.

Stephanie Streif