Illusion vs. Reality – A Story of the Human Mind

Illusion vs. Reality - A Story of the Human Mind

“Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

            John Dewey

If you can think of it, then it’s Real

Few people know that the human brain makes little to no difference between what is real and what is bogus. Throughout recent history studies have been undertaken to assess the validity of this statement.

One study conducted by researchers from a German University tried to determine the difference in brain region activation of people when they saw the names of: a close person, a famous person, and a fictional character.

Illusion vs. Reality - A Story of the Human Mind

Anna Abraham and Yves Von Cramon (the researchers) have used neuro-imagistic techniques (fMRI) to analyze the activity in two regions of the brain: amPFC (anterior medial prefrontal cortex) and PCC (posterior cingulate cortices) while the subjects were being tested.

As you can see in the diagram from above, the same regions of the brain are activated in all three scenarios:

1. When the subjects see the name of a close person to them

2. When the subjects see the name of a famous person

3. When the subjects see the name of a fictional character

This means that either reality or fiction, the same regions are activated inside your brain. The difference is just the intensity of the activity.

From Thought to Muscle Growth

Another study that was conducted by researchers at Cleveland Clinic Foundation wanted to determine whether or not one can increase lean body mass (muscle) without physical exercise.

Their study was conducted on the flexor elbow muscle and on the little finger (pinky) muscle and it involved 30 subjects, who have been divided into 4 groups.

The first group (ABD – little finger Abduction) included 8 subjects, who had to do mental muscle contractions of the little finger. They literally had to imagine how they contract the little finger under a certain weight.

The second group (ELB – from Elbow) included 8 subjects who had to do mental muscle contractions of the elbow flexor muscle.

The third group consisted of another 8 subjects and it was the control group. These subjects did not undertake any metal or physical exercises, but they have participated in all measurements.

The fourth group consisted of 6 subjects who have volunteered to do physical exercises for maximal strength gain on their little fingers. The type of exercise they did was “little finger abductions”. So basically they did in reality what the subjects from the first group ABD have done in their imagination.

The training lasted for 12 weeks, 15 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers have concluded that the subjects from the ABD group (the first group) have increased the strength in their little finger muscles by 35%, while those in the ELB group (the second group) have increased the strength in their elbow muscles by 13.5%.

Remember, they were only doing mental workouts, aka they were imagining the workout.

The control group did not show significant changes in strength for either of the two muscle groups.

The last group, the 6 people who physically worked out their little fingers, have shown a 53% increase in strength for that muscle.

As you can see, there is a significant difference from no training to mental training (imagining a workout session).

Now, I do not suggest that we should all start picturing ourselves that we bench press 500 pounds in the gym (even though such mental exercise would be stimulating your imagination, as well as your muscles), but I highly emphasize that your self-talk (how you talk to yourself, aka your mental dialogue) and your imagination processes are big time influencers over both of your physical and mental states.

Trust the Experts

I’d also like to go further and say that these studies are validating what motivational speakers have said for eons.

For example, Brian Tracy (one of my virtual mentors) always says that:

“Whatever your mind dwells upon, grows into your reality.” tweet-it

Also, Napoleon Hill wasn’t stupid (if you ask me) when he said:

“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” tweet-it

Up until recently, scientists believed that the human brain is a static organ (see research), but some of the latest studies have proven the contrary: that the brain is constantly changing, a property called neuroplasticity.

The brain you had 1 second ago is different from the one you have now. tweet-it

How Ideas are born

I also like to recall something I said in a previous article, something that goes within the following lines:

1. An idea sparks inside your mind (real or fantastic) => You think about it.

=> 2. Thought is created (several neurons link to each other)

As you think about it => 3. More thoughts are created (networks of neurons link to each other).

As it develops inside your brain, some of the thoughts are based in reality, aka they can be achievable even though the initial idea was unreal.

And it all started with a small, yet brave, thought. tweet-it

Now, let’s stop and think about it.

So, you start from a real or fictional idea and as you think about it often, several ideas and thoughts are created from it (Dr. Joe Dispenza describes very well the process in his book Evolve your Brain). Some of these thoughts will most likely be reality based.

We could have never conquered the skies if brave men (in terms of imagination) would not have pictured such endeavor as being possible.

For example:

A person from the 14th century thinking about commercial air-flights would have developed an unreal and imaginative process.

However, commercial air-flights would not be possible today if such people would not have pushed the boundaries of their imagination and start thinking in terms out of the “ordinary” reality.

Thoughts without Boundaries

Once again, “Whatever your mind dwells upon, grows into your reality“.

When I think of this phrase, my mind sees unlimited possibilities in everything I do or want to do because I link the science from above with Brian’s quote. So, it’s very validating for me.

It’s even more validating because many of my deepest thoughts (which I never thought I could achieve) have been transposed to reality, as I dwelled upon them.

I will illustrate, in a future post, one situation from my life when this happened.

I’m really sorry for all the skeptics and incurable pessimists out there. It can be very frustrating to question everything and try to prove it scientifically. It can be frustrating enough when you see the world in black and white shades. It’s both time and energy consuming, mostly because I think that:

First there is imagination, and then science follows.

So, regardless of you being either skeptic or pessimist, please tell me, in either of the comment sections below, what do you find challenging in applying these tactics of pushing the boundaries of imagination into your life?

Let’s find some practicality within your mind.


1. Slagter, H. A., Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2011). Metal Training as a Tool in the Neuroscientific Study of Brain and Cognitive Plasticity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

2. Dr. Joe Dispenza – Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing your Mind

3. Brian Tracy – The Power of Self-Confidence

4. The Future of Health Now – Transforming Bodies, Minds, and Lives

5. Ranganathan, V., Siemionov, V., Liu, J., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G. (2004). From Mental Power to Muscle Power – Gaining Strength by using the Mind. Neuropsychologia.

6. Abraham, A. & Yves von Cramon, D. (2009). Reality = Relevance? Insights from Spontaneous Modulations of the Brain’s Default Network when Telling apart Reality from Fiction. PLOS One.

7. Napoleon Hill – Think and Grow Rich.

Photos: here and here

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6 Responses to Illusion vs. Reality – A Story of the Human Mind

  1. Jan Koch says:

    Hey Chris,
    you may know that one of my favorite quotes is “If you can dream it, you can do it” by #1 DJ Hardwell.

    It’s great to see the scientific prove that he’s right, although it’s crazy when you think about it (not knowing the science background). I’m already doing positive self talk from time to time when I’m feeling frustrated, but from now on I’ll make it a daily habit 🙂

    Thank you for digging deep into those important topics!


  2. Chris Chris says:

    Well Jan, if you can build that great habit of positive thinking, it means that networks of neurons will fire together whenever you wish it. As more firing occurs, it will be easier and more natural to think in positive terms and to be goals oriented, no matter the situation.

    The human brain works in a way in which it persistently wants to create habits, as this builds less stress to it (less activation, less energy use).

    So, it’s up to you to decide upon the habits you wish to create. Once created, you will not have to strive to reinforce them.

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