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The Life Changing Approach of Functional Imagery Training

Using multisensory imagery to reimagine "what if."

Key points

  • Functional imagery training may help individuals make value-based decisions and achieve challenging goals.
  • FIT, rooted in addiction research and the elaborated intrusion theory, replaces intrusive thoughts.
  • Brain imaging studies reveal that multisensory imagery activates similar regions as real-life experiences.
  • FIT has been applied in healthcare, sport, the military, and with corporate organizations.

Today I’d like to introduce you to functional imagery training (FIT), often called “motivational rocket fuel,” that helps us make decisions based on our values, not our impulses. It combines the principles of motivational interviewing, such as the person-centered conversation style, with multisensory imagery to help us achieve our goals. Let’s give the fundamentals of multisensory imagery a try.

Take your time and truly immerse yourself in this experience. Start by imagining a cupcake. Not just any cupcake, but the fluffiest, most delicious cupcake you've ever had. Can you see it? Can you smell it? Can you taste it? How does that feel?

Now, let's take it up a notch and focus on something new. Imagine yourself on a tropical beach with crystal clear turquoise water and warm sand between your toes. Maybe you can see fish swimming as the gentle breeze passes by. And what's that? A fruity drink in your hand? You're living the life, my friend! Spend a few seconds thinking of how good this feels.

But wait, what happened to the cupcake? It's been replaced by paradise. And that's the beauty of FIT: it allows you to control what thoughts you award attention to because you can’t hold two images in your head at the same time. In FIT, we explore (amongst many things) your inner values and intrinsic motivation and link them to multisensory goals, which helps our clients to imagine key points of the day and rehearse them, resulting in better choices and a happier version of themselves.

The Science of FIT

Deeply rooted in addiction research (Andrade et al., 2016), FIT emerged as a powerful method of understanding and transforming addictive behaviors. Grounded in the influential elaborated intrusion (EI) theory (May et al., 2015), FIT casts a spotlight on the pervasive role of intrusive thoughts in fueling addictive tendencies. According to EI theory, cravings and intrusive thoughts surrounding substance use or unhealthy behaviors disrupt our self-control, increasing the risk of relapse due to the attention we give a thought. In response, FIT offers a transformative approach by empowering individuals to craft alternative mental images that counteract these intrusive thoughts head-on.

Through dedicated practice, FIT guides individuals to replace intrusive thoughts with positive multisensory imagery, meticulously designed to reinforce their desired behavior change as they work towards a challenging goal. By rewiring the neural pathways through repeated exposure to these powerful mental images, FIT sets the stage for a remarkable change. It enables individuals to reshape their internal narrative, cultivating a more positive, empowering script that inspires and propels them toward their goals. Within the realm of FIT, the mesmerizing world of imagery becomes a catalyst for change, facilitating a profound shift from struggle to triumph, from addiction to liberation.

Brain imaging studies have delved into the mesmerizing realm of mental imagery, shedding light on its effects. In one experiment (Meister et al., 2004), participants underwent brain scans while playing the piano and, intriguingly, later while vividly imagining themselves playing. The results unveiled a remarkable revelation: mental imagery activates the same brain cortical regions as real-life experiences, forging an extraordinary mind-body connection. However, there lies a crucial distinction: the key to unlocking the benefits of this connection lies in activating the brain region responsible for multi-sensory imagery, transcending mere visualization.

While a fleeting thought of visualization might solely activate the occipital lobe, a region at the back of the brain, the transformative power of multi-sensory imagery unfolds when multiple senses are ignited in a symphony of brain activation. Imagine a breathtaking fireworks display within your brain, sparked from the depths of the emotion-driven limbic lobe, reverberating through the intricate cingulate network that fuels anticipation and propels you forward, ultimately ascending to the surface where critical thinking and decision-making hold sway. Through this chain reaction of sensory engagement, the true potential of the mind-body connection is realized, where mental imagery becomes an immersive journey that creates profound changes within.

What does FIT look like in the real world?

We're putting the British Military through its paces with our FIT research. Our goal is to teach soldiers, especially those braving Commando training, how to wield the power of their imagination. Imagine this: you wake up with just a little sleep under your belt, crawl through icy, muddy water, gobble up worms for breakfast, and then heft a backpack stuffed with a kit and a gun while jogging eight miles around the English moorland.

Oh, and did we mention that you might bump into some (friendly) foes around the bend? For everyone, this day will have a few choice points–moments when you have to decide whether to make the choice that is better for you in the long term but difficult in the short term. Keep going or give up? Typically, focusing on negative thoughts will make you throw in the towel. But, with FIT, we're helping soldiers remain determined in the face of adversity and succeed by a whopping 44 percent more than not using multisensory imagery.

How can I get started?

Whether quitting smoking, snacking, or drinking, FIT can help you persevere through adversity and overcome challenges. And the best part? It's not just for weight loss or cravings. FIT has been applied to sports performance by supporting runners who complete an ultra-marathon (Rhodes et al., 2019). FIT has also been used for stress reduction, to enhance sporting performance, and even to combat climate change because when we imagine "what if," it starts conversations and generates urgency. Let’s be real: imagining independently is great, but imagining together creates a new level of hope built on taking action. Who knew imagining cupcakes and tropical beaches could help us save the planet?


Andrade, J., Khalil, M., Dickson, J., May, J., & Kavanagh, D. J. (2016). Functional Imagery Training to reduce snacking: Testing a novel motivational intervention based on Elaborated Intrusion theory. Appetite, 100, 256-262.

May, J., Kavanagh, D. J., & Andrade, J. (2015). The elaborated intrusion theory of desire: a 10-year retrospective and implications for addiction treatments. Addictive Behaviors, 44, 29-34.

Meister, I. G., Krings, T., Foltys, H., Boroojerdi, B., Müller, M., Töpper, R., & Thron, A. (2004). Playing piano in the mind—an fMRI study on music imagery and performance in pianists. Cognitive Brain Research, 19(3), 219-228.

Rhodes, J., Nedza, K., May, J., Jenkins, T., & Stone, T. (2021). From couch to ultra marathon: using functional imagery training to enhance motivation. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 16(1).

If you'd like to learn more about FIT, my co-author Joanna Grover and I dive deeper into the research on mental imagery in our new book, The Choice Point, the first non-academic publication on FIT.

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