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Emotional disorders and mental imagery

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Tea and Cakes available in 2nd Floor Seminar Room from 4pm

We experience mental imagery when we see in our mind’s eye, hear with our mind’s ear and so forth. Imagery allows us to remember or make creative leaps. However, emotional images cause distress across psychological disorders. Flashbacks – image-based involuntary memories to trauma characterise post-traumatic stress disorder. Flashforwards – future imagery of manic pursuits occur in bipolar disorder. Our work suggests that compared to verbal thoughts, mental imagery has a more powerful impact on emotion and is judged to be more real. Three areas of treatment innovation will be discussed. (1) Imagery-interfering cognitive tasks to prevent negative flashbacks, including computer game play after analogue trauma during the time window for memory consolidation. (2) Imagery-generation training to boost positive affect in depression via a computerised cognitive bias modification procedure. (3) Imagery-based cognitive therapy development for bipolar disorder. In summary, understanding mental imagery as an emotional amplifier affords new options for psychological treatment informed by cognitive science.


Professor Emily Holmes is a Programme Leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. She is an Honorary Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow. Her research bridges cognitive science with clinical psychology and psychiatry with a focus on PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), depression and bipolar disorder. Her overarching interest is the role of emotional mental imagery, from flashbacks to flashforwards, and associated opportunities for treatment innovation. Holmes received her degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. She completed her clinical psychological training at Royal Holloway University of London, and a PhD at the MRC CBU . At the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford she established the group “Experimental Psychopathology and Cognitive Therapies”. She recently returned Cambridge. Website:

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