“Photoshopping” mental images for psychotherapeutic purposes

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College or in the Departmental Excellence Program complete a Research Seminar in which they learn to communicate science to various audiences, including the general public. For one assignment, the students write a popular science paper. This year a selection of these papers is published on Mindwise. Today’s piece is by Lena Scholz.


A serious sunburn makes you look like a ripe tomato and ruins your memory of a fantastic holiday? No problem, because with one mouse click Photoshop removes the redness on the photo. Soon the burning pain will be forgotten and you will only keep the image of a great time with friends. With modern technology it is easy to retouch photographs, so that the images that remind us of past events are ever positive. Even the cousin, who found a trip to Rome more attractive than attending granny’s ninetieth birthday, can simply be added to the family photo, so that the celebration is remembered in a more positive light.

“you do have mental images of future events and you can manipulate these”

But what if granny’s birthday is still ahead and you already know that you will not be able to attend? It is certainly not possible to retouch photos of future events, because they have not been taken yet. However, you do have mental images of future events and you can manipulate these. It turns out that this fact can be applied to a psychotherapeutic technique called Imagery Rescripting.

Distressing mental images of the past can have a large impact on people in the present. Examples of severe consequences are apparent in individuals diagnosed with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But also mental images about the future can be impeding. These so-called flash-forwards are, for example, common in individuals with social phobia, who are afraid of everyday public situations such as paying at the cashier or eating in front of others, and in people with hypochondriasis, who constantly fear getting sick and screen themselves for possible symptoms of disease.

Imagery Rescripting is a psychotherapeutic technique with which traumatic memories can basically be “Photoshopped”. The patient is asked to change the memory in any manner so that it becomes positive, or at least less negative. The change does not have to be realistic, for example the patient can add other people into the image just like this can be done in a photo editor program such as Photoshop. The only goal is to make the mental image less stressful. This technique has successfully been applied when treating depression and PTSD. Patients with rescripted memories consider them less vivid and unpleasant than before the treatment, even after just one session of Imagery Rescripting (Arntz, 2012; Holmes, Arntz, & Smucker, 2007).

“Imagery Rescripting is a psychotherapeutic technique with which traumatic memories can basically be “Photoshopped””

When looking at brain scans, Daniel Schacter, Donna Addis, and Randy Buckner from Harvard University (2007) as well as Jiro Okuda from University College London and his colleagues (2003) found that the brain areas that are active during the recall of memories are also active when imagining future events. In addition, the working memory theory states that when a person engages in two tasks at the same time (thinking of an image and changing the content, in the case of Imagery Rescripting) the mental image should become less vivid (Gunter & Bodner, 2012). This is due to the fact that mental capacities are limited (like computer processors are). Consequently, fewer resources are available to create the image in your mind’s eye when you are concurrently performing a second task. Based on this research, it is possible that harmful flash-forwards may be treated in the same manner as traumatic memories. In other words, Imagery Rescripting might also prove to be successful in decreasing the impeding effect of flash-forwards.

Christien Slofstra, a PhD student in Clinical Psychology, is currently researching the mechanisms of Imagery Rescripting. Under her supervision, a group of Honours students including myself collected data on the effect of this technique on future images in a student sample. Looking back at our project, it was impressive to see how easily Imagery Rescripting can be implemented and, speaking from own experience, that negative emotions can be effectively reduced with little effort. I am excited to see what Imagery Rescripting will bring in the future.


Arntz, A. (2012). Imagery Rescripting as a therapeutic technique: Review of clinical trials, basic studies, and research agenda. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 3(2), 189–208.

Holmes, E. A., Arntz, A., & Smucker, M. R. (2007). Imagery rescripting in cognitive behaviour therapy: Images, treatment techniques and outcomes. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 38(4), 297–305.

Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007). Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8(9), 657–661.

Okuda, J., Fujii, T., Ohtake, H., Tsukiura, T., Tanji, K., Suzuki, K., … Yamadori, A. (2003). Thinking of the future and past: the roles of the frontal pole and the medial temporal lobes. NeuroImage, 19(4), 1369–1380.

Gunter, R. W., & Bodner, G. E. (2008). How eye movements affect unpleasant memories: Support for a working-memory account. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(8), 913–931.

Author: Lena Scholz

Bio: Lena Scholz is a Honours Psychology student. Through the Honours program she got in touch with various facets of research and now aims to do a Research Master and afterwards a PhD. Her main interests are cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. Topics that are relevant for everyone in daily life, such as dealing with stress and negative emotions, are areas that she particularly likes to learn more about.

NOTE: Image by Jim Harper, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Dr. aan het Rot completed her doctoral degree at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (New York, USA). She works at the University of Groningen since 2009 and is affiliated with the Heymans Institute for Psychological Research and with the Groningen School of Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience (BCN). Her research interests concern the role of interpersonal and biological factors in the development and maintenance of psychological problems. More specifically, Dr. aan het Rot is interested in (1) the role of interpersonal factors in the development and maintenance of psychological problems, and (2) the biological factors that underlie poor interpersonal functioning. Dr. aan het Rot teaches in the Dutch and English Bachelor and Master programs of Psychology. For more information, you can visit her website.

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