Background: Mental imagery has long been part of cognitive behavioural therapies. More recently, a resurgence of interest has emerged for prospective mental imagery, i.e. future-directed imagery-based thought, and its relation to reward processing, motivation and behaviour in the context of depression.
Method: We conducted a selective review on the role of prospective mental imagery and its impact on reward processing and reward-motivated behaviour in depression.
Results: Based on the current literature, we propose a conceptual mechanistic model of prospective mental imagery. Prospective mental imagery of engaging in positive activities can increase reward anticipation and reward motivation, which can transfer to increased engagement in reward-motivated behaviour and more experiences of reward, thereby decreasing depressive symptoms. We suggest directions for future research using multimodal assessments to measure the impact of prospective mental imagery from its basic functioning in the lab to real-world and clinical implementation.
Conclusion: Prospective mental imagery has the potential to improve treatment for depression where the aim is to increase reward-motivated behaviours. Future research should investigate how exactly and for whom prospective mental imagery works.