In the last article, we talked about the motivational benefits of visualization, where we can draw inspiration and enthusiasm from imagining great achievements in the future. By simulating this positive feeling, we can convince ourselves more easily that it’s worth the effort. But that’s not all that visualization can do for us. We can also use visualization for the purpose of training and practicing things, as well as what is sometimes called “manifestation”, which is basically setting ourselves up for success.
In today’s article, we will take a closer look at these other aspects of visualization to give you a better look at the wide range of its applicability.
The way that I like to think about visualization is that it allows me to tap into a part of my personality that I am otherwise too insecure to access. There is a part of me that has the potential to be a master at all the things I am in fact not a master in (yet). But when I imagine myself doing these things, I get a feeling for what it would be like. And the fact that I can see myself in my imagination performing well tells me that I should be able to do the same in real life, albeit with some extra practice. Even if I might not be there yet, it shows me that there is a path that leads to the achievement of that goal.
So, let’s look at the practical side of it – that is, using visualization for training. I think one of the most illustrative images I can think of when it comes to the power of this technique is a scene from the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit”. Here the protagonist uses her visual imagination to project the chessboard on the ceiling above her bed and replays all the games, she had played that day. This is a perfect example of what visualization can do for us. Visualization is often used by athletes not only with respect to the outcome one wishes to achieve, but also the actual practice of performance. So, for instance, if you are a rock climber, currently working on a very hard project, it will be very helpful to visualize the route before your inner eye. Do this right before you go to bed, for instance, and imagine yourself moving on that route. By doing that, you familiarize both your unconscious mind and your body with the task you are trying to achieve. The reason for that is, that a big part of athletic performance in general has to do with the ease and precision with which your brain controls your muscles. The more you train a certain kind of movement, the stronger the mind-muscle connection needed for smooth execution is established. But since these are processes that are centered around the communication between brain and muscle, not as much around actual muscle performance, you can do a lot of effective training inside of your head, by simply imagining your movements. You don’t really have to do them. And the reason why this works is that when you imagine yourself moving, your brain actually simulates the “real thing” to some degree. So much so, in fact, that the relevant muscles are targeted and activated, in a phenomenon called “covert motor activity”. It is covert because the activation is so minimal, that you might not even perceive it. But it’s there. And so, you can capitalize on this phenomenon and effectively increase your training time, even beyond the exhaustion of your body. So, even when you’re too tired to continue climbing you can still continue to train by imagining yourself climbing.
When it comes to visualizing non-athletic situations, something similar happens. Take the following situation for instance. Imagine there is a person you are very fond of, whom you meet every other day in the gym. You find them attractive, and you would like to make an advance and strike up a conversation. But you are also a bit anxious about the prospect and afraid you might make a fool of yourself. You might decide, despite your insecurities, to approach them the next day. So you sit down and actively make yourself visualize a successful approach where you strike up a nice and enjoyable conversation. Like in the case of sports, here too you train your brain to establish new patterns. And these patterns will then serve to create a foundation of confidence because they create an expectancy of success. Because you have already experienced the situation going well in your mind, you can approach the real situation more calmly. It’s a form of training yourself to expect one outcome rather than the other, and by doing that, you make the actual outcome more likely to occur. Some people call this “manifestation”, which is a bit of a spiritual term. But you can also think of it inside the framework of the placebo effect.
Think of visualization as a conversation you have with your subconscious where you decide on the rules of engagement. You are the one guiding the conversation and thereby priming your subconscious in a certain way. And we know that success is not independent of the expectancy of success – which is to say, the probability of you winning increases when you are convinced that you will win. Of course, this is only one part of the equation, and it will not ensure victory. But it will make it more likely. This conversation with your subconscious is in a way like taking advantage of the placebo effect. The word “placebo” comes from Latin and can be translated as “shall be pleasing”. The placebo effect is when the expectation of something being beneficial creates an actual benefit. So, if I take a medication, I expect to ease my pain, it will ease my pain, even if in fact, all I took was a pill of sugar, with no pharmacodynamic effects on my body, whatsoever. Interestingly, the analgesic effect of a placebo is not imaginary, but precipitated at least in part, through the production of endogenous pain-inhibiting molecules in the brain, like endorphins. In other words, because you believe that you have taken pain medication, the DNA in your neurons starts expressing for the production of certain proteins that are eventually constructed into molecules we call endorphins - which are the body’s internal painkillers. That’s how deep the placebo effect reaches into our biology. The same goes for the “nocebo effect”, which is the expectation of something bad. If you eat something, you believe to be poisonous – which in fact isn’t – you are very likely to experience symptoms of poisoning. Of course, you won’t die from it, because there are some limits to the power of belief, but it can take us quite some ways.
Visualization and other forms of active imagination are a way of intentionally utilizing the placebo effect. They are a way of steering mechanisms within our bodies that are normally considered outside our conscious control. And it’s true – I cannot consciously decide to produce endorphins in my brain. But the beliefs I hold can have that effect. Most fundamentally, we form beliefs based on what we perceive with our senses. If I sit in my room, I believe that there are objects surrounding me, because I can see them. If I hear a voice calling me, I believe there is a person next room, because I can hear her. What we perceive is almost automatically transformed into belief. From the content of our senses, we create a model of reality, which is perpetually updated. This is a very important observation. Because imagination is so similar to perception, in the effect it has on our unconscious belief formation, we can use it to plant beliefs inside our heads, that we would otherwise have a hard time planting. The important difference between perception and imagination, of course, is, that we can influence the latter to our own liking. This means by extension, that we can influence our own beliefs and the placebo effect resulting from them to our own liking.
So, to sum this up quickly, we can say the following. We know from the placebo effect, that the things we believe can have very strong effects on the internal workings of our body and mind, and by extension, this will have effects on the world around us. Beliefs are most fundamentally formed through what we are confronted with in our perception. If I see a red apple in front of me, I form the belief that there is a red apple in front of me. Now, because we know that perception shapes our beliefs, we can infer that being able to manipulate perception should allow us to manipulate our beliefs. And the closest we can get to that is through using our imagination. Because imagination is close enough to perception in the way that our unconscious mind processes it, we can use imagination to plant beliefs in our own minds, at least tentatively, that will then have the desired “placebo” effect.
Take the following example for instance. Imagine you have a goal to achieve peak fitness, but you've been struggling to stay motivated. You decide to harness the power of visualization to make this goal feel more achievable.
The Visualization: You find a quiet space, close your eyes, and begin to visualize your ideal self. You see yourself in peak physical condition, radiating health and vitality. You're engaged in various fitness activities that you enjoy, such as running, lifting weights, or practicing yoga. You feel the strength, energy, and confidence in your body. You visualize specific scenes, like completing a challenging workout or running a marathon, and you envision the sense of accomplishment and joy you'll experience.
Unconscious Impact: As you regularly engage in these visualization sessions, your unconscious mind begins to embrace this image of your ideal self as a possibility. It starts to accept that you can become the fit and healthy person you visualize.
Behavioral Changes: Motivated by your vivid mental image of success, you start to make changes in your daily life. You find joy in working out because you've associated it with the positive feelings from your visualizations. You prioritize healthy eating, adequate sleep, and stress management to support your fitness journey.
Consistency and Progress: With time, your consistent efforts lead to real progress. You feel more energized, and your workouts become more enjoyable. You notice physical changes in your body, such as increased strength and endurance. These tangible improvements reinforce your belief that your fitness goal is within reach.
Supportive Environment: Your commitment to fitness also affects your social circles. You begin to inspire friends and family to adopt healthier lifestyles. You surround yourself with like-minded individuals who encourage and support your fitness journey, creating a positive feedback loop.
Goal Achievement: Over time, you not only reach your fitness goals but exceed them. You run that marathon, achieve personal bests in strength training, and maintain a consistently healthy lifestyle. The sense of accomplishment and well-being you've visualized becomes your reality.
In this example, visualization serves as a powerful motivational tool that makes your fitness goals feel more tangible. By consistently visualizing your desired future and allowing your unconscious mind to accept it as possible, you motivate yourself to take the necessary actions to turn your vision into reality. The process demonstrates how visualization can be a valuable companion in achieving personal goals, much like a mental roadmap to success.
I hope this short overview of the “manifestation” side of visualization has given you a sense of the power that you can wield with this tool. It is indeed one of the most effective ways of “programming” yourself to be committed, persistent, and eventually successful in the pursuit of your goals. In the next article, we will take a closer look at the actual practice, providing you with step-by-step instructions for how to get started. Until then, I wish you a nice weekend and I’ll see you in the next one.