Visualisation works by strengthening the mental pathways involved in taking a certain action and the body's ability to perform that action. It is a form of mental rehearsal. A person who is visualising can actually see himself completing specific actions. These actions can be improved upon until they become the best possible actions, therefore improving the skill of the individual. Create the perfect mental picture for the task that you want to achieve. Continue to refine the picture until you get to your destination.
Whenever we want to do anything, the areas of our brain for planning and movement are involved, followed by activation of the motor areas that carry out the action. The brain prepares the body milliseconds before it is about to begin an action. It formulates a motor program based on movements in the frontal and prefrontal cortex. Then onto the motor cortex where the movements are carried out. As you visualise, you can create the same process.
Back in 1931, an eminent scientist, Edmund Jacobson, observed electrical activity in muscles even when people were only thinking of using those muscles. There is now increasing evidence that visual areas of the brain are selectively activated during visual imagery and flow through to the parts of the body being visualised.
Research has demonstrated that the brain has similar activity in the cortex during both imaginary and actual motor performance. It seems the brain is stimulated in much the same way by actual performance and virtual or visualised performance. It follows that the more you visualise a situation, the more real it will feel to you and this, in turn, will reinforce your belief. In one study, brain scanning of people watching certain activities showed neuronal activity in the same areas as if they were actually doing the activities, suggesting that the brain is already priming itself for the activities. Professional musicians have an increased activity of the prefrontal cortex while practising music. This activity pattern also occurs while musicians are visualising themselves playing a concerto or while listening to music without any physical movement at all.
More than 100 studies have shown the benefits of visualisation as an effective performance enhancing technique. In one study, between 72% and 97% of elite track and field athletes used imagery to improve performance, while in some other sports it was used by 100% of athletes. Other studies have shown that professional sports players make significantly greater use of imagery, focusing, relaxation and other mental skills than novices. So why not do it the way the champions do it? Babe Ruth, the baseball player, often insisted on practising his game mentally rather than sweating it out on the field with the rest of his team, much to the frustration of his coach. Time and time again, Babe hit the home runs for which he became famous, proving that his visualisations were integral to his success. The famous psychiatrist Milton Erickson instructed his subconscious mind to work out an editorial while he slept. He woke in the morning to find the editorial already written on the typewriter.
In one study, basketballers were separated into three groups. One group practised free throws, the second group used only mental visualisation with no physical practice, and the third group had the practice time off altogether. Not surprisingly, the third group got worse. However, the physical training group and the visualisation group improved equally. Imagine the benefit if you did both the mental and physical training.
In a study of 30 year old adults who spent 15 minutes a day visualising the exercise of their little finger, they were able to increase finger strength by 35%. Similarly, they were able to improve the muscle strength of their elbows by 13% through the same activity. In a similar experiment, 10 volunteers between ages 20 and 35 visualised flexing one of their biceps as hard as they could. These volunteers showed a 13.5% increase in muscle strength after a few weeks and maintained that gain for three months after training had concluded. In a study at Manchester University, participants were separated into four groups. The first watched a video of themselves and imagined their own excellent performance. The second group listened to an audiotape of themselves playing golf, including the sound of their putts being holed. The third group read a manuscript of their movements, thoughts and feelings while mentally making a putt. The fourth group read a biography of Jack Nicklaus for 10 minutes each day. The results showed that reading about Jack Nicklaus increased participants' performance by 18%; reading a script while mentally making a putt increased performance by 30%; listening to a tape of holing putts: 47%; watching a video and visualising: 57%. In a study of 40 golfers, mental imagery increased golfing performance significantly. They holed more putts and when they missed, they missed by smaller margins compared to before mental training. Forget the golf practice and start the mental practice.
Put simplistically, the more you visualise the more you practise. To become proficient at something you need to practise; to become a "genius" in a particular area you need to practise perfectly for a minimum of 10 years. Every time you practise a skill the pattern becomes more entrenched in your mind, creating more neuronal pathways that support that pattern. Research has shown, however, at a certain stage more of the brain activity for this pattern moves to the prefrontal cortex, literally short circuiting the rest of the brain. It enables the person to perform the task a few milliseconds more quickly until the task literally becomes second nature. The only difference between the best in the world at something and the second best is a few milliseconds. Whether it is a mathematical or basketball "genius," the more milliseconds they save in the billions of tasks that take place in the brain, the quicker and better they perform.
Research has also shown that the mental rehearsal of planning and organising leads to significant increases in the actual time and effort people put into planning, resulting in greater success.
Once you have harnessed the power of visualisation, you can use it for almost anything. The more you use it, the more powerfully you'll imprint the desired outcome in your mind and the more likely you are to actually achieve what you want. This, of course, goes hand in hand with actual preparation for the activity. Don't expect to pass an exam if you don't study well. Using visualisation in preparing for exams helps with planning and studying and will also reduce stress levels.
I suggest students use positive images before sitting exams, giving presentations or playing sport. Visualisation can be used to prepare for any situation where you may come under extra pressure or need a positive outcome. Positive images can also help shy people in social situations. The first part of the visualisation is to create a positive picture of the success of an event, such as imagining the applause of the audience after your presentation, then people coming up to you and shaking your hand and saying, "Congratulations, that was excellent." The second part is to mentally rehearse the event in your mind. See yourself walking to the front of the room with a confident smile and body language, taking the centre stage, saying "Thank you" and giving your presentation. It is best to run through the major points of the presentation in your mind. It should only take a few minutes the first time and then when you have done it several times, it will become easier. The more you rehearse, the more you'll reinforce your ability to achieve the results you want.
I teach my students to imagine coming out of an exam with big smiles on their faces, using positive body language and yelling, "Yes!" to symbolise their success. I encourage them to imagine the whole situation from the beginning, walking into the exam room straight-backed, positive, with smiles on their faces. The smile is very important. Then sitting down at the desk, shoulders back, taking a deep breath and beginning to write. I also get them to go through the mental imagery of seeing themselves studying for the exams.
Outside of my research, I work with top executives and athletes, once they have written their goals, to visualise the outcomes of their goals. The difference is amazing and the results begin to occur within days. Not only can visualisation be used for almost any purpose - sporting activities, business activities, relationships, lifestyle changes - but also it can be used anywhere. Mental rehearsals can identify problems and solve them ahead of time. Mental rehearsal helps you see opportunities by running through different scenarios in your mind before they occur.
How to visualise
Make the situation as vivid as possible in your mind. Be specific when you imagine the activity and use colour and as many senses as possible - smell, touch, sound. The more real your visualisation, the greater the stimulation of your brain. The more you enhance a situation in your mind, the more powerful it becomes. Powerful imagery will help propel you to where you want to go.
Visualisation is done by closing your eyes and concentrating on the point between your eyebrows directly above the nose. This is the prefrontal cortex area and is also known as the third eye, sixth chakra or Christ consciousness. What is interesting about this point is that it has been used for thousands of years for meditation and prayer, before humans even knew what the prefrontal cortex was.
Build some active processes into your visualisations. For example, if you want to get rid of some old emotions don't just see the emotions getting smaller and smaller in your mind but go through the actions of making them smaller or throwing them away with your hands so that you engage your body in the action.
Engage all your senses. Visualise the touching, smelling, hearing and tasting as well as the seeing. The more senses you engage the more of the mind you tap into. Create visualisations by using all of your senses. If you're creating a picture of success, feel the success. Napoleon Hill wrote in his classic Think and Grow Rich, "feel the feeling of success." Use all your senses as you imagine how it feels to achieve your visualisation.
Visualisation can also be used by creating a strong negative association in your mind with a behaviour you want to eliminate. If you are trying to give up junk foods, you can associate them with being nauseated, vomiting and having stomach cramps. If you can, make the picture vivid enough that it creates a real sensation and the sheer thought of eating that food is enough to turn your stomach. Similarly, you can associate some foods with positive sensations and feel good about eating those foods, even without actually eating them. Do this with healthy, nutritious foods.
We know a lot more than we think we do and have vast untapped reservoirs of ability. Imagery can create the pictures from which the subconscious mind will take guidance.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.