The Power of Visualization is Fascinating. But it Can Be Elusive too.
Visualization often goes hand in hand with the law of attraction. And in its worst interpretation, the law of attraction suggests that you create imagery of what you desire, infuse emotions, and then attract those dreams into your life.
This lazy interpretation of visualization is the reason why some feel inclined to ridicule the whole concept of attracting desired realities into your life.
But make no mistake. As with any technology, proper application is critical.
So let’s look at some of the science that can explain the power of visualization and the crucial steps to make it work for you.
Imagination, Visualization, and Mental Imagery
People often use the words imagination, visualization, and mental imagery interchangeably. But there are differences between these terms. And these differences become important when we want to work with visualizations successfully.
Both imagination and visualization refer to creating a mental image or picture.
However, imagination can also include other mental concepts beyond visualization. And visualization requires prior knowledge of an object to generate a mental image.
Then, mental imagery is the technical term that cognitive scientists use to explain how we produce objects and space in our minds.
Ronald A Finke of Texas State University describes in his 1989 eponymous classic the principles of mental imagery.
Finke identified five fundamental characteristics of mental images:
Implicit Encoding – Consists of all the details we remember to produce an image in our mind without having made an effort to recall them.
Perceptual Equivalence – Creating a mental image and looking at the object engages the same parts of our brains in very similar ways.
Spatial Equivalence – We respond to our mental images in the same fashion as if we were relating to real objects or spaces.
Transformational Equivalence – Changing an imagined object, like looking at it from a different perspective, will engage the same mental processes as if we would be looking at the real thing.
Structural Equivalence – In Finke’s own words: “The structure of mental images corresponds to that of actual perceived objects, in the sense that the structure is coherent, well organized, and can be reorganized and reinterpreted.”
Why is it important to understand the various aspects of mental imagery? So we can make the process of visualization as detailed, plastic, and tangible as possible. The more we know of something, the higher our power of visualization.
Imagination in Philosophy and Economics
For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, it was imagination that connects the soul’s cognitive operations. In Aristotle’s view, imagination is not a faculty in its own right, but it is images that are required to represent objects in complete intentional acts.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume said that “men are mightily governed by the imagination.”
Hume contends that the capacity to imagine is behind crucial characteristics of both individuals and societies.
As for individual human beings, Hume believes that imagination facilitates our various mental abilities: to create “abstract” or “general” ideas; to infer from causes to their effects or figure out the reasons from effects; to sympathize and be empathetic with other people; to project particular feelings unto objects in our environment. Finally, according to Hume, it is also our imagination that is behind our inclination to believe numerous “fictions,” aka superstitions.
As for human social patterns, Hume asserts that features of the imagination account for why we need to form governments and devise the laws that we live by, such as the distribution of property and the passage of national authority.
Imagination becomes a crucial ingredient in the economic theory of St. Gallen Professor and founder of the Institute for Economy and the Environment Hans Christoph Binswanger. In “The Growth Spiral – Money, Energy, and Imagination in the Dynamics of the Market Process,” he writes that “the human intellect or imagination is to the economy what sunlight is to the ecological cycle as a constantly self-regenerating driving force.”
The Power of Imagination as a Neurological Phenomenon
The discovery of neuroplasticity in the latter half of the 20th century has fundamentally changed our perception of how we can heal, improve, and develop.
Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s capability to remodel itself continually. The term derives from ‘neurons’ which are the nerve cells in the brain and the nervous system. ‘Plasticity’ is the ability to change itself.
In the same vein, Norman Doidge’s fascinating read on the matter has the title ‘The Brain that Changes Itself, Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.’
Visualization can alter the brain by enhancing performance and reinforcing muscles.
Harvard Medical School Neurology Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone says we can modify our brain with mental imagery.
In one remarkable experiment, Pascual-Leone showed how we could practice visualization to advance our performance in a particular activity. He brought together two groups of people without any prior experience of playing the piano.
The first group only imagined playing the piano and hearing the melody of a piano sequence. Twice daily, participants just sat practicing their visualization in front of an instrument for five days a week.
The second group did actually practice playing the piano for the same amount of time per week.
Researches mapped participants’ brains before, during, and after the experiment. In the end, people of both groups played the sequence they had learned on the piano while a computer monitored the accuracy.
Surprisingly, visualization alone had facilitated equal physical changes in the participants’ motor systems as those who had trained on the piano. Further, both groups displayed corresponding brain maps and comparable piano playing skills.
Imagination and Performance Are Equal to Our Brains
What seems incredible for the general observer does, however, add up from a neuroscientific point of view. Because for the brain imagining and performing an action is the same thing.
Brain scans reveal that both visualization and action stimulate numerous areas in the brain. Case in point, when people visualize the letter A with their eyes closed and look at the letter A. Both equally activate the primary visual cortex in the brain. So, the power of visualization improves performance.
You can even use visualization to strengthen your muscles, as various studies have demonstrated. In one such study, medical doctors Guang Yue and Kelly Cole analyzed two groups of participants. The first group did physical exercise over four weeks – 15 finger contractions with a 20-second rest in between them. The second group just imagined doing the task, including a voice cheering them on to contract harder. After four weeks, participants of the group that had performed the physical exercise recorded an increase in muscle strength of 30 percent. And participants of the visualization group weren’t far of with an increase in power of 22 percent.
Five Key Aspects to Unleash the Power of Visualization
So far, we have established the nature and principles of mental imagery. And we have confirmed that visualization has a solid grounding in science, i.e., that it does work.
Now let’s look at how to perform visualizations so they best work for you.
1. Set Your Goal
You need to know what it is you want to focus your mental energy effectively. You can choose anything. Learning a new instrument, increasing muscle strength, becoming more confident, achieving better health, buy a new house, solving a relationship problem, become a more useful member of your community.
Whatever your goal may be, it is a wise idea to begin your visualization practice with a goal that is easy for you to believe in. Your subconscious will know if you find your target to be too outrageous to believe. With more practice and increasing confidence, create more challenging goals.
2. Visualize from a First-Person Perspective
If your goal is to win a new business deal, imagine what sealing the deal looks like from your eyes. If your goal is winning a running race, see dashing down the track and the audience cheering from your eyes. You aim to create something in your life, so make sure you are the main protagonist in your mental imagery.
3. Engage All Five Senses in the Visualization
Make it real and precise. It is happening now. Feel it. The keyword here is a ‘full sensory experience.’ Feel the smell and the sound of the ink on the paper when signing the business deal. Acknowledge the warm summer breeze infused with the scent of freshly cut grass when you cross the finish line. Experience the uplifting feeling knowing you have won the race. Include sensory details in your visualization that aren’t directly relevant to the activity. These details make the experience whole and real. Remember implicit encoding.
4. Infuse Positivity
Visualize success. In the running example, see yourself crossing the finish line. In the business deal example, see yourself returning home with a signed contract or looking at the client transfer on your bank account. The practice, performance, the acquisition is complete.
Visualizing success is crucial because apart from sensory and motor processing areas of the brain, mental imagery also stimulates semantic processing. Semantic information correlates with associations like ‘win,’ ‘receive,’ and ‘loose.’
5. Visualize Persistently
As anything worthwhile achieving in life, also successful visualization requires persistence. Visualize daily with tenacity and experience how what you desire becomes part of you. But don’t worry about the result.
Do your practice with focus and sincerity. Results will show in time, and until they do, practice your powers of visualization. Worrying about results only may trigger emotions that may adversely affect your success. Your task is persistent visualization, not worrying about the results.
Overcoming the Limits to the Success of Your Visualization Efforts
Part of successful visualization is the realization that we practice visualization all the time anyway. We do so unconsciously and more often than not to our disadvantage.
This realization is part of the complete acceptance of responsibility for our life. We have created the experience we currently have. Our thoughts have created our reality.
Hence, we are responsible for the miseries in our lives, and that can be a painful realization. But it is as liberating at the same time because it also means that we have more control over our fate than most people believe.
Five Most Common Limiting Factors to Successful Visualization
1. Unsatisfactory Visualization Skills
Most people are not very good at holding a single thought or image in your mind. Or have a single focus concentration on a particular activity. Just try a simple experiment: close your eyes and picture your lungs breathing. Those deep red saggy bags suspended in your chest are contracting and expanding rhythmically. Now inhale and exhale deeply ten times. Keep the image of your lungs contracting and expanding vivid while you count your breath to ten. Super easy, right?
By the sound of it, this must be a breeze. However, the reality is that most people can’t do it. Both the counting and a steady image of your lungs blur after a few breath repetitions. Because most never trained their mind. Visualization takes practice and persistence, and then it can be done. But it is nowhere as easy as it sounds.
2. Damaging Beliefs
For many contradictory ideas, get in the way between the inner visualization and the outer reality. If you visualize and desire your life partner but still have an adopted childhood belief that you are not worthy of love, that conviction will prevent your visualization from taking positive realization.
On this level, visualizations are a personal improvement tool that helps you to become fully aligned as a person — fully aligned in the sense that your innermost beliefs are in tune with your outer reality and what you do in life.
3. Pessimistic Emotions
Emotions have enormous power to make your visualization turn into reality – or not.
A degree of pleasure and displeasure pair with emotions. Because emotions usually are a neurophysiological change in response to what has happened to you.
The lack of positive emotions and the failure to generate positive ones will create unfavorable results. It is at the very heart of successful visualizations to break a negative cycle and infuse positivity into your life using the power of visualization.
4. Lack of Energy
Visualizations require focus and practice, which in turn depend upon sufficient power. You may refer to this force as vital energy, aka chi or prana. Whatever you may call it, you do know when you have the strength to engage in your activities fully. Insufficient energy does not lend itself to unleash the power of visualization. In turn, the more energy you have, the better the chances to create great things in your life.
5. Failure to Take Action
Using the power of visualizations can open you up to the more complex realities of life. Part of that reality is also that you have to do the work. Visualizations are great for overall alignment and resonance. There may be some cases where visualization is sufficient to manifest something desired in your life. In most cases, however, you will have to take adequate action toward your goal.
Parting Thought on the Power of Visualization
A standard critique against visualizations and the law of attraction for that matter is that it is magic. And since magic isn’t real, it, therefore, can’t be real.
This view is deeply ironic, as visualization is indeed magic of the highest order. And it is real. If the word magic doesn’t work for you, use a different one. How about awesomeness, fascination, or personal power?
Successful visualization opens the understanding and balancing of oneself with the laws that govern our life. If you have a desire, persistently, and adequately visualize it with all your senses and lots of feeling, and take action, you will create the things you desire in your life. Now that is magic to me — the magic of creative consciousness.