Have you ever heard of visualization? Of course you have. Everybody’s heard of visualization and everybody partakes in it whether they realize it or not. How it works though is an altogether different matter. I want to take a closer look today at the mechanics of why visualizing works without necessarily delving into concepts and theories that cannot be proven.
The brain has great difficulty in distinguishing between what’s true and what’s imagined. There is an oft-cited example of an experiment conducted by Australian Psychologist, Alan Richardson. He took some basketball players and split them into 3 equal groups. One group was told to practice their free throw technique twenty minutes per day. The next group was told to spend twenty minutes per day visualizing, but not attempting free throws, and the final group wasn’t allowed to either practice or visualize. At the end of the test period the group that had done nothing remained as they were, but both the other groups showed similar degrees of improvement. The people who only visualized playing basketball were able to perform almost as well as the ones who had actually practiced.
“How can that be so?”
Firstly, the people practicing would miss some shots. Each time they missed they had in effect, practiced how to miss. The people that were visualizing would be hitting every basket so they were building up the feelings and memory of how to be successful.
Forging a Path Through a Meadow
Imagine walking home from a new job. You suddenly realize that there is a meadow of long grass that will cut 20 minutes off your walk. If you live in New York you’re going to need a great imagination for this one.
The first few times you can barely see which way you had walked the previous day. However, after 10 or 20 times you can clearly see a pathway starting to form, and after 100 times all the grass is worn away and there’s a farmer with a shotgun and large dog waiting for you at the end. Let’s presume our gun-toting friend is a big softie and he allows you to use that route as long as you want. What are the odds that next time you try a slightly different direction? Slim to none would be my guess. After all, you know this way works and you have a lovely easy path.
On the other hand, if Farmer Giles starts taking pot shots at you and sportingly lets the dog try and shoot you too, before releasing it to sink its gnashers into your rear end, then you’ll probably find a new way home once you’re released from hospital.
The next time you’re walking home you opt against reacquainting yourself with Fido and spot another meadow further along the road. The same process then begins to take place only this time the original path you made has started to grow back.
How We Create a Path in Our Mind
That is what happens when we form thoughts in our mind. The first time we have a new thought it is a weakling of a thought that has sand kicked in its face by stronger thoughts and beliefs. Each time you re-think it though it grows in strength as the physical pathway becomes more and more well defined. Not only that, but if it is a belief that contradicts one you already hold, the older belief starts to atrophy and die.
This also explains why we have the same thoughts over and over again and why people have difficulty snapping negative loops of thinking. The pathway has been established and it’s just easier to continue following it than trying to think about something new and form a new connection in the brain.
Making Visualization Work For You
Visualization is an incredibly successful and simple way of speeding up the process by fooling the unconscious into believing that you have already done something before you have. That’s what the basketball visualizers were doing, fooling their own unconscious into thinking they know how to hit basket after basket. Of course this in and of itself will not turn you into an NBA star, you do actually have to practice as well, but it will help you succeed more quickly.
All you need to do to be successful at this is to visualize yourself doing something, as you would like to do it. Profound stuff, huh? Seriously though, that is all there is to it. How long you do it each day will affect the speed of change and it’s really not advisable visualizing your success for 20 minutes per day and then spending 10 hours worrying about failing and replaying negative stuff in your head. It kind of defeats the object.
You can also incorporate the ‘fake it till you make it’ method in with your visualization to help speed up the process. This is simply a matter of pretending you are already proficient at something before you really are. Again, it’s simply a way of tricking your unconscious and getting it to do what you want it to do.
Some people have difficulty with this process and tell me it’s being unrealistic. Well yeh, maybe they’re right, but who cares? If you want to be shackled by the chains of realism then go ahead, knock yourself out, but let me tell you this. There are few highly successful people out there that haven’t used this method or visualization at one time or another. In fact, successful people don’t care too much for reality; it just gets in the way and slows them down. What about you?
This post was adapted from part of a free eBook called Know Yourself – Change Yourself written by Professional Life Coach Tim Brownson. Tim is owner of A Daring Adventure and if you’re so inclined you can read more of his ramblings at ‘The Discomfort Zone’.
Image by Gregor Y.