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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

The Power of Visualization

What is visualization? Visualization is the practice of creating a mental image of what you want to achieve in the future. Visualizing is closing your eyes and not just “seeing” yourself accomplishing whatever is important to you, but “feeling” it too. It involves using all five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.

Throughout my childhood I participated in various sports and no matter what the sport was my father would tell me to visualize what I was trying to do. He’d tell me to visualize each step of pitching a strike, scoring a goal, or shooting a basket. I didn’t understand the science behind visualization but I knew that it enhanced my skills.

Several olympic coaches encourage visualization, including Micheal Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, who says the key to visualization is that it has to be very vivid and rehearsed many times. He says the reason it works is because the brain cannot distinguish between something that is vividly visualized and something that’s real, so when race day comes Phelps has swam the race hundreds of times before.

A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds, were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost as effective as true physical practice. How is this possible? Too often people have a mistaken notion about visualization — that all we have to do is visualize and things will magically appear in our lives, but we need to do more than visualize. We need to connect to our vision and values and use visualization to show up as the best version of ourselves.

Our brains are quite complex and like many complex systems they divide up functions into specific areas. When we think using words, we engage the left brain. This is where analysis, strategy, planning and our concepts of reality reside typically. Visualization, on the other hand, makes more use of the right brain. When we exercise more of the right brain we tap into more of our potential, more of our creativity, intuition and direct perception of reality. Visualization helps us to use more of our right brain and integrate its functioning into the left brain functions.

The thalamus is the grand central station of sensory processing. Every sensation, mood, and thought passes through it as the information is relayed to other parts of the brain. The thalamus plays a crucial role in identifying what is and what isn’t real, and it gives a sense of emotional meaning to the thoughts that emerge in the frontal lobe. If you exercise an idea over and over, your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object. Because the brain cannot distinguish whether you are imagining something or doing it, the brain goes about creating the necessary new neural pathways and connections.

Visualization isn’t only used for enhancing athletic abilities, it can also be used at work. It’s even used among healthcare professionals as an effective stress management tool. Studies have shown that novice surgeons who received imagery training demonstrated reduced self-reported stress and decreased objective stress. UCLA researchers found that people who visualize the process of what needed to be done in order to change their habits were more likely to build that habit than their peers who just visualized the end result. For example, rather than simply visualizing knowing a new language, those who visualized going through the work and practicing every day were more likely to make the habits stick.

The crucial aspect of visualizing is that the neural pathways that are formed while imagining something are then strengthened by doing that thing later. Because of the existing neural circuits that have already formed from prior visualization, even if it is the first time, it feels familiar. For instance, if you’re supposed to give a presentation, every day for a few minutes, until the date of your actual presentation, visualize yourself standing in the conference room in front of your audience delivering the presentation. The needed neural circuits to be able to deliver it start being created inside your brain. The strength of the connections is directly proportional to the intensity of your imagination. Feeling strengthens the neural connections,so you can remember it longer. As you keep visualizing, not only are new neural pathways corresponding to your public speaking capability, the scene of you standing in front of your audience starts becoming more and more familiar. In turn, your anxiety levels start coming down. After this practice you will be less anxious and the probability of you succeeding will be far higher than without this visualization practice.

What change is important enough for you to focus your attention on now? How do you want things to be different? Can you visualize yourself acting in this new way? People from all walks of life are finding this technique very useful in overcoming their fears, learning something new, and improving their performance. So, for your next challenging task at work, try to vividly visualize how you complete that task. You may find that when the time comes to perform, this new challenge feels like a task you’ve already mastered.


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