Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said,
"Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny."
And if you've ever heard this saying, you're probably familiar with the power our thoughts hold. With thousands of repetitive thoughts every day, they shape our reality. Close to 90% of our thoughts today are believed to be the same as yesterday! When we try to deliberately control some of our thoughts with techniques like visualization, we do ourselves a huge favor.
Visualization is the act of forming mental images to help one understand or achieve certain goals. It is a process that involves our senses, creativity, and imagination. It allows us to direct our thoughts to focus on what matters most to us and selectively attend to details. People commonly use visualization techniques to get motivated and build their confidence. They use it in sports, meditations, prayers, and more. It requires us to be present and promotes a growth mindset. Small steps build up and as one thing leads to another, visualization brings people closer to success; it is built on the idea that thought precedes action.
But how does this work? And can we really imagine our successes into existence?
Visualization in the brain
The human brain is in a constant state of growth, change, and adaptation. As we engage in different experiences throughout our lives, our brain strengthens and weakens neural pathways accordingly. These experiences don’t always have to be physical; they can be imaginary and exhibit a similar response in the brain.
A study published in Neuron showed that imagining a threat elicits almost the same response in the brain as experiencing it in real-life. Both conditions - imagining and experiencing threat - preferentially activated the nucleus accumbens and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This paper's researchers suggest an effective way to cope with threat is to imagine it, but without the negative consequences. This is one of the main principles used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), most notably for eliminating phobias. The same principle can be used for success. Visualizing the scenario of succeeding in a difficult situation or achieving your goals can activate the same areas in your brain as physically experiencing this scenario. This promotes neuroplasticity - the formation and strengthening of the pathways in your brain related to your success - and in turn reduces your stress, makes you more likely to succeed, and gives you a surge of motivation.
A 2017 study at the University of Windsor showed that various professionals experienced a reduction in their overall stress and anxiety levels after using visualization. In this study, novice surgeons reported lower self-reported and objective stress if they received imagery training before performing the surgery. In addition, when nursing students used visualization techniques, their clinical performance improved. Even police officers reported better problem-based coping, less sleep difficulties, and reduced stomach issues over a 10-week period of imagery training. They were able to mentally rehearse the difficult situation, therefore practicing their response to stress and handling the issue well.
Numerous athletes are known to use visualization to help them reach their goals and win stressful games. Muhammad Ali's famous quote "if my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it" is an inspiration for many. LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Jon Jones have all spoken about the power of using imagery for performance. Michael Phelps’ coach also talked about how he swims the race hundreds of times in his head before he actually does it. By rehearsing mentally, he becomes calm and ready to perform at his best.
Some studies even suggest significant increases in muscle strength after mental training. Participants who imagined their muscles contracting for 11 minutes a day, five days a week, over the course of a month were twice as strong as those who did not. This has many implications on athlete performance and stroke/concussion recovery.
One of the ways one can optimize their recovery post-brain injury is through strengthening the mind-muscle connection. Research suggests that along with maintaining a positive attitude, using one's imagination to create an experience of full recovery can speed up this process. Just thinking about moving each muscle one finds trouble with activates the muscle fibers without moving them. This can also be applied while moving the muscle - thinking of it and imagining it getting stronger can help. This eventually leads to increased feelings of control, therefore improving one's mental and physical state. You essentially train yourself to picture what you want to happen, instead of what you don't want to happen. This does not have to be limited to mental imagery; it can also be done through bullet journaling, writing, meditating, praying, or even dreaming, which have all helped many patients post-injury.
Lucid dreaming is another way to apply mental rehearsal and prepare for real-life successes. A Journal of Sports Sciences study showed that practicing motor skills in lucid dreams significantly improved real-life performance. I experienced this myself when I learned how to bike in middle school. After two weeks of consecutive practice and failed trials, one lucid dream of achieving balance did it and I woke up riding freely!
HOW DO I VISUALIZE?
Whether it be through journaling, mental imagery, or dreaming, the trick is to involve all your senses and be as specific as you can. You want to choose your goal and imagine everything related to it - the situation, time, place, people you're with, environment, emotions, what you're wearing - everything. Imagine what you can smell when you perform, what you see, the noises around you, the feeling deep in your heart, and the taste in your mouth. You can do this with eyes closed and intense focus, or if you're a writer like me, you can put your words to good use. You can also try guided meditation, daily affirmations, or a vision board. Be as specific as you can and you'll essentially trick your brain into it, eventually finding yourself unconsciously engaging in behaviors that promote what your vision was.
So what is it that you want to reach? It may be delivering that nerve-racking presentation, scoring a final winning goal, losing a few pounds, perfecting your form at the gym, or being able to balance on your own after a concussion. Regardless, adding visualization can help you. Aim high and you'll be surprised at what you can achieve!