Visualization – it’s one of those terms that brings up a lot of connotations of woo woo hippie communities, spiritual practices, and the law of attraction.
“If you want a better life just visualize it and manifest it!” (Eye roll)
I’ve always been very skeptical of visualization practices and their ability to bring the future to fruition.
YET – recently I’ve had a change of heart.
My brother always says “A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence”…and it turns out there’s actually A LOT of science to back up the benefits of visualization practices.
“There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.” – Michael Gervais
Harvard Physiologist Edmund Jacobson was the first person to discover this link. Jacobson found that if you simply imagine yourself lifting an object, you will trigger corresponding electrical activity in the muscles involved in the lift. By thinking about lifting a weight, the muscles that are responsible for that lift are activated.
His studies have since been replicated dozens of times, consistently finding strong correlations between mental rehearsal—i.e., visualization—and better performance. Everything from giving a speech to running a business meeting to painting a picture to learning a new dance move are enhanced through the process of visualization.
For this next one I’ll quote Steven Kotler directly from his book “The Rise of Superman” –
“In 2004, Cleveland Clinic physiologist Guang Yue wanted to know if merely thinking about lifting weights was enough to increase strength. Study subjects were divided into four groups. One group tried to strengthen their finger muscles with physical exercise; one tried to strengthen their finger muscles by only visualizing the exercise; another tried to increase arm strength through visualization; while the last group did nothing at all. The trial lasted twelve weeks.
When it was over, those who did nothing saw no gains. The group that relied on physical training saw the greatest increase in strength—at 53 percent. But it’s the mental groups where things got curious. Folks who did no physical training but merely imagined their fingers going through precise exercise motions saw a 35 percent increase in strength, while the ones who visualized arm exercises saw a 13.5 percent increase in strength.”
Let’s review – these participants did NOTHING BUT VISUALIZING and saw an increase of up to 35% in strength!
But things are all the more convincing when you consider that a few years before Yue’s studies, neuroscientists found no difference between performing an action and merely imagining oneself performing that action—the same neuronal circuits fire in either case.
This has VERY powerful implications – Imagining yourself doing something triggers the same parts of the brain as doing the actual activity.
This could also why people often get immediate gratification from an idea of a new business and then imagine themselves building it only to never execute on this ideal version of their lives – by visualizing it they have tricked themselves into believing it has already happened.
HOWEVER, if we are able to put that visualization into practice? We are working with some serious magic. Your brain has already begun to normalize the task, it already believes it CAN, which means that you’re more likely to be able to DO.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
Start visualizing what you want to happen!
Have a speech that you need to deliver that you want to go well? Envision yourself giving that speech, envision the reactions of everyone, envision yourself performing your best – and you’re more likely to make it happen.
Have a date you’re nervous about? Instead of sitting in anxiety, imagine the perfect date. Imagine everything going smoothly. Imagine a goodnight kiss….you’ll make it more likely to happen.
Trying to learn a new physical feat? Watch videos of other people doing it, and then imagine yourself doing the same. Visualize yourself doing physical feats that seem impossible and you might be able to do them sooner than you think.
The point here is that your brain doesn’t know the difference between visualization and action. By visualizing we convince our brain we’re taking action. This allows the brain to start piecing together what it means to complete the task, and then starts working in the background to help you achieve your goals.
So whatever you want to achieve in life – visualize it. Visualize yourself breaking the impossible down into realistic chunks and then tackling them one by one until the impossible becomes realistic.
It’s not magic – it’s science. Visualize your success and it’s sure to follow.
Want to dive more into the applied neuroscience of Flow State? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Also published on Medium.