Visualisation as a way to obtain change.
What is visualisation and how does it work?
Visualisation is the process of clearly picturing something in your mind. This can be anything; a desired outcome, a set of actions, or a desirable future scenario. Visualisation is a way of mentally practising and preparing yourself for success.
Many people find visualisation a very helpful way of achieving their goals and the reason why it works is because the brain has difficulty differentiating between what is real and the things we imagine. To understand why we need to take a look at what happens in the brain when we learn.
The brain is made up of many individual cells called neurons. When these neurons are activated they release neurotransmitters (chemicals) which enable them to communicate with other neurons. Performing a particular action, learning to drive a car for example, requires the neurons in the brain to communicate in a particular order, this is called a neural pathway. The more you practice an action, the stronger that neural pathway will become, and the stronger the neural pathway becomes the easier you find the activity. You have a neural pathway for everything; cleaning your teeth, riding a bike, swimming, and these enable you perform everyday activities without having to think about them too hard.
And it’s not just physical activities that build neural networks. Mental activities such as learning facts or emotional responses also create neural networks, and this is where it becomes interesting, because both actually experiencing something and imagining something will lead to the development of neural networks. So mentally practicing something can improve your physical performance, in fact this has been scientifically proven with mental rehearsal leading to “positive and significant effects on performance” (Driskell et al. 1994).
This is used to great effect within the sports world where many leading athletes carefully visualise their perfect golf swing, drop kick or lap of the Formula 1 circuit. Research has also demonstrated that mental practice can improve surgical skills (Arora at al, 2011), and help musicians perform more accurately (Coffman, 1990). It has also been proved to improve performance in an exam, but only when the individuals visualised themselves taking the steps needed to pass the exam (e.g. studying) rather than just visualising themselves doing well in an exam. (Pham & Taylor, 1999).
How to use visualisation to support personal change
Visualisation can help make a contribution to challenging future goals in three main ways:
- Helping you focus on what is important. When you are practising visualisation you need to be really clear on what you want to achieve. Carefully considering this, reflecting and visualising outcomes helps you get to the root of what you want to achieve and what you need to do to get there.
- Reducing anxiety. Through visualisation you can imagine yourself in situations where you feel anxious. This enables you to work through your anxiety in a practice situation where there is no real threat. For example, if you need to have a difficult conversation with someone and you’re concerned about their response you can mentally rehearse this and explore their potential responses. This gives you the chance to mentally try out different potential courses of action which can build your confidence and help you feel comfortable dealing with the situation.
- Practicing successful responses. The stronger a neural pathway is the easier it is to elicit. The things you rehearse occur more often. This means that you can use visualisation to train yourself to respond in a particular way. If, for example, you are afraid of dogs and you wanted to not be, you might visualise yourself meeting a dog, patting it, and nothing terrible happening. The more your practice a response like this the more likely you are to successfully display this behaviour when you need to – this is actually often used within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
How do you do it?
Start by sitting quietly somewhere you won’t be disturbed and spend a new minutes relaxing. Focus on your breathing and let any tension flow from your body.
Focus your mind on what you want to achieve. Create a really vivid image in your mind. What are you doing? How do you feel? What can you see? Hear? Smell? You need to be really clear on what it is you need to achieve. Take your time to really experience the details of the image.
Imagine yourself in the situation displaying the behaviour you would like to achieve. Rehearse what you want to say or do. Visualise yourself doing the things you need to do to get to that position. Allow yourself to feel satisfaction and pleasure at achieving the desired behaviour in the visualisation.
Visualisation is particularly effective when it is done repeatedly, ideally over a number of different occasions.
Visualisation in weight loss.
Visualisation can be useful in weight loss in a number of different ways:
- It helps you get clear on what you want to achieve and this primes the brain for success. Visualisation enables you to imagine yourself at your target weight and what that looks and feels like. How others respond to you. What you look like in mirrors. How you feel when you’re shopping. This can be a great aid to motivation and help you focus on doing the things you need to do to get to your target weight.
- It can enable you to mentally rehearse your response to challenging situations. For example you can rehearse what you will do and say if someone offers you a biscuit. Through visualisation you can teach your brain that it always says no to temptation. This makes ‘no’ more likely to be your automatic response as by training your brain you’ve effectively already made the decision.
- There have been some interesting studies that suggest that particular visualisations can be helpful for weight loss by helping you feel full. In one study, scientists found that if people visualised repetitively chewing and swallowing food that it had a similar effect on the brain to actually eating the food. Namely that the person felt full and subsequently ate less (Morewedge, 2010).
- Other people find it helpful to visualise foods that they want to avoid in negative terms. For example imagining sweets as rat poison which are slowly corroding your insides, or visualising crisps as being stinking, dirty and contaminated. Developing a real belief that a food is unpleasant and dangerous will help you want to avoid it in the future and visualisation can help with that.
Arora, S., Aggarwal, R., Sirimanna, P., Moran, A., Grantcharov, T., Kneebone, R. & Darzi, A. (2011). Mental practice enhances surgical technical skills: a randomized controlled study. Annals of surgery, 253(2), 265-270.
Coffman, D. D. (1990). Effects of mental practice, physical practice, and knowledge of results on piano performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 187-196.
Driskell, J. E., Copper, C., & Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance?. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4), 481.
Morewedge, C.K., Huh, Y.E. & Vosgerau, J. (2010) Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption. Science, 333, 1530 -1533
Pham, L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process-versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250-260.