Imagination is our inner vision. It is the magical bridge between the everyday and the ethereal realm, the gateway between the finite and the infinite. Children naturally have vivid imaginations and use this innate faculty to explore and animate life. With the advent of science and rationality, a clear distinction between the fanciful and the concrete came to define our understanding of reality. The magical enchantment of the world largely receded into the cracks and humans were left to operate within the confines of the ordinary, the quantifiable, and the normal. We came to see imagination as something of little value, to be left behind in childhood.
Today we are rediscovering the importance of imagination. Quantum physics has transformed our understanding of the landscape of reality and our role in it. Quantum theory has forced the scientific community to question the assumption that consciousness cannot affect external reality. Increasingly, evidence demonstrates that due to the intimate way we are energetically entangled with all that exists, our thoughts do have the ability to affect our physical world. As a result more people are opening to the possibility that we can indeed use the power of our minds to influence what unfolds in our external reality.
An important way that we can use imagination to improve our quality of life is through visualization. Visualization is a cognitive tool using our imagination as a vehicle to explore an idea, action, or outcome. As a practice visualization can be used to rehearse, investigate, or induce a particular state of mind. For example we could imagine ourselves engaged in our dream job, picture ourselves in a highly relaxing scenario, or watch ourselves conquering a fear. The more we repeat the process and the richer we make the experience, the more entrenched the positive scenario becomes in our subconscious and thus the more likely it will be to manifest in reality. Of course there are many factors that influence us at unconscious levels. So, while visualization cannot guarantee any particular outcome, it is still seen as effective enough that today many professionals and athletes use this technique to help prepare them for events and challenging circumstances.
One of the reasons that visualization is such a powerful tool is that the subconscious and physical brain are not able to distinguish between what we experience in our external reality and what we see in our mind’s eye. It has been established that mental images (imagining/visualizing) activate the same parts of the brain as actual sensory input – this means that these parts of the brain can’t differentiate between real and imagined input. The brain will respond by releasing the same chemicals into the body regardless of whether the stimulus is real or imagined.
Here is an amazing example of what that can mean for us: Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared a group of volunteers who performed physical workouts with another group who only imagined doing virtual exercise in their heads. He found that a 30% muscle increase in the group who engaged in physical movement. However, the group of participants who only imagined doing the weight training exercises increased muscle strength by almost half as much (13.5%).
In another similar study, Brian Clark from Ohio University recruited 29 volunteers and wrapped their wrists in surgical casts for an entire month. Throughout this period, fifty percent of the volunteers thought about exercising their immobilized wrists. For 11 minutes a day, 5 days a week, they focused on seeing themselves flexing their muscles. When the casts were removed, the group that imagined doing exercises were found to have wrist muscles that were twice as strong than the group that had done nothing.
Another story that illustrates the power of mental visualization is described by Wenger in his book, “The Einstein Factor”. Wegner describes an American soldier who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. For more than seven years this man was confined alone in a tiny cell with barely enough room to stretch his limbs. In order to maintain his sanity he played a detailed game of eighteen hole golf in his mind every single day. When he was finally released and allowed to return to the United States he found that without having stepped foot on an actual course for so many years, he managed to cut 20 strokes off his game (which is apparently pretty amazing!) just through using his imagination to visualize himself playing golf.
One of the reasons that visualization is such a powerful tool is that it allows us to engage and interact with our unconscious. While science is able to document some of what we are capable of at the deeper levels, there is still an enormous amount of mystery around what the unconscious actually is. It is not something that can be dissected and examined with a microscope. We may have mapped so much of our physical world, but our internal one is still largely uncharted territory. Many believe that the unconscious is in fact the wellspring of our personal reality and this is why visualization, which uses imagery and feeling to communicate with the unconscious, is so effective
However, when we understand that visualization is a tool that can help us shape our reality, it becomes clear that it is important to use it wisely. Unfortunately, for a majority of adults’ imaginative skills are most often used unconsciously, in conjunction with worry.
While it is important to allow feelings to be expressed, and a little worrying is part of a balanced approach to life because it can act as a trigger to propel us into action, all too often it is given so much energy that it becomes a destructive force in our life. If we see visualization as a tool to magnify our desires and communicate with our unconscious, we can see why it is so important to avoid coupling it with worry. Instead of floating down the stream of our imagination on the boat of trouble and trepidation, we would be better off using it consciously and constructively to reinforce a desirable outcome.
One of the most important conditions for successful visualization is to cultivate a relaxed state of mind. When our brains are operating at the soothing alpha level we are less likely to feel stress or engage in negative thinking. When we combine the relaxed alpha state, which encourages our brains to produce ‘happy’ chemicals (endorphins, serotonin etc), with vivid imagery and feeling, we create a powerful tool for making our dreams become reality.
Tips to Help You Visualize
Focus on the feelings (e.g. how do you feel being successful at a particular venture), as this is where the key communication is taking place. The more we can cultivate real feeling the more powerful the exercise will be.
Include as much sensory information and details as possible. Use smells, textures, colours, emotions to enrich and deepen the experience.
Repetition is helpful as the unconscious responds to the messages it receives consistently. (Which is why habitual negative self-talk can have such damaging consequences on what we create in our reality). However, make sure not to just go through the motions in your mind… remember that rich feeling is key.
Alpha states, which create ideal conditions for visualization can be encouraged through relaxing activities such as listening to soothing music (binaural beats are particularly effective), walking in nature, meditating, and dancing.