Here's how visualisation can help you achieve your goals

By Elizabeth Dunne,
updated on Dec 19, 2023

Here's how visualisation can help you achieve your goals

Discover the neuroscience behind visualisation, and how it can help you

For centuries, humans have harnessed the power of imagination, in the form of visualisation, to inspire confidence, streamline learning, and achieve goals. Many well-known figures, such as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Phelps, and Nikola Tesla, even attribute visualisation to their success.

Before touring, Beyoncé imagines her shows in intricate detail, right down to the size and colour of her shoes. Albert Einstein regularly used visualisation to understand abstract quantum concepts, and these techniques led to the development of the theory of relativity.

Our ability to imagine inspired us to construct tools that helped us survive in the face of stronger predators, it was instrumental in the development of civilisations, and is so integral to us that it effectively constructs our entire reality: how we see ourselves and experience the world.

Critics may try to dismiss visualisation as ‘fluffy’, but the truth is, the human mind is an imagination powerhouse and, on a neurological level, there is little difference between an imagined event and the real experience – with scientific evidence to back this up, such as a 2018 study by the University of Colorado. Researchers used brain imaging to compare real and imagined threats in two groups, which elicited the same neurological response. This is why we may flinch when hearing the gruesome details of someone’s dentist appointment, or feel the hot flush of embarrassment when recalling a past mortifying blunder.

Thanks to the advancements in neural imaging equipment, we can now see this in action, and there is a growing body of fascinating evidence that shows the effectiveness of visualisation techniques. In one such study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked to practise a simple piano sequence, the other was asked to simply imagine playing the sequence over a period of five days. Neural activity was measured, and results found there was little to no difference in the brain scans of both groups.

But can mental practice be a substitute for physical exercise? Research says, to an extent, it can. In a mind-blowing study, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, a group who only imagined doing a set of finger muscle exercises increased their muscle strength by 35% compared to the physical exercise group whose muscle mass increased by 53%, a difference of only 18%. Of course, before you cancel the gym membership, remember that it is certainly not a replacement for a good workout, but a fantastic option for those who want to perfect their technique, or practise during times of busyness or illness.

In the run up to a big event, such as a performance or speech, mental rehearsal can help regulate stress and calm the mind, as noted in a 2022 study in the journal Nature. By doing a mental play-by-play, we desensitise ourselves from the worries or fear around the event, helping us feel better prepared on the day. We do this naturally when we get good quality sleep, which could be why we often dream of going to the airport the night before an early flight.

Visualisation also helps to improve our focus on what we want, and limits unnecessary distractions. This is because of a phenomenon called value tagging – you might be familiar with this idea from ‘the red car’ example, where the moment we decide to buy a red car, we start seeing them everywhere. Our brain is inundated with sensory input every second, and if it processed everything, we would quickly become overwhelmed, so we must filter what is important to complete the task at hand. When we focus on what we want to accomplish, our mind is more alert to our desired goals, and how to achieve them.

In solution-focused hypnotherapy, just before hypnosis, we guide clients through a visualisation exercise of a small action they want to achieve. This helps present desired outcomes or habits that can be more easily accepted by the subconscious during trance.

Because the brain processes imagined events almost as if they’ve happened, when we ruminate about the past, or negatively forecast the future, we inadvertently practise a very anxiety and cortisol-provoking visualisation exercise by rehearsing the worst possible outcomes. The good news is, we always have a choice. So why not flip the script and focus on how you want things to be and how to get there. Think of visualisation as providing a postcode of your favourite destination to the satnav of your mind.

Tips for effective visualisation:

. Keep it short and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. 

. Focus on the process rather than the result; if you want to run a marathon, imagine yourself going out and training every morning. 

. Make it detailed and atmospheric by using different senses (what you can see, hear, smell, and how you want to feel)

By Elizabeth Dunne

Elizabeth is a solution-focused hypnotherapist and psychotherapist. Find out more by visiting the Hynotherapy Directory.

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