5 weeks to developing the magic of visualisation

Want to experience something magical – for free? Find a piece of string, and hold it in your fingers lightly, letting it dangle. Wait for the string to stop moving. Now, keeping your muscles still, imagine that you are spinning the string around.

What happened? Most likely, you’ll find the string began to move too – just a little.

Magic? Not really. Sorry I lied! But it displays the effectiveness of visualization. Even if your muscles are not doing anything, your brain and neural pathways fire up in the same way, but to a lesser extent.

What is visualization?

Visualization, also called mental imagery, is a powerful tool for many areas of your personal growth. As the little trick showed, it trains your mind and your body. However, it is not as easy as many think it is, and there isn’t much proper information available. Even if we can do it, the question is – how do we best apply it?

Hopefully, this mini-series will answer these questions. We’ll begin with the basics – some exercises to build your mental muscles. Again, the tendency would be to just stick these exercises on the shelf and not try them, but please give it a shot. Want to know why?

Benefits of mental rehearsal

Experienced personal developers will be familiar with the uses of visualization. But there are many applications that you might not have heard of, such as:

  1. Enhancing Sports and other Physical Performances
  2. Improving skills and correcting errors in skills
  3. Reducing anxiety and fears
  4. Enhancing human interaction – from business meetings to dating
  5. Increasing motivation
  6. Boosting creativity and design skills
  7. Setting and achieving goals

Let’s discuss those in detail. If you are familiar with this, you can skip this section safely.

Sports psychology.
Mental rehearsal is often recommended for athletes. I first learnt about visualization back in my sporting days – and that’s why I recommend it so much. It improves performance tremendously when combined with standard physical training. Why? Many reasons. For example, athletes can safely expand their comfort zones in mental rehearsal, where there is no penalty for failure. They can also rehearse scenarios that are hard to recreate physically – for a lack of a training partner or facilities, perhaps. It can also mean more training time for a dedicated athlete – even if his body is exhausted, training continues in his head!

Improving Skills and correcting errors.
Mental rehearsal can improve every skill through repetition, refine techniques, and correct errors. It applies to almost everything from physical techniques, like improving your golf swing, to public speaking. This doesn’t always have to be you sitting in a couch. You can incorporate it into physical training as well. For instance, even if you are just shooting your basketball in the backyard, you can imagine yourself playing in a big game. This cuts down learning time tremendously.

Reducing anxiety and fears.
In my post on dealing with anxiety, I recommended exposing yourself to your fears in small, safe doses. This slowly desensitises you. Another alternative is to expose yourself mentally in the early stages. That is much safer – you can stop any time.

This applies to skills as well. Performance anxiety is a real part of many skills. It can stem from pressure, inexperience, or onlookers (such as in public speaking, or spectator sports). You’ve heard the saying “experience is the best teacher”, and it’s true. Even if it’s only mental exposure, it is still experience. When you are in the real situation, your system thinks “It’s no big deal, I’ve been here before.”

Human interaction.
As a follow up to the previous post on assertiveness, any human interaction – from dates, to asking for a raise, to a business presentation will benefit from visualization for the reasons above.

Increasing motivation.
According to In Pursuit of Excellence, by Terry Orlick, many Olympic athletes credit their success to their daily visualizations – they saw themselves as the winner of the gold medal long before they ever got it. At the very least, it solidified their desire into a burning passion, and it helped in getting them out of spells of self-doubt.

Setting and achieving goals.
Similarly, the more you visualize achieving a goal, the more likely you are to achieve it. There is nothing mystical about it, just common sense (which I lacked in my younger days). For example, I started my first business with no solid goals. I vaguely wanted to make a living out of it and pass the time – and that was exactly what I got. How can I achieve something I can’t imagine having?

Now, reverse this logic – the more you imagine yourself having it, the more likely you are to achieve it. Set solid goals and visualize yourself having it in your head. Think back to your previous achievements, did you not use this? How does this work? We described this above increased motivation and mental sharpening of skills, although some would say there is a metaphysical part to it. I can’t vouch for that, so I’ll leave it for now.

Creativity and design skills.
Visualisation is also a huge boon in any role that requires creativity and design. This ranges from invention to art. You must have an image of it mentally before you can create it in the physical world. A famous inventor – I think it was Tesla – said that he even worked out all the kinks and errors in his inventions mentally, before he began to create it physically. That way, all his creations came out bug-free the first time around!

What if I can’t visualize?

Many people say that they can’t visualize anything. It is true that different people are stronger in different senses. In learning, for example, some students learn best by watching, others by hearing, and the rest by doing. This is why a good lesson needs all three parts – a slideshow, the teacher talking, and hopefully some hands-on work at the end.

But everybody has a visual sense. How else would you recognize a friend, or your car, or your house? Our brains recognize objects by comparing what we see to mental images stored inside us. So never fear, you do have a visual sense, and this post will help you develop it.

The Basics

Let’s get started then! It is important not to try to skip too far ahead. This is not a race, it is best to go through each week until you master them. Take your time; take more than a week if you have to.

For best results, put aside at least twenty minutes to an hour a day to develop this skill. Have fun with it.

First, let’s take some time to prepare your visual field.

  1. Close your eyes. Cover them with your hand to stop light from coming in.
  2. What do you see? Gray, splashes of white? Maybe a residue of what you were just looking at?
  3. Let it settle a little bit. Then begin to make the whole field as black as you can. Visualize darkness and expand it until it covers everything.

The first week

Now we’re ready. Open your eyes and look at something. A photograph would be ideal. Analyze it in detail. Take as much time as you need.

Then close your eyes again, and try to see the photograph in your mind – in as fine detail as you can. If you are looking at a photo of a face, can you see the eyes, the lines on the face, the smile, the color of the shirt? What was the background like? Can you see the background exactly as it is? Were there leaves, cars, birds, or grass?

Open your eyes to get more detail if you have to, it’s not a test.

Once you get good at this, mentally zoom in to a certain section of the photograph and focus on that. Next, zoom out and try to see it from far away.

Next, to develop your hearing. Close your eyes and make a noise. Clap your hands, for example. Now, try to hear that sound ten times in your head. If you forget what it sounds like, clap your hands again.

Next, imagine the sound coming from different locations. Above you, behind you? 10 meters away? From the next room?

The second week

For the second week, let’s make things three dimensional. Pick up something small, like a pen or your car keys. Look at it in detail, from all angles. Take your time and remember the details.

Now, close your eyes, and see that object in your mind. This should be easy if you have completed the first week. The challenge now is to rotate it. Can you see it from all angles? Can you see the detail – the logos and the designs?

Once you get good at this, try to see it in context of the real world, not floating in space by itself. Imagine it on the table. Is there a shadow? Can you rest it on a cup? Move an imaginary light around and change the shadow to suit.

For the hearing exercise, this time imagine someone talking to you. Hold a mental conversation with your best friend, for example. Pay particular attention on the sound, not on the words – it’s easy to get caught up in what the two of you are saying, and forget that we are training the hearing sense.

Next, imagine him or her talking in different emotions. What does he sound like when he’s angry, sad or happy?

The third week

This week might be easy for some, but try it any way. I have a strong visual sense and yet this was hardest for me. This time, try to see it in the real world – that is, with your eyes open.

Can you see your pen, or your car keys, hanging on the wall in front of you? Can you hear it tingle as it shakes around? Can you rotate it? Can you move it around?

Next, play with it a little. Change the color. Lengthen it. Throw it around; watch it bounce off the walls mentally. Cast lights on it and see the shadow.

The fourth week

In this week, we’re getting you into the picture. Think of a pleasant location. I like to use the beach that I always go to. Now, place yourself in it. If you can do it with your eyes closed, try to do it with your eyes open – it’s a bit harder. It’s important to be in the scene, not just thinking of it.

Next, what can you hear? Are the leaves rustling, the waves crashing, the birds chirping? Again, make sure that you are in the scene, not just thinking of it.

Now, add in all your other senses. Can you feel the breeze on your skin? Can you feel the sand on your feet? Can you smell the ocean? Imagine yourself eating something? What is it? Can you taste it? What does it feel like on your tongue?

The fifth week

For this week, recall the same scene. This time, add in as much detail as you can. If you had a vague image of a tree previously put in as much detail as you can – see the bark, see the lines on the leaves, and see the ants moving around.

Now, move around. Walk in the sand, while you eat an imaginary ice-cream. Taste it, feel it slide down your throat. Hear the birds chirping as you feel the sand crunching under your feet.

Bring a friend into it. Hold a conversation with him or her. Can you imagine them smiling as you chat? Imagine them slapping you on the shoulder playfully. What does that feel like?

If you can do all this, congratulations! Your imagination is getting better, and you’re making much progress.

What’s next?

The next post, coming up, is the fun stuff. Now that we have a strong mental sense, what can we do with it? We discussed using visualizations to enhance all your interactions, to make your sporting life better. Do we just do it in a haphazard manner? Heck, no! We’re going to create battle plans, strategize, and dominate!