Updated: Mar 31, 2022
By Lauren Buys
“To bring anything into your life, imagine that it’s already there.”
If you’re reading this and consider yourself to be one of those people that isn’t able to use your conscious mind to creatively visualize then I wonder if you’d be open to playing a little game with me, dear reader? You might be well versed in the game; in which case I’d assume your strength of visualization to be well employed and already being put to use in the conscious creation of the story that is your life. The game begins with me challenging you to not think of a giant purple poodle. I do not want you allow the image of a curly haired poodle, proudly purple, standing right in front of you, to move even an inch into your psyche. Please, dear reader, no purple poodles are permitted to be imagined. Even as this hypoallergenic pet barks its annoyingly shrill bark (I’ve never been a fan of a poodle) the game requests that not even a hair of its shiny purple coat enter the processes of your mind. Did it work? Were you able to completely avoid the poodle? The purple? The annoyingly shrill bark? If so, I applaud you for your willpower and I apologize for initiating a game between the two of us in which you could not participate. If you weren’t able to repel from your mind a hue of purple or a curl of poodle or the little old lady who lived next door, dyed her eyebrows lilac, and owned a miniature version of the dog afore mentioned who would bite at your ankles as five year old you ran, terrified, down the hallway (insert reason as to why I’m not a fan of the breed here) then congratulations- you are a creative being that can use the power of visualization to rewrite and recreate the script of your life.
In 1978 communist Russia, a Russian Jewish man by the name of Natan Sharanksy was accused of spying for the United States government. He was sentenced to thirteen years of forced labor in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison during which time he spent many years in solitary confinement. From the limits of his tiny cell, he would use antigravity exercises to maintain the strength of his body. As for maintaining the strength of his mind, he would visualize playing chess with world champion Garry Kasparov. Every day, for the duration of his imprisonment, he would mentally play three games with Kasparov simultaneously. Each time he played the grandmaster he would defeat him. Upon his release over a decade later, Sharanksy moved to Israel where he soon became a cabinet minister. At a chess exhibition that was being hosted in Israel following Sharansky’s immigration, Garry Kasparov flew to the country to play in the simultaneous display. As the master of chess set to work, moving rapidly from one board to the next, he played only white pieces- giving him the advantage of going first. About ninety minutes passed before an eruption of muted applause signaled the victory of not Kasparov, as expected, but one of the opponents he was playing against. The opposition in question happened to be the same man who, for years, had visualized this exact outcome. The opposition in question was Natan Sharansky.
Maybe you’re not into chess. Maybe you didn’t binge watch the Queens Gambit and, with immediate fervor, purchase a chess board and a pack of cigarettes that now live in a box underneath your staircase. I’ll depart from that activity and bring your awareness to the world of physical sports. Known as the greatest golfer of all time, now retired Jack Nicklaus visualized every single shot he made, including the ones he hit during his practice sessions. He would paint a picture in the sky of the shot he planned to hit and has told his fans “I relied on visualization throughout my career. It served me well, right down to the last stroke. I never missed a putt in my mind.” Sports psychologists now use guided imagery and mental rehearsal to cultivate a competitive edge within their clients. Twenty-three-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and fifteen-time world champion Katie Ledecky are just two names out of many that admit to using visualization to enhance the outcome of their competitions.
The original study heralding visualization in the sporting arena was performed by Dr Blaslatto at the University of Chicago. Over the course of thirty days, he measured the level of improvement in free-throw shooting among three groups of basketball players. One group did not practice at all, one group spent thirty minutes a day physically practicing, and the third group spent thirty minutes a day visualizing successful free-throws. The group with no practice showed zero improvement, the physical practice group showed an improvement of twenty-four percent, while the group who only visualized had an improvement result of twenty-three percent. In another study performed at the Cleveland Clinic, researchers studied the strength gains made through physical or mental training over the course of twelve weeks. Participants either psychically performed finger abduction (spreading the fingers wide) and elbow flexion (bicep curling) or they mentally visualized themselves going through the same actions. The results showed that while the group who trained physically saw larger gains overall, the group who trained mentally saw a thirty-five percent increase in finger abduction strength and a fourteen percent increase in elbow flexion strength. What exactly is going on here? Researchers hypothesize that mental training increased the motor cortex signal output, creating higher levels of muscle activation and, as a result, created more powerful muscle contractions.
If you’re familiar with Dr Joe Dispenza, you’ll be accustomed to the notion that our body doesn’t quite know the difference between a real event and an imagined one. Neurochemically, imagining an occurrence and physically experiencing the occurrence are producing the same chemistry in the mind and body. The thalamus (the area of the brain responsible for handling and relaying sensory impulses from receptors in various parts of the body) makes no distinction between inner and outer realities. If any idea or thought is contemplated long enough, it will begin to take on a semblance of reality. The International Coaching Academy recognizes that “if you [mentally] exercise an idea over and over, your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object in the world.” When we mentally imagine an event, the same brain regions are triggered into action as when we physically perform that event. Thinking about flexing your left foot stimulates your brain in the same manner that physically flexing your left foot would. Author Dale Carnegie said, “any thought that is held in the mind that is emphasized, either feared or revered, will begin at once to clothe itself in the most convenient and appropriate form available.” When we begin to realize the power of our mental processes, we begin to develop an awareness of the things we think about. We begin to inquire into the patterns that we’re dressing our reality in. If our thoughts hold so much power, could we be better at controlling which thoughts we allow into our minds?
Science has revealed that from the third trimester of pregnancy through to the age of seven, our brain is functioning at a frequency that lies just below consciousness known as theta. Up until the age of seven, when consciousness begins to kick in, we’re in a state of hypnosis. To more easily understand this concept, you can think of yourself, in the womb, as a computer that hasn’t yet been programmed with an operating system. You have no apps, no software, no data installed. In our formative years our brain is designed to download programs just by observing other people so that when we reach the age of seven, we have a set of applications that create the way that we behave and exist in the world. These programs and applications are all installed into the subconscious mind, the habit mind. Walking and talking are two examples of programs that we’ve adopted from observing our parents, caregivers, siblings or communities. These programs are great ones and, regardless of how old you are now, walking or talking is more than likely something that you will never have to learn how to do again- you have installed the programs into your subconscious mind. The subconscious mind, being a habit mind, is one that resists change at all costs. This is the reason that it’s an accepted notion that old habits are usually quite difficult to override, and new habits are usually equally as difficult to implement as a long-term behavioral pattern. Think of how many New Year’s resolutions you make before the thirty-first of December. You stride into the first day of January with your list of agreements as to how this is going to be your year. This year will be different, this is your opportunity to start anew. After about two to three weeks, if you’re like the rest of us, the resolutions have once again become something that you’ll implement next week or next month. Maybe you even need the freshness of another new year in order to implement those goals. This is thanks to the subconscious mind and its current habitual programs being too deeply implemented to allow the desires of the conscious mind to have an effect weighty enough to induce change. See, the problem with the subconscious mind is that seventy percent of those programs that we’ve adopted by observing those around us in our formative years are negative ones. Seventy percent of our programs are disempowering and even self-sabotaging. Why does this matter for reasons other than the obvious? Well, only five percent of our day is coming from our conscious mind, our creative mind, the mind that swims in our desires, our aspirations, our conscious wishes and dreams. And the other ninety-five percent, you ask? The other ninety-five percent of our day is run from the subconscious mind, from the seventy percent of disempowering beliefs that we’ve adopted from others, disempowering beliefs that aren’t even our own. Since we’re spending most of our time in the pain of the past or the fear of the future, our life is under the control of our subconscious mind and our days are spent playing back carbon copies of the programs we’ve downloaded from other people. The conscious mind can learn in a plethora of ways- it is creative and smart and can easily download knowledge. Downloading new information into the conscious mind, however, does not change the programs in the subconscious mind. They are two completely different minds and learn in completely different ways. So how do we install new behavioral programs into the subconscious mind? Since we’re living predominantly from this mind wouldn’t it be beneficial if the programs were ones that we consciously created rather than ones we inherited as a child? The answer is repetition. Just as you fell hundreds of times before you could manage to walk across the room, just as you mumbled over your words for months on end before some semblance of “mama” could emerge through your lips, repetition is what it takes to reprogram the subconscious mind.
We have a bundle of nerves just beneath the base of the brain known as the reticular activation system (RAS). Simply put, these nerves are responsible for a variety of bodily functions. They also act as the gatekeeper between the subconscious and the conscious mind. The subconscious mind can process forty million bits of data per second. On the other hand, the conscious mind can process only forty bits of data per second. This reticular activation system, acting as gatekeeper, gets to decide which forty bits of information out of the forty million make it to the conscious mind. This is where our visualization comes into play. By training the brain repetitively to creatively visualize outcomes desirable to you, you’re creating new neural pathways that carry positive thoughts with the future you’re trying to create. As a result, you begin to electromagnetically open yourself up to opportunities that align with the new programs that you’re working to install. Through the repetition of visualizing your goals and aspirations, you’re allowing yourself to more easily believe that the outcome is possible. You’re overriding the self-limiting beliefs with empowering ones.
From purple poodles to unlikely chess champions, the world of visualization is a vast territory. If you find it daunting and unapproachable at first, know that this only a result of old subconscious programs resisting change. As you repeat the visualization process, your new neural pathways will develop, and you’ll soon be on your way to mentally creating anything that your heart desires. As yogi Paramahansa Yogananda once said, “Proper visualization by the exercise of concentration and willpower enables us to materialize thoughts, not only as dreams or visions in the mental realm but also as experiences in the material realm.”