There is a lot of conflicting advice on how (or whether) to use visualisations or mental rehearsals: to actively and deliberately guide your imagination towards a positive outcome. Here is my take on the best ways to use visualisations to program your brain.
Athletes are known to use mental rehearsals to improve their performance, and there’s no shortage of studies to confirm they’re on to something. For example, researchers at Bishop’s University in Quebec, found that athletes could increase their muscle strength by 24%, simply by using their imagination.
Visualisations have even been shown to influence your brain and to see how mental imagery affects the brain, Harvard neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone looked at the brains of people learning the piano. He asked one group to practise a piece for five days, and the other group to just imagine practising. Both groups showed similar brain changes in the areas of the motor cortex that corresponded to the physical movements that were used in practice.
Ultimately your brain and your body respond to your imagination as if it were real as we use much of the same neural circuitry to visualise an action as to engage in it. Consequently you can use mental rehearsals to learn skills, improve your behavioural performance, modify your habits and regulate your emotional responses.
How to do effective visualisations or mental rehearsals
To make visualisations effective, see them more as mental rehearsals. To get the most from mental rehearsals make sure to apply these three tips:
- Do them in a state of relaxation and highly focused attention (a state some might call ‘self-hypnosis’!). If you were to practise a focused meditation exercise, and then, while in that meditative state, perform a mental rehearsal, you would be practising self-hypnosis.
- Use an associated perspective: imagine the activity as if you were engaged in the actual behaviour, like a virtual reality. (A dissociated perspective, by contrast, would involve you watching yourself from the point of view of an observer). Associated perspective tend to help you internalise the behaviour or skill.
- Incorporate all of your senses. Although the term ‘visualisation’ is often used to describe these techniques, if you include all of your senses (what you can hear, touch and even smell), the impact will be greater as the rehearsal will be more realistic and it will activate more of your brain.
How to use visualisations to achieve your goals
There is a big difference between imagining the outcome of a goal, and imagining the process towards achieving it. Generally the value comes in rehearsing the process. Mental rehearsal can help you programme the desired behaviours and habits and this can be useful if you feel you may need to overcome resistance or challenges (e.g. you could rehearse how you will overcome your lack of desire to go to the gym when you’re tired and it’s raining outside(!)
How to use visualisations to improve behavioural skill
To use imagery to improve your performance or skill, rehearse the perfect performance for the activity. To rehearse a presentation or speech, for instance, first rehearse how you would want to feel before giving the performance: confident, calm, prepared. Then project yourself forward to the day of the performance and rehearse giving your ideal performance: how you’re feeling, what you’re saying, as well as your delivery.
I might use this technique to prepare for delivering very large talks, and it’s helped clients of mine improve their performance at work and in sport, from presentations and interviews, to marathons and boxing matches.
How to use visualisations to manage your anxiety
Much like rehearsing behavioural performance, you can use rehearsals to regulate your emotions. Mental rehearsals allow you to ‘programme’ a positive resource state (such as calmness, or relaxation) to be triggered by particular events or situations that you might otherwise find stressful and this can help you control or inhibit anxiety.
If you’re afraid of flying, for example, or anxious about a presentation, you could use this technique. First, create a deep state of relaxation. Give your body time to relax and borrow from a specific memory in which you feel particularly relaxed. Maintaining this relaxed state, imagine going through the steps involved. For flying, you’d imagine travelling to the airport, going through security, getting on the plane, possibly experiencing turbulence, and reaching your destination. Your system will pair your present physical state of relaxation with all the points along your imagined journey, thereby conditioning a state of relaxation at every point along the way. This technique has helped clients of mine eliminate phobias and manage severe performance anxiety, because it enabled them to regulate their emotional responses.