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The Importance of Visualization

Updated: May 7, 2020

Doing a variety visualization practices can help with relaxation, comprehension, attention and even balance the immune system

If you have spent some time exploring meditation, you have likely tried out some form of guided visualization. As you may have experienced, this can be an excellent way to shift thoughts away from stressful events and worries. But this practice can do so much more than what you might expect.

Though I have practiced guided imagery during meditation, I did not give much thought to how it affected my ability to see images in my mind. A few months ago, my sister posted a video that discussed a condition called aphantasia, and this got me thinking about the role visualization plays in our thinking and whether we can improve our "mind's eye".

Most of us rely heavily on visual imagery, so we should strengthen this important skill. Here's why:

It's motivational

In episode 7 of her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Dr. Laurie Santos, discusses the power of visualization. She speaks with world champion swimmer Michael Phelps' coach who encouraged him to visualize his perfect swim. We've heard that "keeping your eye on the prize" can help us to stay focused on our goals but the research does not support this theory. Phelps went further than to just visualize his goal, he also visualized all the obstacles that he would encounter along the way and as we well know, this served him well. Visualizing the ideal outcome may help us to stay focused on our goals but it's not enough for actually achieving those goals.

It's another way of practicing

When scientists compared the neural pathways of pianists playing piano and those who were imagining playing the same piece, they saw a very similar picture of the brain. Studies such as this are likely why visualization is now a mainstay for many high performance athletes and musicians, who want to get as much practice time in as possible.

Michael Phelps didn't just visualize what he wanted, he visualized how he was going to reach his goal, focusing on how many strokes he would need to overcome an obstacle. He was practicing his swims out of the water. Most athletes right now are not practicing their sport due to social distancing measures, but if they want to have an edge over their opponents, they can start practicing in their heads now.

It helps us remember

If someone were to ask you to name all the components of a cell, you would probably try to bring to mind the picture of a cell from your grade 10 biology class and you would refer to that to provide your answers. We use visual images in recall throughout our day and the more detailed pictures we can create, along with our ability to hold on to that image in our mind, will determine how well we remember. Retrieving information from our mental pictures is an important component of our working memory and clearly gives us an edge when learning something new.

It improves reading and auditory comprehension

We know that the more sensory inputs we can draw upon in the learning process, the better we are at understanding. You may have experienced difficulty with understanding a concept or a narrative because you were unable to create a mental image. Our state of mind, our ability to conjure up an image from our own memories, as well as our ability to imagine "fantasy" images, will influence how well we connect to the reading material.

It enhances attention

Attention and comprehension go hand in hand. We have all experienced something going over our heads. When this happens, we either start using more of our attentional resources trying to get caught up, or we simply just lose interest completely and shift our attention elsewhere. For most of us, having a visual and auditory story or understanding is what holds our attention best.

Mindfulness has been shown to improve attention in both adults and children. Guided imagery or any exercise where we try to hold an image in the mind can strengthen our ability to both generate images and remain focused so that we can access necessary information.

It has been shown to benefit the immune system.

There have been many studies that have looked at the effects of guided imagery on people dealing with illness. It seems that practicing guided imagery on a regular basis has the effect of boosting white blood cells that fight infection in the body encourage healing.

Techniques for improving or making the most of your mental imagery

  1. Read for detail. Next time you are reading, instead of reading for speed, savour the details. Good authors provide descriptions for vivid mental imagery; take time to imagine the world that the author is describing.

  2. Perform in your head. You don't have to be an elite athlete or concert musician to use mental practice. Perhaps it's running through a difficult knitting pattern or a dance routine for your tango class, you will be strengthening the neural pathways that will lead to your success.

  3. Practice visualization meditations. There's a vast collection of guided imagery available online.

  4. Generate your own mental imagery. You can use a familiar setting or create one in your mind. Practice zooming in and out of that mental picture. Maybe you want to imagine yourself sitting on a clearing by a lake. Set the scene and then start narrowing in on the details, maybe you see a fruit on a tree, zoom in on the fruit and try to see it clearly in your mind from all angles. By focusing in on the details, you will likely find that you see sharper visual images.

  5. Imagine a familiar place. If you find it difficult to imagine a "fantasy" scene around you, try something that is very familiar to you, perhaps a room in your house. Again, zoom in on the fine details, perhaps imagine what the doorknob or a the books on the book shelf. Once you are comfortable with this, start to imagine what the room would look like if one of the were painted a different colour, or imagine some furniture being rearranged. Many of us who are more concrete thinkers could use this practice to encourage more creative thinking.

  6. WOOP your life. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles and Plan and it is used to help with goal attainment. You can go to their website to learn more about it and/or listen to Laurie Santos' podcast on the importance of imagining the worst when trying to achieve your goals.

Don't try these exercises while driving!  Visual imagery is known to reduce acuity, mainly because you're drawing from the same resources in the brain, this is known as the Perky Effect. This is why hands-free conversations are still dangerous, you are likely visualizing the person or elements of your conversation and devoting less visual attention to the road.

How to help kids develop their mind's eye:

  1. When reading stories, prompt them to set the scene. Read the first few paragraphs or pages where the author is describing the setting, repeat the important details then have your child close their eyes and imagine this setting. Ask them if their picture includes the details the author provides, and perhaps ask them to fill in the blanks.

  2. Have children draw out mental pictures. This will help them to try to recall their mental pictures and to hold on to that picture while recreating it on paper. This may also have the added benefit of giving you some indication of their comprehension and/or ability to recall the story.

  3. Let younger children manipulate toys related to the story when they are beginning to read. I recently discovered the work of Art Glenberg, who studies embodied cognition and has looked at its implications for teaching children to read. His team was interested in the fact that young children are often fascinated by language but reluctant to engage in reading. They supposed that children don't have written words associated with word meanings within their mental maps and this makes reading so laborious, and consequently little is understood. They found that when children were able to manipulate toys related to what they were reading, comprehension improved. When they gradually removed the toys and had the children use mental imagery, reading comprehension improvements were seen once again. Check out the study here.

  4. Have children practice guided imagery, you can get started with these scripts.

In this time of social isolation, you may be tired of staring at the same four walls in your home, so close your eyes and visualize a new space. Doing this on a regular basis may benefit you in more ways than you expect!

I would love to hear if you find these practices helpful, send me an email or leave a comment below!

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