The difference between reality and imagination is not as black and white as you might think.
When neuroscientists looked at the brain using brain-imaging technology called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), they found that some of the same parts of the brain light up when we are imagining something as when we are actually doing it.
For example, when you close your eyes and imagine walking through your neighborhood, some of the same visual and spatial areas of the brain are activated as when you see the real thing.
Visualization is a powerful skill that the brain has developed, giving us the ability to mentally project ourselves into different times and spaces. Athletes have capitalized on this skill to improve their performance by imagining themselves in action. Soccer players in a shoot out, basketball players with a free throw, gymnasts on the beam and even weightlifters have shown improved performance as a result of visualizing themselves in action.
But it isn’t just athletes who benefit from this skill. Anyone can invoke the power of visualization to practice something like riding a bike or playing an instrument. In fact, you use visualization in daily life to get from point A to point B or when imagining how you want to rearrange a room. You can also imagine how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes, or how the day ahead will go—sometimes making you want to stay in bed instead of face the day.
You can invoke the power of visualization to help relieve stressful situations, like that oral presentation that is making you nervous or that difficult conversation you need to have.
When you imagine yourself in a situation you get to practice how you will act, think or feel in the future. Visualization can lead to a smoother experience of that future event, giving the needed confidence and experience to succeed. Our brain comes prepared!
To practice this skill, sit back, close your eyes and begin to imagine yourself doing, thinking or being in a desired state. As you practice, try to imagine yourself in an environment
as similar as possible to the real-life situation. Then try to imagine as many details of the surroundings as you can.
Are you outdoors or indoors? Is there grass, a sky? Are there offices, walls, doors, flooring? Other people? What are the sounds, smells and tastes? Is it light or dark? Cold or warm? Where is your body? Is anything touching it? Focus on each of your senses and your visualization will deepen.
Setting the stage like this helps spark as many senses as possible, which, in the process, will trigger more brain areas. As more brain areas are recruited and activated, the real and imagined experiences become more similar. It starts to feel more and more real to the brain. That’s how you invoke its potential.
Like all skills, this ability needs to be developed. The more time you put in, the more it will strengthen. The brain works in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion. If it’s out of shape, it just needs to be trained.
Mandy Wintink, PhD is the author of Self-Science: A Guide to the Mind and your Brain’s Potential.