The difference between reality and imagination is not as black and white as we might assume. When neuroscientists looked at the brain using brain-imaging technology (fMRI), they found that some of the same parts of the brain light up when we are imagining something compared to when we are actually doing something. For example, if we were to close our eyes and imagine walking through our neighbourhood, some of the same visual and spatial areas of the brain would be activated compared to if we opened our eyes and saw the same 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, 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 with a brain can invoke the power of visualization to practice something, like riding a bike or playing an instrument. In fact, we often use visualization in daily life, like to get us from point A to point B even when we have never actually travelled that route before or when we imagine how we would rearrange a room. We can also imagine how it would feel to be in someone else’s shoes or our day when we lay in bed not wanting to get up yet.
We can even invoke the power of visualization to help us in stressful situations, like that oral presentation that is making us nervous or that difficult conversation we need to have. When we imagine ourselves in each of these situations we get to practice how we will act, think, or feel in the future. Visualization can lead to a smoother experience once we actually get to that future event, giving us the needed confidence and experience to succeed. Our brain comes prepared!
To use this skill, all we need to do is sit back, close our eyes and begin to imagine ourselves doing, thinking, or being in our desired state. As you practice, try to imagine yourself in as similar environment as possible to the real-life situation. Then try to imagine as many details as possible from the surroundings. Are there walls? Doors? Flooring? A sky? Grass? Other people? Sounds? Smells? Tastes? Is it light or dark? Cold or warm? Where is your body? Is anything touching it? Try to focus on each of your senses and your visualization will deepen.
Setting the stage like this helps us spark as many senses as possible, which, in the process, will trigger more brain areas. With greater details to our visualizations, more brain areas are recruited and activated, which means that the real and imagined experiences are more similar. With each of these senses triggered, it starts to feel more and more real to the brain. And that’s how you invoke your brain’s potential! To use this brain skill, remember that it is a skill that needs to be developed. It will develop with the more time you put in. The brain works in a use-or-lose-it fashion, which means it’s just out of shape and needs to be trained!
Mandy Wintink, PhD is the author of Self-Science: A Guide to the Mind and your Brain’s Potential. Visit her at www.mandywintink.com
This article originally appeared in OptiMYz 905.