"Visualizing what you want" is a practice you often hear about in personal development circles from life coaches (myself included!), spiritual teachers, and wellness experts. Celebrities such as Oprah and Jim Carrey even credit visualization as one of the keys to their wild success. The concept itself is pretty straightforward to understand—you mentally rehearse what you want to bring into reality. But, how do you actually visualize? How does visualization work, and what makes it so powerful? To help answer these questions, I chatted with a psychologist and neuroscientist. Keep reading for a beginner's guide to visualization.
Meet the Expert
What is Visualization?
In short, visualization involves creating mental visual images in your mind's eye and imagining they are true, and we do it all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. "This happens as a consequence of the executive functions of our human brain," says psychologist Veroshk Williams, PsyD. "It is innate to us, and it occurs even without conscious awareness. We are able to simply make visual images in our mind of everything: thoughts, objects, feelings, people, desires, needs, abstract stimuli, goals, and much more."
While most people can easily create mental images, Tara Swart, MD, a neuroscientist and author of "The Source," notes few people cannot visualize due to a rare neurological condition called aphantasia. Nonetheless, visualization can still be practiced, she says, via the use of vision boards.
Benefits Of Visualization
Helping you materialize your desires is just one of the many benefits of visualization. It's also great for your brain. "Visualization boosts your cognitive skills," Williams says. "It makes you smarter because you're able to perfect a task, an idea, or a goal." She adds that visualization also helps with strategizing, improving problem-solving skills, lowering stress and anxiety, increasing confidence, and bettering performance, whether on specific tasks, a sport, or creating your life purpose.
Here's how visualization works: "The brain does not distinguish much between a real and a strongly imagined event, so visualization removes the threat of a new or uncertain situation, making you more likely to take healthy risks to reach your goals rather than remain loss avoidant," Swart says. In other words, visualization helps empower you to achieve your goals. And it's not all woo-woo, either. There's actual research that backs its effectiveness. Swart points to scientific studies that have shown people can gain muscular power and growth through simply visualizing.
How To Practice Visualization
Decide What You'll Visualize
First and foremost, identify what you want to visualize. Swart says it can be anything you want in life: health, wealth, happiness, relationships, career, travel, family, etc. You can visualize the big desires, but visualization is also beneficial for day-to-day things, such as preparing for an upcoming interview.
If you don't know what to focus your visualization on, that's okay too. Williams says visualization can help you clarify what you want. For example, she suggests visualizing being happy, having an abundant life, living in connection with your life's purpose, and meeting your needs. Doing this will help you clarify the details of what those things actually mean and look like for you so you can integrate them into your visualizations.
Some experts may recommend guided imagery which, according to research, allows the generation of images to invoke sensory experiences. Studies have also revealed that guided imagery can be effective in managing anxiety.
Calm Your Mind And Body
Once you've decided what you'll visualize during your practice, Williams instructs closing your eyes, relaxing your body, and just letting your mind be for a moment. Finding a quiet, comfortable space to do this is great, but one of the benefits of visualization is you can do it anytime, anywhere.
Visualize What You Want
Now that your mind and body are relaxed bring up the image in your mind of what you desire. "Let it be there until it fades," Williams says of the mental image, adding that visualization doesn't have to be long. A short and sweet visualization—a few seconds or up to three minutes at a time—is effective. And if you feel called, Williams says, you can repeat the process right after or come back to it at a later time during the day.
Integrate Your Senses
To boost the power of your visualization, Swart recommends activating your senses as you visualize. Focus on what the goal will look like once you have it. How will it feel in your body? What will it smell like? What will it sound like? Engaging your senses makes the desired outcome feel more realistic and tangible.
If you find it challenging to visualize or have trouble activating your senses during the practice, Swart recommends collecting images of what you want. Pinterest and magazines are great for this. She says staring at these images regularly, especially before you fall asleep, helps imprint the desire on the subconscious mind.
How Often You Should Practice Visualization?
To maximize its effectiveness. Williams recommends practicing visualization daily. "Your mind visualizes all the time, but it is mostly unconsciously," she says. "By making it a conscious activity, you can have a take on what your mind visualizes, which brings the extra benefit of aligning with your goals, desires, and needs."
Nguyen J, Brymer E. Nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for state anxiety. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1858.