Learn about visualization and how you can incorporate it into your daily life.
Visualization, also called mental imagery, is essentially seeing with the mind’s eye or hearing with the mind’s ear. That is, when visualizing you are having a visual sensory experience without
the use of your eyes. In fact, research has shown that visualization recruits the same brain areas that actual seeing does (Pearson et al., 2015).
Humans have evolved to rely heavily on our eyesight, making us highly visually-oriented creatures. Because our brains are adapted to easily process and comprehend visual information, visualization can be a powerful tool for influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In fact, research has shown that processing emotions using visualization is more powerful than processing verbally (Blackwell et al., 2019). For example, when research participants listen to descriptions of emotionally valenced situations (i.e., “your boss telling you that they are disappointed with your work”), participants that are instructed to imagine themselves in the situation demonstrate a greater change in mood than those that are instructed only to think about the situation verbally (Blackwell et al., 2019).
There appear to be a number of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral benefits to practicing
Some forms of visualization have been shown to increase optimism and other positive emotions (Murphy et al., 2015). It has also been shown to be a useful method for regulating negative emotions such as anxiety or overwhelm (Blackwell et al., 2019).
Visualization techniques can be used to facilitate some kinds of decision-making and problem-solving (Blackwell et al., 2019). For example, visualization might be helpful when planning the best route to take on your upcoming road trip. Visualization techniques, such as the mind palace, are also an effective means of improving memory. The mind palace technique involves using a place you are very familiar with, such as your bedroom, and using different locations within that space as mnemonic devices associated with a particular piece of information you are trying to store.
Visualization can also help us to achieve our goals by allowing us to determine the appropriate sequences of actions needed to reach our goal and identify any potential obstacles we might encounter as we proceed toward our goal. In other words, we can use visualization as a sort of rough draft for our plans by imagining each step we need to take to reach our goal, what each step might include, what might go wrong, and the ways in which we might need to prepare.
“If you can dream it, think about it, visualize it, then you can manifest it.”
Visualization music is music that is specifically intended to facilitate visualization and similar meditative processes. This kind of music can also be described as atmospheric or ambient, as the purpose is not to occupy your attention, but rather to help you focus your attention on your visualizations.
Visualization boards, also called vision boards, are visual representations of your goals, intentions, and desires. Vision boards are typically poster-sized and include a collage-type arrangement of images that symbolize different facets of your goals and intentions. Vision boards are useful for ensuring that your goals remain salient. That is, by creating a visual representation of your goals, you can easily look back at your vision board and remind yourself of the intentions you set. When your intentions are at the forefront of your mind, you are more likely to act in accordance with them.
There are many exercises in which you can engage to practice visualization and enjoy some of its many benefits. Here are a few fun exercises to try if you are interested in including more visualization in your life.
1. Start this exercise by identifying an emotion or feeling you would like to bring into your body or conscious awareness. Once you’ve identified the feeling, assign it a color. For example, if you want to bring joy into your body, you might assign this feeling the color yellow.
2. The next step is to find a comfortable position and relax, just as you would for any other type of meditation. Close your eyes and take slow deep breaths.
3. Then visualize the color you have chosen. Keep breathing deeply and slowly as you hold that color in your mind and consider what it represents for you.
4. As you inhale, visualize the color gently washing over you and slowly filling your entire body.
5. As you exhale, imagine any undesirable emotions being washed away as your color washes over you and fills your body.
6. Continue this process for as long as you need.
Guided imagery is a visualization exercise in which you engage all of your senses as you imagine yourself in a positive, peaceful environment.
1. To start this exercise, find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin breathing slowly and deeply as you start to relax.
2. Next, visualize a place where you feel calm and content. This can be a place you’ve been before, a place you would like to go, or a place that is wholly the product of your imagination. Engage all of your senses to add depth and detail to the place you are visualizing. Can you feel a soft breeze? Do you hear birds or the sound of water lapping on the shore?
3. Reflect on the calm that emerges as you move deeper and deeper into your vision.
4. As you inhale, imagine peace washing over you and filling your body.
5. As you exhale, imagine exhaustion, tension, and stress being washed away.
6. Stay in your vision for as long as you like.
Visualization is a simple yet powerful technique that we can use to improve many facets of our lives. We can use visualization to improve our mood, help us remember important information, facilitate problem-solving and decision-making, and boost our progress toward our goals. Depending on the purpose, there are many forms of visualization we can practice. For example, if we are trying to regulate our mood we might try visualization meditation, whereas if we are trying to solidify our goals for the new year we might use a vision board or a mind map.
● Blackwell, S. E. (2019). Mental imagery: From basic research to clinical practice. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(3), 235.
● Murphy, S. E., O’Donoghue, M. C., Drazich, E. H., Blackwell, S. E., Nobre, A. C., & Holmes, E. A. (2015). Imagining a brighter future: the effect of positive imagery training on mood, prospective mental imagery and emotional bias in older adults. Psychiatry Research, 230(1), 36-43.
● Pearson, J., Naselaris, T., Holmes, E. A., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2015). Mental imagery: functional mechanisms and clinical applications. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 590-602.