How to Unlock the Power of Creative Visualization

I used to think that creative visualization was a bit of nonsense cooked up by people who had a financial stake in The Secret.

But then I started meditating a few months ago using guided imagery meditations. Surprisingly, images, sounds, even smells started appearing. Suddenly I was visualizing or, more accurately because I was using all senses, I was creating mental images.

Is There Scientific Support for Visualization?

There are relatively few controlled, experimental studies of the power of visualization in sport. However, the studies that do exist, and the many anecdotal reports from athletes, all point to tremendous benefits when a physical skill is practiced in the mind, as well as in the gym.

Teams of sports psychologists now routinely accompany athletes to the Olympic Games, partly so they can help them imagine every detail of a ski jump or bobsled race.

But visualization is believed to impact far more than just motor control.  When a visualization is comprehensive, meaning it makes use of all senses and of emotions, athletes will tell you that motivation and confidence are enhanced. When you’re going for the gold, it helps to imagine the roar of the crowd, the ribbon around your neck, and the feelings of pride and gratitude you will experience during the medal ceremony.

If visualizing every detail of a wished-for experience works for athletes, the theory is that it can also work for us in our desire to live our ideal lives. Creative visualization refers to mentally rehearsing what you want in your life so that you will eventually have or be what you have imagined.

Two areas of research support the power of visualization:

  • The first is work on the mind-body connection, the now accepted understanding that thoughts, emotions and behaviours are inextricably linked.
  • The second is brain research, specifically the research which shows that our brains are not able to distinguish between actions in the physical world and actions in our minds. The same neural pathways are forming and firing in our brains, whether we are executing our moves on the dance floor or just imagining them from the comfort of our couch. And the same parts of our brains are lighting up, whether we imagine seeing clouds or we actually see them. 

    Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.

    George Bernard Shaw

Can YOU Visualize?

If you are convinced, as I was, that you can’t form mental images, perhaps you have aphantasia–a newly coined term meaning “dysfunction of the mind’s eye.” I offer no guarantees of scientific validity, but here’s an eight question test you can take. (The test is at the first subhead.) I am ‘typical’ with a score of 32/40.  It’s speculated that only 2-3% of the population actually have aphantasia.

How Can You Get Better at Creative Visualization?

Like any other skill, learning to form and manipulate mental images takes time and effort. Here are six practice tasks. Choose one and practice it many times over several days.

  1. Look at a candle flame. Close your eyes, holding the after-image in your mind until it fades completely. Challenge yourself to make it last longer and longer.
  2. Study a photograph, perhaps the photo at the top of this post. Close your eyes and try to recreate it in your mind. When you’ve got it, challenge yourself to add in other senses. What sounds are you hearing? What smells? And what feeling does the image evoke?
  3. Study a three-dimensional object. Close your eyes and try to see it in your mind. Challenge yourself to look at the object from all possible angles.
  4. Close your eyes and imagine that you are standing in the doorway to a room of your house. Conduct a slow 360 degree scan of the room. Imagine every possible visual detail. Add in sounds and smells. Challenge yourself to do the same task with your eyes open.
  5. Imagine yourself in a favourite location, perhaps a vacation spot. Look at the scene first from your own perspective. Then challenge yourself to step out of your body and watch yourself in the scene.
  6. Use guided meditations, such as videos from The Honest Guys. Although these are videos with beautiful scenery, challenge yourself to close your eyes and visualize your own images.

 What Matters When You Are Visualizing?

Once you have practiced, you will want to apply your new skills to imagining something you don’t currently know how to do or that you don’t possess. The key to success is to pursue all four requirements of creative visualization that are summarized in this infographic. (Click here for a downloadable version.)

infographic of four requirements for creative visualization

Share this Image On Your Site

 

What are your experiences with creative visualization? If you tried any of the practice activities, which ones worked for you? Will creative visualization help you achieve any of your goals? Please share your comments below.

11 comments

  1. Thanks, Karen, for another fascinating post. I am already a believer in the concept of creative visualization. But, I rarely do anything to put this belief into practice! My score on your test confirms this (I was ranked along with 25% of participants…placing us in the lower half of the population for imagery vividness). This has been a good reminder for me of an area where I could benefit from regular practice….so that my beliefs further match my actions!

  2. Well said, Donna. I’d always assumed that visualization was a one-time thing. Until I did the research for this post, I didn’t realize that effective visualization required lots of practice, use of all senses, and being really detailed in identifying and correcting mistakes.
    I too am going to try for some regular practice. If you’re doing that too, it will be good to compare notes in a few weeks.
    Have a great day, Donna, and thanks again for commenting.

  3. Interesting post Karen. I am trying to meditate daily, not sure if it is working, I keep doing it. Creative visualization is something I try once and it doesn’t work, I move on. Of course as with everything it takes work to see the benefits. Who would have thought..”).Thank you for the practices above, I may just give this a try…Enjoyed reading this post. Thank you.

    1. Hi, Donna. Good for you re the daily meditation. Are you using guided meditations? If not, and if you think they might be helpful, let me know and I’ll give you a few sources that I’ve found particularly helpful. But from everything I’ve read, it’s very typical for us to be unsure whether or not it’s working. I think that sticking with it, and accepting whatever is happening (or not) each day, is the ticket to success.
      I’m like you with the creative visualization – one time and done. I too am going to try to change that, starting with challenging myself to do the practices I’ve written about. If you decide to give it a try too, I’d love to compare notes in a few weeks.

      1. I use the app Calm.com, calm light meditation. She starts you off then you are on your own until the last few seconds. Some days I can go deep into it and others, I fidget, play with the dog, with my eyes closed, of course. Both cat and dog know the voice, as soon as it starts they gather round. Sometimes, not a good idea. I would appreciate the sources you are using and try something different. As far as the visualization I might just give it a try and see where it takes me. Thanks for your reply.

        1. Hi Donna,
          Sorry about the delay in replying. I was on a roll with some work I was doing for one of next week’s posts and thought I’d get that done before writing back.
          I don’t know Calm.com, although I love the name. I’ll check it out. I’ve made extensive use of the guided meditations by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. There are all kinds of them, each running for 22 days and taking about 15 minutes a day. I like them because they are organized according to themes so for 22 days you’re dealing with the same concept and going deeper and deeper into it. Each meditation begins with Oprah saying a little bit then Deepak talking a fair bit more than that. Usually that’s about 5 or 6 minutes total and what they say is often quite profound and interesting. Deepak then takes you into the meditation, which is helpful, and you meditate to music or a nature sound for about 7 or 8 minutes. He ends with a bell to bring you out of the meditation and then gives you suggestions of what to think about during the day. Finally, there’s a journaling option on the site so you can answer some quite good questions for yourself about what you got from the meditation and how it applies to your life.
          You can listen to a sample meditation here – https://chopracentermeditation.com – and see if you are interested. You do have to pay for the programs, but if you are willing to wait, every few months an entire new meditation series is provided free of charge.
          I think I could write an entire post about these meditations, and fear I’m in danger of doing just that, so I’ll leave it at this for now. Methinks there are some meditation posts in my near future!

          1. Thanks Karen, I will definitely look into it. I will look forward to more on this subject in the future.

  4. That was interesting, Karen, I had never thought of using creative visualization personally to achieve my goals. I had heard of it when it has been used by patients diagnosed with cancer. Apparently, when the patient visualizes the white blood cells attacking the cancer cells their body responds in kind and actually starts fighting the cancer cells more effectively.

    I took the aphantasia test and here are my results:
    Around 40% of the population fall into this band, the most common range of scores for imagery vividness. This suggests that your visual imagery is typical – neither unusually weak nor unusually strong.
    Your score:
    33/40

    I have never tried creative visualization, guided or otherwise, but when taking that test I found it really interesting to try. I think I will be coming back to your list of six practice tasks and giving it a try. If it is powerful enough to fight cancer and influence sport athletes perhaps it could do some good in my life as well. 😉 I particularly like practice task #2. I thought looking at a photograph of my grandson, Ethan, might be a great one to start with. When it comes to adding the other senses it might actually be easier since I was there when the picture was taken (by me) and recalling smells, sounds and the like might be easier to do than with some unrelated picture that I would have to guess at for those other senses.

    I look forward to Thursday mornings and finding your email in my inbox to tell me what is new on the Profound Journey website. Thanks, Karen, once again for making such a cool website we can not only visit but visit with each other on. 🙂

  5. I’d forgotten about the use of creative visualization by cancer patients. Thanks so much for mentioning that, Susan.
    And good idea about practicing visualization based on a photo of your grandson. It makes sense that the most sensory details would be available to you based on a photograph you have taken from a moment you experienced. The only caution I would offer is to watch yourself to make sure your mind doesn’t go off into thinking about your grandson – other times in his life, your feelings about him, his relationship to his parents etc – rather than visualizing based solely on senses. If that happens, you may want to practice using a more neutral image, like a landscape.
    Thank you, as always, for your comments about the site, Susan. I’m so glad that you and others are enjoying this space as much as I am.

    1. Thanks for your advice re: the picture of my grandson. Good point, I will have to watch for that. You’re welcome, for my comments on the site and on the post. It is my pleasure! 🙂

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