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3 Effective Visualization Techniques to Change Your Life

Proper visual imagery techniques can improve how you feel and how you perform.

iStockphoto Used With Permission
Source: iStockphoto Used With Permission

If you take a look around, you will see nothing human-made that did not first exist as an image in someone’s mind. It is impossible to create something that cannot first be imagined. Psychologists have been using visual imagery for years, as a way to help people enhance performance at skill-based activities, create desired emotional states, and achieve life goals. People who want to learn to shoot basketball hoops can show considerable improvement just by visualizing shooting baskets in their heads. Simply visualizing playing the piano can actually improve someone’s ability to play a piece. In other words, being able to do something in your head, greatly increase your chances of being able to do it in real life.

Your brain is constantly using visualization in the process of simulating future experiences, but this process happens so naturally that you generally aren't even aware of it, the same way you usually aren't aware that you are breathing. If you aren't aware of it then you aren't actively directing the process. You can learn to use visualization to actively create future simulations that can help you improve the goals that you set for yourself.

You can create two types of simulations, outcome and process. An outcome simulation is a sensory-based representation of the final outcome you expect, and a process situation involves simulating the steps that get you to the final outcome. Research shows that to get the most benefit from simulations, it is best to use both types together. Also, as you create your simulation using the participant perspective instead of the observer perspective has been shown to be most effective. You don't want to see yourself in the simulation, you want to see it through your eyes as if you are a part of the simulated experience.

Using simulation can improve your motivation and increase your belief in your ability to achieve a goal. Below are three visualization techniques you can use to increase the quality of your mental simulations. This will make them seem more real, which will enhance motivational drive and performance.

Picture and Describe

The more details you have in a visualization the more real it will seem, and the more it will increase performance as the brain starts to develop neural connections that result from the repeated visual image along with enhancing motivation that increases the likelihood of taking an action toward your goal. For example, if you think about wanting a piece of chocolate cake but immediately dismiss the thought, you quickly forget about it. However, if you think about a piece of chocolate cake, close your eyes and spend a few minutes really imagining the details, the creamy frosting, the warm moist cake, how wonderful it would taste, savoring the image until your mouth starts to water, your drive to get a piece of cake would increase dramatically.

At this point, your brain's natural problem-solving process will go to work helping you develop a plan for how to obtain what you want. You might start to think about stopping at your favorite bakery on the way home from work. The best way to create detail and enhance the quality of your simulation is to picture and describe it using all of your senses. Keep adding in more detail until the process starts to feel as real as if you were actually experiencing it.

Emotional Intensity

Emotion is a type of sensory-based representation in the brain. Because we know from the world of cognitive therapy that emotion is preceded by thought, when you feel something deeply, you have achieved a level of belief associated with it. You generally don't feel very upset by something that you know is absolutely unreal or true. That's why we can watch upsetting fictional events on TV and in film but not be overly traumatized. However, the more real or true you believe something to be, the more emotional impact it has on you. To really enhance a simulation you want to create as much detail around it as you can so that you begin to feel the experience of it as if it were real.

Once you have begun to feel it, you have crossed the threshold that leads to action. One strategy that increases the emotional intensity of a visual simulation is to listen to music that matches the emotional intensity you are seeking as you are visualizing your simulated future experience. If you want to run a marathon, try listening to inspirational music like the theme song from Chariots of Fire as you run across the finish line with a pounding heart.


Since what you produce in your mind can only come from what is stored there, it can be quite difficult to imagine something that has not already happened to you. It would be much more difficult to create a visual simulation of living on Mars than it would be to visualize yourself standing in your living room. Sometimes to create a more detailed and realistic visual simulation in your mind, you have to expose yourself to more detail in the outside world.

For example, if you really dream of doing something you've never tried before like scuba diving, you may have a difficult time simulating a detailed experience because you don't have much to draw on. You will need to expose yourself to the experience of scuba diving. You may need to read books, watch videos, visit a scuba diving school, or talk to other people who have scuba-diving experience. Anything that increases your knowledge and awareness of what an experience would be like would help you to have more data to draw upon when creating your own visual simulation.

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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