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The Science Behind Imagery and Visualisation

Which side are you on? Exploring differences between visualization and imagery.

Key points

  • There is a clear difference between visualization and imagery, and only one has lasting benefits.
  • Multisensory imagery involves a broad neural network, which motivates and enhances resilience.
  • Imagery training boosts emotional control and improves focus.

We all harbor ambitious aspirations, be it securing a dream job, embarking on a vacation to an exotic locale, or perhaps seeking an exhilarating adventure like swimming with a Great White! Starting with a visual representation of your goals, however, might not suffice to initiate and sustain your efforts when faced with inevitable challenges. It's more than merely envisioning or manifesting the finish line; it's about feeling the texture beneath your feet, hearing the cheers of an imaginary crowd, tasting the sweet victory swig of your favorite drink, and experiencing the profound sense of accomplishment. While you might often use "imagery" and "visualization" interchangeably, a nuanced exploration reveals a fascinating distinction that can transform your goal-setting from a fleeting thought into a vivid, multisensory experience. As we delve into the science behind mental imagery and its impact on achieving goal, we'll explore the workings of your mind, investigating how activating multiple senses orchestrates a neurological symphony beyond the confines of traditional visualization techniques.

The Science of Multi-Sensory Imagery

Imagery, the process of forming mental representations of sensory experiences, is a cognitive marvel that extends far beyond mere visualization. When we engage in multisensory imagery, we tap into a cognitive symphony, activating not only the visual cortex but also regions responsible for touch, taste, smell, sound, movement and emotion. Often referred to as Functional Equivalence (Johnson, 1982), this dynamic engagement recruits a broader network of brain areas, including the parietal lobe for spatial awareness, the hippocampus for memory, and the prefrontal cortex for executive functions like problem-solving. Unlike the focused but limited activation of the brain during visualization, multisensory imagery transforms mental rehearsals into a comprehensive and immersive experience. Imagining the activity in detail (movement, sound, touch, etc) has long been linked to actually performing the activity, such as imagining playing the piano and similar brain activation when actually performing (Meister et al., 2004). Crucially, the utilization of imagery prompts the exploration of solutions should obstacles arise. Therefore, when challenges occur as they often do, the brain processes them differently if they have been imagined first, altering the amygdala's response to possible stressful events and thereby enhancing emotional control and promoting performance consistency.

Across the Tennis Court

Consider two tennis players, each with similar abilities, positioned on the same court on opposite sides of the net. One relies solely on visualization, vividly picturing the desired outcome—a precise serve and what the opponent might do next. However, this player overlooks the richness of additional sensory details. While they ‘see’ the scene in detail and may anticipate challenges, such as an opponent's moves, visualization alone will likely boost confidence and readiness, but will fall short when it comes to consistent performance benefits.

On the opposite side of the court, our second tennis player employs multi-sensory imagery. Before a serve, they immerse themselves in a vivid mental movie—controlling their breathing, feeling relaxed, sensing the weight of the ball, hearing the bounce, and orchestrating the entire serve sequence, including the flight of the ball, the opponent's likely return, and their own movement. This intricate process activates multiple areas of the brain, engaging not only the visual cortex but also the sensory, motor, and prefrontal cortex. This multisensory engagement facilitates complex problem-solving within the brain as it navigates through the intricacies of the imagined scenario.

For athletes, and anyone navigating high-pressure environments, emotional regulation is paramount to maintain performance consistency. Unlike those reliant on visualization alone, individuals employing a multisensory approach find it easier to adapt. Equipped with this comprehensive performance routine, athletes not only visualize success but also anticipate obstacles, tapping into a reservoir of detailed solutions that significantly enhance emotional control. This complex neural activation during multisensory imagery provides a robust foundation for problem-solving, allowing for adaptability, and performance enhancement.

3 Ways to Supercharge Your Imagery

1. Elaborate on the Details

Studies (e.g., May et al., 2008) have found that when crafting mental images of your goals, delve into the minutiae to help manage behavior. Enrich the scene with sensory details, making it a vibrant and immersive mental experience.

2. Anticipate Challenges Through Problem-Solving

Instead of glossing over potential obstacles, research suggests that you should actively engage your brain in problem-solving during your imagery sessions (Oettingen & Reininger, 2016). This will help you shift your perception of anxiety and enable you to navigate challenges with resilience and resourcefulness.

3. Go Beyond your Goal

When setting a goal, consider the aftermath—what happens when you achieve it or face a setback? Go beyond the initial goal, contemplating the moments that follow. This approach prepares you to navigate the inevitable emotional "blues" that can accompany goal attainment. Research examining Olympic athletes, for instance, who reach the pinnacle of competing at the Games or winning a medal, often suffer from depression post-Games as they return to 'normal' life (Bradshaw et al., 2021). Going one step further in your goal planning equips you to handle the emotional complexities that arise after the initial triumph or setback.

Which Side Are You On?

When you connect your aspirations to the richness of multi-sensory experiences, you will quite literally reshape your brain as you activate a broader neural network as you start to imagine a route toward your goal. Imagery (which you can measure and train) will equip you with a more adaptive and resilient mindset with better emotional regulation and control. Now, consider the tennis court analogy—do you want to be the player relying solely on visualization, or do you choose to be the one engaging in a multisensory symphony? The choice is yours; which side of the net will you stand on as you strive for your ambitions?

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