What does visualization do to your brain?
How does it help you reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your overall mood? Although visualization may seem like such a simple exercise, its impact on the brain and your well-being is truly profound.
Back in 2020, I was in my final year as an undergraduate Biomedical Sciences student in Hong Kong. My four-year experiences there cultivated an interest in neuroscience, and I was very certain that this was the field I wanted to continue my postgraduate studies and build a career on. Unfortunately, the pandemic made it difficult for me to get back into neuroscience after graduating and I ended up working in another field for a while.
About a year and a half afterwards, I got an interview call for a technical neuroscience interview as part of the application process for a neuroscience master’s program. That was my key to getting back into neuroscience and I was very excited. But… I was also very anxious about it as I had lost some touch with neuroscience due to the gap years I took. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to answer any of the technical questions and was quite nervous about the whole thing.
I knew my nerves were not doing any good in helping me prepare for the interview. So, I decided to do something more productive instead. I tried to visualize a good version of the interview:
In my visualization, the interview was not that daunting. I felt calm because I told myself that I had prepared beforehand, so there wasn’t much to be afraid of. I was able to answer the questions.
This visual manifestation helped me to relax and make progress in preparing for my interview. Good news – I wasn’t as nervous before and during the interview, and although some questions were hard, I was able to answer most of them! I passed it, phew!
So, what does visualization really do to our body, particularly to the brain? How does it influence our behaviour?
Dr. Srini Pillay, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who also served as a part-time Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, shared his insights on the science of visualization. In his TEDx talk titled WIRED FOR SUCCESS: The Science of Possibility, Dr. Srini regards imagination or visualization as a powerful force that activates the action centre of the brain. What this means in a neuroscientific sense is that when you visualize a certain action, you activate the same brain regions involved in actually performing that task.
Visualization, therefore, allows us to “train” our brains before we actually do something. It helps us gain a sort of familiarity with the task, as suggested by the recent PETTLEP model of imagery, where imagery is considered to mimic the brain processes that happen during an actual action. This power of visualization has been used in various settings such as in sports and in the workplace, and is supported by a lot of research.
For instance, studies have shown that visualization with imagery scripts of being focused and confident in 4 elite junior badminton players showed improvements in the sport confidence of all but one. Similar beneficial effects of imagery have been found to improve self-efficacy and self-determined motivation for exercise, decrease self-reported and objective stress in novice surgeons, and improve music memorization for pianists and trombonists.
How can you start a visualization practice?
To make the most out of your visualization practice, neuroscientists and psychologists suggest the following:
- Visualize the steps rather than the end goal: Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Irena O’Brien encourage us to visualize the steps to get to a goal. Merely visualizing the end goal can make the process of achieving it overwhelming. Visualizing the steps (process visualization) increases your motivation to engage in the processes needed to achieve your goal, which also reduces your anxiety and improves your performance.
- Visualize the surroundings and what you feel: Prof. Peter J. Lang is a research professor in Psychology. His bioinformation theory, which has been supported by other studies, suggests that the most effective visualization to enhance your performance involves imagining the environment or context and also what the individual feels. For example, in my visualization, imagining the context of my interview and also what I feel during it (hopefully calm) would help my actual performance.
Visualization may seem like too simple of a task to help your goals, but science shows us that it really can make a difference. Embrace the power of your imagination to motivate yourself, and your goals will become easier than ever to achieve.