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This is a visualization exercise that actually works, according to neuroscience

Many self-help books and gurus tout visualization as the key to their success. Is it effective? A neuroscientist says yes, provided that you harness your brain appropriately.

This is a visualization exercise that actually works, according to neuroscience
[Images: Life-Of-Vids/Pixabay; artisteer/iStock]]

I’m a big believer in the power of creating a visual “action board.” Doing so can prime your brain to grasp opportunities that’ll help you create the life you want. Visualization allows you to harness the power of selective attention to work in your favor. Let me explain how.

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Every day, our brains are bombarded with far too much information. As a result, our brain needs to discard or fade some things into the background, so we can focus on what’s necessary to us at that time. Selective attention is a cognitive process that involves the thalamus in our brain’s limbic system. The thalamus attends to a small number of sensory inputs and filters out what it considers unnecessary distractions. It acts as a sensory hub, gathers all the information and input, and directs it to the appropriate part of the brain. The amount of “editing out” it does is remarkable (or alarming, depending on how you look at it.)

How our brains select the information we process

In a 1998 experiment by the psychologists Levin and Simons, an actor playing the part of a lost passerby asked pedestrians on the street for directions. The actor showed them a map and requested navigation help. Halfway through the conversation, two “workmen” holding a door walk between the pair, and another actor (holding the same map) replaces the original “lost passerby” actor. They carried on the conversation with the pedestrian as if nothing had happened.

How many pedestrians in the experiment do you think noticed that they were talking to a different person? Only 50 percent. The other 50 percent of pedestrians in this experiment didn’t realize that the person they were talking to had changed, because they were so focused on the map and the distracting interruption of the door.

Vision board and selective attention

Now think about this example and how selective attention might manifest in your day-to-day life–what might you be missing when you focus on something else?

For visualization to be effective, you need to be specific (and selective) with the images that you focus on. An action board reminds you of your deepest wishes and priorities on a daily basis. As a result, you’ll be more attuned to recognize opportunity and inspiration that presents itself.

Once you begin to use your action board to inform your visualization, you can imagine your successes as if they already happened. Doing this allows you to tap into another powerful brain training mechanism. Simply imagining something can deliver the physical and mental benefits of the action that you desire. Studies show that people who imagine themselves flexing a muscle achieve actual physical strength gains. Why? Because they activate the same pathways in the brain that relate to the actual, real-life movement of the muscle. Sports psychologists have long since understood the value of this kind of imaginative exercise. That’s why many encourage athletes to envisage success on the pitch or field to make it feel familiar and inevitable. Of course, you still need to do the physical training in conjunction with the visualization exercise if you want it to happen.

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You too can apply this principle in your day-to-day life. Whatever dreams you have for your career, your personal life, pick an image that sums it up. Maybe it’s a sailboat cutting through choppy waters to represent navigating your way through uncertain economic times to land your dream job. Or perhaps it’s a picture of a couple holding hands at the top of a mountain that symbolizes the mutually supportive relationship you dream of having. Make sure that you focus on these images every day. Use them to help you imagine yourself living your fantasized reality, and carry out the efforts it takes to get there.

There’s nothing mystic and woo-woo about this, and there is a very good reason why many successful people continue to use this technique to help them realize their goals. When you imagine your success, you’ll be more attuned to opportunities that can help you get there. You’ll be able to anticipate and plan for setbacks, and you’ll also have a constant reminder of why you chose to pursue those goals in the first place.


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Her book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain, is out in the U.S in October.

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