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Using Visualization for Learning

By Sean Whiteley

You can use visualization for improving memory, restoring health, reducing stress, increasing relaxation and motivation, improving sport performances, and more. Three main uses of visualization are:

  • Motivation. Creative visualization is a great way to see a possible future and move yourself towards it.
  • Mental practice or rehearsal. Mental practice or mental rehearsal is complementary to real practice. Mental practice can also be cost-effective and safer.
  • Reinforcing other techniques. Visualization is a powerful way to strengthen other techniques, such as association and scripting.

Visualization works because certain areas of the mind cannot distinguish between what you see with your eyes and what you see in your mind. You can manipulate your mind and body to believe what you are visualizing is real. Want a simple example? Read the following script then close your eyes and visualize it.

You are in a garden somewhere, with a lemon tree, a table and a knife. Relax and breathe in the fresh country air. See through your own eyes as you walk over to the lemon tree. You pick the biggest lemon you can find.

Bring the lemon back to the table, and then use the knife to cut it into quarters. Take one of the quarters, and bring it up to your nose. Smell the tangy smell.

Now, take the biggest bite you possibly can out of the lemon. Chew it and taste the lemon juice in your mouth. Squeeze your eyes shut tight. Feel the edges of your mouth sting slightly from the acid. Do the same with the rest of the lemon.

It's likely that your mouth is salivating after you visualize this. Check! Is your mouth watering? What this simple exercise shows is that many parts of your brain and body cannot distinguish between what you see in your mind versus what is real. Your body reacted as if you did bite into that lemon. Your mind can alter the state of your body.

Similarly, visualizing outcomes you want can change the way your body and mind react to the environment around you. You see opportunities that you didn't think were there before. You start to behave and think differently. You have a better chance of achieving that outcome.

Often beginners believe visualization involves seeing images on the back of their eyelids, as if they are dreaming. Most people do not visualize at this level. It's not important. What is important is the concentration on the task and the conscious thinking through of what a scene would look like, or the tasks to complete some activity. Sometimes you may get fleeting images of some part of your visualization. If that's the case just accept them and keep going. Don't spend time chasing these images.

The words "visualization" and "imagery" are in some ways misleading. While the dominant sense is usually vision, visualization does not just involve seeing. The more senses you involve, the stronger the effect. Hear a switch click when you turn it on, or feel an engine turn over and the vibrations when you start it. Smell fuel when you check a fuel tank. Feel a rope as you trim the sail, or hear the shutter click when you take a photograph. Hear the applause of an audience after a presentation. All these can significantly improve how you're your visualizations work.

There is no magic or mysticism to visualization. Simply start thinking through the steps, task or scenarios you wish to visualize. Here are some specific tips:

  • Verbalize the steps or scenarios. When first starting visualization, in general or a new exercise, verbalize what you want to see. Describe in words the steps or scenario you are visualizing. If you are visualizing a red house, simply say out loud or in your mind: "I see a red house. It has a red tile roof and red brick walls. I am standing out the front on the garden path. It leads up to the front door. I walk up to the wall and run my hand over the brick. It feels rough and cool." Either try to visualize it as you read, or read it and then close your eyes and repeat the content in your mind.

  • Use an internal perspective. In most visualization, see your actions from an internal perspective. See the scenario from your own eyes. An alternative is the external perspective, where you see yourself through someone else's eyes. Typically the internal perspective works best, especially for mental rehearsal.

  • Use the senses. As well as seeing, build in as many of the senses as possible. Think of the sounds that would be present in that scenario. Are there any scents or smells you would expect? What forces or sensations would your body or hands feel? Would you have a particular taste in your mouth? You do not physically experience each of these sensual experiences. Rather, you just need to think about what they would feel like.

  • See only the correct way. I once heard that rally car drivers train to look where they want to go, rather than at a tree they could hit, when they are skidding sideways. I like this point because it highlights how powerful our focus is. If the driver looks in the direction they want to go, there is a good chance they gain control and go that way. If they focus on a particular tree, there is a good chance they will hit it.
    Visualization is similar. Only focus on the correct way of doing a task or procedure. If you are visualizing a possible future, focus on the future you want. Don't let possible negative outcomes distract you. If they do arise, write them down for reference and move on.

  • Visualize with compelling inevitability. Take a moment and visualize something you know is going to happen. For example, getting ready for work tomorrow. Go through the normal routine in your mind. Now change the timeframe and visualize something that is far into the future. Notice the differences between the two. Usually the images of what is likely to happen are brighter, colorful, larger, louder, and clearer in our mind. If we are not sure about a possible future outcome, the images are usually not as clear. They may be grey and fuzzy, smaller or just difficult to even see in a mental image. You can use this effect to your advantage. Give your visualizations a sense of compelling inevitability by adding qualities associated with events we know are likely to happen. Imagine your mental pictures are brighter and more colorful. Make them big in your mind's eye. Imagine the sounds as extra loud. Come up with several scenarios that are likely to happen if you achieved your goals. Visualize those scenarios with clarity.

  • Experiment with field of vision. For many people, their eyes often focus in particular areas depending on the memory they are accessing. If trying to remember events from the past, they typically look up and left. For events happening now or soon, they usually look straight ahead. For possible future events, the usual location is right and up. You may want to try this yourself. Think of examples in each of these categories, while looking in a specific direction. Is it easier or harder for each direction? If you do find a pattern, use this to your advantage. If you want to bring a possible future event closer, try to visualize it in the center to mid-right of your vision. If you want to put a recent mistake behind you, visualize it being off to the far left (as well as smaller, in black and white, and fuzzy). Note that some people have different patterns, or are the other way around (swapping left with right, or up with down). Adjust the directions based on your own patterns.

  • Practice and expand. You may want to try doing some regular visualizations when first starting out. Use a simple visualization exercise, such as a scenario or task, and visualize it for a few minutes. Do it at the same time each day. You can also expand your use of visualization away from set exercises. When you are studying or using other techniques, simply relax for a moment and visualize some part of the content or technique. You can visualize anywhere—on public transport, in a meeting, while exercising, or while waiting for an appointment. The more often you do this, the easier and more effective your visualization becomes.

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