Visualisation: The Key to Making Dreams Reality

Visualisation: The Key to Making Dreams Reality

All it takes is  a spoonful of belief, ounces of persistence and loads of imagination.

Visualisation, or the mental practice of creating images and pictures in one’s mind, is a powerful tool used by top athletes to perfect their game before a match. World Champion Golfer, Jack Nicklaus has said: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture in my head.”

It’s also a popular technique used by many motivational and self-help authors such as Wayne W. Dyer, “You get whatever you think about most,” and Peggy McColl, “Imagine what it will be like when you are living the life you truly desire,” she says. “Visualise yourself already in possession of your goals.” Both attest to the power of visualisation for achieving the things they had envisioned for themselves.

But while it’s largely been anecdotal evidence to support the effect of visualisation, new scientific evidence shows how visualisation causes real chemical and physical changes in the brain and throughout the body. According to Dr David Hamilton, author of How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body, “The brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary. When you imagine something, to the brain it is really happening. As we repetitively imagine our goal, this causes enough changes in the wiring of the brain so that our thinking, what we say, and how we act, begins to change in the right ways to bring about what we are imagining.”

For example, in a 1994 Harvard Medical School study, notably known as “The Piano Study”, volunteers repetitively played a five-fingered combination of notes on a piano. They did this for two hours a day for five consecutive days, while another group just imagined playing and hearing the same sequence of notes for the same duration of time. At the end of the five days, brain scans showed that the finger maps for the volunteers who had played the notes had grown as expected, but, remarkably, the maps for the volunteers who had just imagined playing them had also grown to the same extent.

Research into the brain’s plasticity, or the brain’s ability to constantly remould itself depending upon what you give your attention to, is fast becoming a goldmine of new discoveries such as these. Previously, science used to think that the brain was like a loaf of bread coming out of an oven, having set characteristics and habits already hardwired into it; a static lump of organic matter, unable to be changed. But now, says Hamilton, “we never actually put the dough in the oven. The brain is mouldable up until our final breath.”

The extent to which we mould it to gear us to certain behaviours, however, is up to us; kind of like how much effort we put into exercising a muscle. “If you repetitively flexed your right hand over several days, the brain area for it would expand because more neural connections would have formed,” says Hamilton. “But if you stopped doing this and then switched to flexing your left hand, the brain area, or brain map, for your right hand would shrink because you were not longer using it, causing the map for your left to grow instead.”

In other words, Hamilton says, “constantly running through the same thinking patterns forms an imprint on our brain, the same way two adjacent trees were to grow thousands of new branches: the space between them would become more densely filled.” If you then reinforce changes in the way you think, new branches and connections in the brain will grow and the many links that correspond to your old ways shrink.

A 2005 study of meditators found that mediation had increased the thickness of the brain area that controls concentration, free will and compassion. The meditators had built up brain maps that process these positive thoughts that became wired into their brains.

While repetition of an activity increases the size of a brain map, the same thing occurs when you repeat the thought about a movement. Practicing your dance routine everyday will perfect your performance, but mentally rehearsing your steps over and over again will help also. A study looking a brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. Doing a virtual workout, it seems, can be almost effective as true physical practice.

Repetitiveness, Hamilton stresses, is key to affecting change in the body. “If you think about any part of your body over and over again, that’s when it has a very powerful effect,” he says. “In real clinical studies people who have had a stroke but who are taught to imagine moving their limbs, recover muscular movement much faster than those who don’t visualise. This is because the never fibres connected to the brain stimulates the actual muscles we focus on.”

A similar process occurs in the bodies of patients who are given a fake drug, or a placebo. This is because when we think the medicine is working on the affected area, the body produces it’s own painkilling chemicals to bring about healing in that place. This placebo effect or what Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief calls the ‘belief effect’ works because “our perceptions, whether they are accurate or inaccurate, equally impact our behaviour and our bodies.”

Hamilton agrees, “When we take a placebo that we believe is really a drug, the brain lights up as if we were in fact taking that drug, and produces it’s own natural painkillers, like morphine, tailor-made to combat the illness.”

So what, then, if what we think about and what we believe affect the matter in your body, are the best ways to train our brains for a better state of health? “There’s no single correct visualisation. The most important thing is to decide what you want and to visualise regularly,” says Hamilton. “If resolving to have no cancer is what you want, then you can construct a scene for getting it to leave your body. A technique that has helped me visualise more effectively is imagining myself inside my body as a tiny person actually working on the diseased area. If it’s a cut, you could imagine yourself pulling the two sides of the cut together using imaginary ropes that no trace would remain.”

But he advises that you should continue any treatment or medication you are receiving. “What I’m saying is that visualisation should be used as well. Take your prescribed drugs and visualise at the same time, eat a nutritious diet, improve your attitude. It’s a combination that produces results.”


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