Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive coach with a background in psychiatry, is convinced about our ability to alter how our brains work – and transform our lives. In her new book The Source (Penguin Random House), she draws on the latest cognitive science and her experience coaching highly successful people to reveal the secret to mastering our minds. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter ‘Visualise It’:
Without fail, in the run-up to a big competition, skier Lindsey Vonn, a multi-Olympic gold medalist, visualises herself skiing the course:
I always visualise the run before I do it. By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take every turn . . . Once I visualise a course, I never forget it. So I get on the right line and go through exactly the run that I want to have.
Visualisation is a technique a lot of athletes employ. Everyone from Muhammad Ali to Tiger Woods has spoken about visualisation as a big part of their mental preparation for competition. Outside sport, countless celebrities also credit their success with visualisation. Examples include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Katy Perry, who was once photographed alongside the vision board she put together when she was nine – all of which, including winning a Grammy, had come true.
The language of self-belief and achievement is rich with visual metaphors. We ‘dream’ of doing something great or we see something happening in our ‘mind’s eye’: this is the language we use more when we are in touch with all our senses and comfortable with daydreaming and mind-wandering rather than focusing on rational thought and concrete examples only.
Visualisation works because there is surprisingly little difference to the brain between experiencing an event directly in the outside world and a strongly imagined vision (plus sometimes imagined action) of the same event.
Let’s start with a simple example: imagine tapping your left foot on the floor. By doing this you have stimulated the same part of your brain that is active when you actually carry out that action. There are even brain scans that show people in a coma (who cannot move or respond) being asked to imagine walking into their living room and activating parts of the brain that are related to walking as well as imagining.
Incredibly, simply imagining something can also deliver physical as well as mental benefits of the imagined action: something can begin to feel and even be real purely by imaginative means.
Studies show that people who imagine themselves flexing a muscle achieve actual physical strength gains and activate brain pathways in the cortex that are related to the movement. Similarly, when exercise psychologist Guang Yue asked a test group to do imaginary workouts at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, his team found increases in muscle mass despite not doing any activity. Incredible!
This provides hard evidence for something sports psychologists have long understood: by creating a mental image of the things we want to achieve, and furthermore by matching visualisations with simulated physical sensations, we improve the brain–body connection in relation to this activity. The brain registers this at a deep level and is more likely to make a positive connection to a trigger or event related to this in real life.
Similarly, hypnotherapists commonly recommend having an elastic band on your wrist that you snap whenever you complete an action you’ve committed to, or having three bands on the left wrist that must be moved over to the right wrist over the course of a day when you think a positive thought or visualise a positive outcome.
Bringing together a physical and a mental trigger will activate the body as well as the brain, forming double the reinforcement for the desired outcome. We are priming our brain to recognise and be skilled at something even if we have never seen or done it before.
It makes sense therefore that visualising our ideal future primes the brain to recognise aspects of it in our daily actions and interactions, see opportunities that will help us and be attracted towards them.
Excerpted with permission from The Source by Dr Tara Swart (Penguin Random House)