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The secret behind visualization

I believe it all started with the bestseller ‘The Secret’. Open any self help book and chances are big you’ll be advised to visualize. Whether it’s a better you, your dream job, financial success.. you name it. Visualization is a hype. So what exactly is the secret behind visualization techniques?

Let me start with expanding to the biology behind habits. After all, we often visualize (at least in the context of self help themes) building a new or improving a habit; eating healthier, exercise more, acting more patiently, etc.

Building a new habit is possible because of something called neural plasticity. Or in other words, the fact that the biology of our brain is changeable. In order to function well, our brain cells (neurons) make connections with each other that, simply put, work according to the same principle as your muscles: the more you use them, the stronger they get. And here you’ll find the trick for building a habit, You’ve probably heard through the grapevine that it’ll take 21 days to build a habit (unfortunately, this is not entirely true; it takes at least 21 days but on average about 2 months). By repeating the same act or thought every day, the connection in your brain that you need for this act/thought will become stronger to the point that this act will be automatic (think about driving a car). If for some good reason you’re grabbing your phone the moment you wake up for a few weeks on end, then after a while you’ll start grabbing your phone the moment you wake up without even thinking about it, However, when you consciously choose not to grab your phone during the first hour of waking up, the strength of the neuromuscular route for grabbing your phone will weaken again, and at some point it won’t even occur to you to grab it anymore.

So building a habit is really just strengthening brain connections.

What happens exactly with these connections when we visualize a habit? Imagine you want to get fitter, could you just sit on your couch visualizing getting fitter, et voila? Sounds too good to be true, right? You’ll be surprised to hear that this is not such a weird idea at all. Science showed that when you simply imagine doing muscles exercises, a part of the same brain areas are active as when you are physically doing the muscle exercises. Turns out that not only the neuromuscular brain connections are strengthened, visualization strengthens your actual muscles! The effect of visualization is so extensive, that in this case it prevents muscle atrophy(1).

The principle where your brain is making little distinction between actually performing an action and imagining performing that action, we can apply to any aspect in life, which makes it so popular in self help books. Imagine that too often you’re reacting angrily, so you start spending a few minutes every day imaging how instead of reacting angry, you react sweet. Any negative thoughts that come up you convert into positive thoughts. The brain areas and connections that get activated during these sweet reactions and positive thoughts become stronger, despite the fact that you’re only imagining these reactions. When these connections become strong enough, this way of reacting will become habit. So we’re literally able to imagine ourselves into a better version of ourselves.

But it all gets more interesting. Turns out that our brain makes very little distinction between a memory and a future vision; in both cases largely the same brain activity is registered, especially when it comes to imagining / remembering Visuo-spatial contexts(2). Another interesting discovery that confirms this: many amnesic patients are unable to imaging new experiences(3). This could be where the secret lays behind visualization. By retrieving visuospatial information from your memory, you can easily place yourself in a future vision that contains that same visuospation information.

These discoveries lead to an enormous increase in popularity of research to visualization of events in someones personal future, in science better known as ‘Episodic future thinking’. While there’s multiple ways to visualize the future, like intention setting, planning and making predictions, episodic future thinking the construction of a specific mental representation of the future. For example imagining how a day at work in your dream job looks like. Science shows that this provides many benefits. For example when it comes to decision making. By human nature, people rather choose a smaller but immediate reward over a bigger reward that requires a longer wait. Visualization seems to increase patience to wait for the bigger reward. For example, studies under obese women found that visualization can help lower calorie intake; moving from an immediate food reward to a longer term health goal. Similar effects are found for people who are alcohol dependent and smokers. Furthermore, visualization of the future gets linked to better regulating emotions, creativity, and stimulates your capability to remember an intention, increasing the chances of actually executing the intention(4). The latter makes that visualization is not only ideal to accomplish desired changes within ourselves, but it can also be applied to (material) aspects outside yourself. Will you visualize becoming filthy rich, then it won’t come guaranteed, and above all your wealth won’t just turn up one day, but it does increase the chance that you yourself will work hard to achieve this goal.

But well, since at the end of the day real wealth might just be happiness and health after all, let’s go back to that frame. As early as 1985, research showed that the easier subjects could image a disease is, the higher their prospection of getting that disease. Combine that knowledge with the knowledge we have on the nocebo and placebo effect (definition of place effect: ‘a beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient's belief in that treatment.’ The nocebo effect is the exact opposite: the doom-think version of the placebo effect) and it seems to be of enormous benefit to be able to imagine in detail how to heal from a disease(5). Let me tell you about the story of Joe Dispenza, because a greater example of visualization and healing is hard to find.

Joe Dispenza was 23 years old with his own chiropractic practice, when he was run over by an SUV during a triathlon. The impact was enormous, fracturing 6 vertebrae in his spine. His orthopedic surgeon informed him the next day that, if he ever wanted to have a chance to walk again, they had to plant two 12-inch stainless-steel iron rods on each side of his spine. Even then, he’d probably face lifelong chronic pain. Refusing the surgery wasn’t an attractive option either; this would most likely result in paralysis from the chest down. Joe Dispenza chose the unthinkable: no surgery. Instead, he opted for self healing through visualization. Visualization of the perfect spine. At the start, he had a hard time focusing his mind: he was in pain, was scared, and experiences many emotions through this sudden experience in his life. He visualized vertebrae by vertebrae, starting all over again each time he’d loose his concentration. After a few weeks, he could visualize the entire perfect spine vertebrae by vertebrae without losing his focus. And each time he succeeded in doing so, he’d experience a deep sense of connection, a special feeling, in his words ‘as if hitting a tennis ball right in the sweet spot’. This feeling became easier and easier for him to recall, and he started to visualize other things. How he’d walk again, go out for lunch and watch a sunset. How he’d go running again. He describes it as an imagination so strong, that your brain thinks it is actually experiencing the image, and releases the chemicals that it would release when that image would be reality.

Long story short; 9,5 weeks after the accident, Joe Dispenza walked again, without cast, without surgery. With 10 weeks he saw patients again and with 12 weeks he was training and lifting weights. He was completely healed, and hardly ever experienced back pain since.

Joe Dispenza believed that the power that makes the body can heal the body. In his own words: zijn eigen woorden: 'I believe there is an intelligence, an invisible consciousness in each of us that is the giver of life. It supports, maintains, protects and heals us every moment. It creates nearly 100 trillion specialized cells (starting at just 2), it makes our hearts beat hundreds of thousands of times a day, and it can organize hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions in a single cell every second - among many other amazing functions. I reasoned at the time that if this intelligence was real and if it had such amazing abilities intentionally, consciously and lovingly, then maybe I could divert my attention from my external world and go in and connect to it - develop a relationship with it.'

He decided first of all to never let a thought pass his awareness that he wouldn’t want to experience. Second he would every day focus his conscious awareness on the intelligence described above and give it a plan, a pattern, a vision with very specific orders, and than leave the healing to that power, to let it do the healing for him.

The story of Joe Dispenza is exceptional and shows as no other the power of visualization and of the placebo-effect. Hopefully it makes you realize that our capacity for self healing gets underestimated too often. We often place the complete responsibility of our healing in the hands of another (eg your doctor). Maybe it’s time for us to start contributing to our healing more proactively ourselves.

Lastly I’d like to point out, like in nearly every blog, that I’m not advocating replacing modern medicine by alternative healing methods such as visualization (Joe Dispenza is an amazing, but also extreme example of the effectiveness of these techniques). Rather combine the best of both worlds, so you can pull out all the stops to facilitate your healing!

Read articles of references:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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