Visualization meditation is a guided mental practice known by many names, including visual imagery, introspective rehearsal, symbolic rehearsal, mental rehearsal, imaginary practice, imagining, visualization, and conceptualizing. All of these terms relate differently to the core practice at the heart of visualization meditation: the use of the mind to prepare the body for some future activity.
In some forms of visualization meditation, this can be the mental rehearsal of physical activities--practicing without performing. An oft-told anecdote is how basketball players on the foul line imagine themselves shooting and the ball going into the net before they take their actual shot.
Other forms of visualization meditation use mentally-practiced activity to allow the subject to experience potential future scenarios, with the goal of affecting future decision-making behavior that will lead to desirable rehearsed futures. In a certain sense, this type of visualization meditation is a more enlightened version of crime-prevention roleplaying practices like Scared Straight.
Similarly, a form of visualization meditation called “guided visualization” is used for stress reduction: by having subjects rehearse entirely imagined, yet highly relaxing scenarios, the imagined scenarios actually serve to reduce stress. That is, by imagining that one is laying on a beach in the warm sun, with waves lapping in the distance, the subject experiences stress reduction as if they were actually laying on the beach.
Though visualization meditation may sound impossible, the science is real. Below we will detail the empirical evidence for each of these three forms of mental practice.
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When we think about performing some action, whether it be simple like moving our arm or complex like tying a knot, our nervous system activates the same parts as it would if we had actually acted.
This relationship between imagining an action and actually performing it has been repeatedly demonstrated by using brain activity mapping technologies such as PET and fMRI scans, which show that the primary motor cortex is engaged in the same way as it is in the actual execution of an action, only to a lesser extent. “This implies that the cortical areas activated during the imagination of a movement are the same or at least overlap with those activated during its performance” (Yágüez, et al., 1998).
This means that, by thinking through an action and imagining each of the steps, we are actually “practicing” that action, “because it actually invoked all of those processes up to the point of actually issuing the motor command itself” (ibid.).
Since the discovery of this interrelated mental process, much research has been done to discover the most effective methods of this kind of visualization meditation. While it was initially believed that imagining a “perfect” action was the best way to train your body to perform that action perfectly, it turns out that this is not the case. Rather, when engaging in visualization meditation for motor tasks, one should also imagine making mistakes and what it would feel like to correct for them.
This more holistic practice of visualization meditation works because we never actually act perfectly. Rehearsing for the mistakes that we will inevitably make allows us to quickly correct them, as shown in a study on mental rehearsal’s effect on balance in elderly women (Fansler, et al., 1985).
This same study also showed that, for motor-skill visualization meditation, unguided practice was far superior, as it enabled subjects to rehearse their actions at their own pace and correct for mistakes they had actually experienced. However, the study also found that relaxation from meditation was core to successful “ideokinetic facilitation.” If you are going to try this at home, be sure to achieve a relaxed meditative state before you begin your rehearsal.
A second form of visualization meditation focuses not on practicing physical actions, but strengthening one’s motivation to accomplish a particular goal.
In a study entitled “Motivating English Learners By Helping Them Visualize Their Ideal Self” (Magid & Chan, 2011), a researcher provided students in an English language class with recordings of different imagined situations to which the students would listen. These situations could be positive or negative, providing scenarios where the student had or had not studied hard and become proficient at the English language. One positive example provided in the study, “The perfect job interview,” had students imagine themselves acing an important interview and dazzling the boss with their fluency, grammar, and vocabulary.
Listening to these guided scenarios led to 90% of subjects reporting that they had exerted more effort to learning English, studying for an additional five hours each week on average.
While Magid and Chan did not study the neurological causes of such a drastic improvement, this kind of roleplay may work similarly to the stress-reducing visualization meditation technique that Mesmerize uses, sometimes called “guided imagery.”
Clinically speaking, there are two kinds of anxieties: state-based and trait-based. State-based anxiety is situational and occurs in reaction to a stressor, be it a particular worry or an environmental factor. Trait-based anxiety, on the other hand, is a kind of baseline stress that an individual has, whether or not an immediate stressor exists.
Mesmerize offers dozens of visualization meditation narrations that are clinically proven to decrease both state-and trait-based anxiety through the use of “guided imagery.” By listening to the narrator describe a safe and relaxing scenario, the mental space required for ruminative thoughts that characterize anxiety becomes occupied, decreasing stress and offering similar benefits to actually having the experience being described.
This kind of visualization meditation has been shown to reduce state-based anxiety almost immediately and, with regular use, guided imagery can even reduce trait-based anxiety by training you to replace maladaptive thoughts with images more amenable to relaxation.
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