By Daniel Bobinski
It seems counterintuitive, but when it comes to being successful, you may fall short if you’re relying mainly on positive affirmations. Research shows you will greatly increase the likelihood of achieving success when you “see” yourself succeeding.
What I’m talking about is the power of visual focus in our imaginations. It may sound kind of “woo-woo,” but over the years I’ve studied a lot about neuroscience, especially the work of doctors Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock. Although I’m no expert, I’ve become a firm believer that people can increase their likelihood of success when they capitalize on the impact of mental practice on the human brain.
Interestingly, Schwartz and Rock’s findings are similar to a principle I’ve been teaching for years: “You will go where you’re focused.” That’s because I believe that for most of us, our focus – both our actual visual focus and the focus of our mental images – is often more powerful than our thoughts. You could think of it as saying the pictures in our head are more powerful than the words in our head.
One illustration of this comes from a story I told in my book, Creating Passion-Driven Teams. While growing up, I rode my bicycle a lot. While riding up long inclines I would be pedaling hard and watching the ground several yards in front of me as I went. When I saw a small rock in my path I would think to myself, “I’m going to miss that rock,” but if I was looking directly at the rock, even though my brain was saying “I’m going to miss that rock,” I still ended up running over the rock.
When I got older, I heard someone say that I would go wherever I was focused. So, one day while riding my bike I saw a rock on the road in front of me and decided to apply that concept. Instead of saying, “I’m going to miss that rock,” I shifted my visual focus a few inches to the left of the rock. When I did that, my bike tire went to where my eyes were directed, and I missed the rock!
I decided to test this theory further. When I encountered another rock, I shifted my visual focus a few inches away from the rock but mentally told myself “I’m going to run over that rock.” Amazingly, I still missed the rock, despite my mental self-talk. My bicycle tire followed my line of sight, not the words in my head.
So, how do mental images help us achieve success? The answer lies in how our brains operate. Neuroscience research has found that our brains grow “hardwired” neurons in response to routine activities. This is because mental processing requires a lot of electrochemical energy. By growing hardwired neurons to handle routine activity, our brains operate more efficiently. This leaves more electrochemical energy for processing new situations and new information.
As an example, think of how tired you get when you sit at a desk all day (a minimal physical activity), but you spend eight hours thinking through problems or making decisions. It’s amazing how tired you can become. Processing new data requires much mental energy!
And so, by repetitively seeing mental images of ourselves succeeding, our brains will literally start to reform themselves into being more efficient for achieving success.
My bicycle and rock story is powerful to me, but it’s merely anecdotal evidence. So, allow me to quote from a study on the power of mental imaging done 40 years ago with college basketball players. Seventy-two players were divided into four groups. Over six weeks, each group experienced 15-minute practice sessions for free throws, preceded by 10 minutes of “prep time.” The experimental and control activities occurred during the prep time. Here what happened during each group’s 10-minute prep time:
Group 1: Five minutes of relaxation and five minutes of guided visualization.
The “guided visualization” was players listening to a recording that instructed them to feel the same sensations they would feel the moment they approached the free-throw line. As the players sat with their eyes closed, the physical sensations they were likely to feel and the sounds they were likely to hear were narrated. Then, the players were instructed to visualize themselves making perfect, “nothing-but-net” shots, with every muscle making the correct movement along the way.
Group 2: Five minutes of relaxation followed by five minutes of inert concentration activities. The concentration activities had no related purpose, they were given simply to fill five minutes of time.
Group 3: Same as group 2.
Group 4: No special preparation. Just 10 minutes of repetitive drills.
I want to emphasize that each group had only 15 minutes of actual physical free-throw practice each session during their six-week experiment. Then, at the end of six weeks, all four groups were tested for their ability to make free throws. Their results were:
Group 4: No improvement at all.
Groups 2 & 3: Slight improvement.
Group 1: Significant improvement.
The visualization made a significant impact. As one researcher said, it was like their brains could not differentiate between the mental and physical activity.
Over the years, similar studies have occurred in karate, tennis, and marksmanship, always with similar findings.
So, how can you apply this to your life? According to neuroscience research, you will benefit by spending regular time “seeing” yourself doing what it takes to be successful in your field. Remember, this is not repeating positive affirmation statements, such as “I am successful.” You must clearly identify and articulate the specific behaviors you want, as well as the physical and audio sensations you are likely to experience when doing them. Then, mentally see yourself doing the successful activity, and doing it flawlessly.
The cool thing is that anyone can do this. The research is there, and the results are always the same. If you “see” yourself succeeding mentally, you are more likely to achieve it in real life. Not only does neuroscience research back this up, you don’t even have to work up a sweat. What are you waiting for?
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. teaches teams and individuals how to use Emotional Intelligence, and his videos and blogs on that topic appear regularly at www.eqfactor.net. He’s also a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-375-7606.