I often try to convince clients that visualizing a desired outcome enhances the likelihood of it occurring, particularly if the visualization is detailed and includes imagining the other senses - touch, taste, smell, and hearing - along with the visual. Athletic coaches have long known this to be true, and encourage their athletes to visualize the 350 foot line drive or wood shot; to picture clearing the 6'6" high jump bar, or perform a complicated trick on the half pipe.
An article in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker presents some very convincing evidence of how powerful this technique can be:
"In a Harvard study conducted by neurologists Alvaro Pascual-Leone, subjects who'd never played the piano before were given instructions and asked to practice a piece for five days, two hours per day, for a total of 10 hours. Before and after these practice stints, their brains were scanned. As anticipated, subject showed brain changes in the areas of the motor cortex that corresponded to the physical movements that they'd practiced.
Another group of subjects randomly assigned to a second practice (cohort) did the same thing as the first group, with one crucial exception: they never pressed the keys of the piano. Instead, they mentally focused on each of the practice movements. Researchers were amazed to find that these mental-rehearsal-only subjects evidenced almost the same changes in their brains as the subjects who'd practiced using their hands.
In other words, mental practice produced changes in the motor cortex even though subjects hadn't moved their fingers - they justvisualized movng their fingers.
But how did the purely mental rehearsal, with its accompanying brain changes, affect the subjects' ability toplay the pieces? Here, the results were stunning. Although the people in the mental-rehearsal-only group had never practiced physically, they could play the rehearsal piano piece almost as well as the group who'd practiced physically for five days. And after only one day of physical practice, they could play just as well.
The Harvard piano studies aren't the only ones that show brain and performance-level changes in response to mental rehearsal. A study at the Cleveland Clinic found that subjects could increase their finger strength by 53% through physical exercises over a 12 week period, but amazingly, a second group showed a 35% strength increase through mental visualization only!"
If the body itself can be changed through visualization exercises, is it any wonder that feelings, so many of which emanate from thought, can be changed through mental exercise? Take, for example, envisioning success at one's job: imagine visualizing your boss calling you into her office at the end of the year, telling you what an outstanding job you've done, and handing you a large bonus check. Or envision a romantic evening with your partner (dining by candlelight, snuggling up in front of a fire, and then making slow and sensuous love).
The most effective kind of visualization involves not only the creation of a visual (or more broadly a sense-rich) scenario, but also includes focusing attention on the feelings that accompany the envisioned scenes: feelings of contentment, pride, love, accomplishment, caring ,etc.
Consistent practice with the mind has the power to shape the course of future feelings, and thus change the course of future actions, just as it has the power to shape the course of future physical performance as so clearly demonstrated by the studies referenced above.