©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

articles200408It all began with two incidents on the same day. First, I opened an envelope to find three hand-written pages of tightly-spaced words (some so tiny I had to use my magnifying glass) that read, in part:

After being out of work for several months, I enrolled in career-training. Our last assignment was to visualize a new product label and transfer it to paper. I dropped out. I’m not interested in classes filled with gobbledygook psychobabble.

Chuckling, I began writing a reply: “According to Dr. Newberg, author of How God Changes Your Brain, even when asleep, visual representations of the universe remain active in the brain....” My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on my office door. The caller, Larry, said his visit was to set me straight about visualization. “It’s clearly of the devil,” he said. “I’m surprised you don’t know that. I never visualize and never will.”

"I think you may be confusing the 'spirit practice known a visualization' with the ability of the human brain to make mental pictures in the mind's eye." I said. "Can you recognize your mother by sight?” Larry’s response could have prompted an observer to wonder if I’d said something really derogatory. When he had stopped sputtering, I asked, “Can you see your mother’s face in your mind’s eye now?”

"Of course," Larry shouted. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

Deciding it would be advisable to avoid answering that question, I explained that he had just exercised his brain's ability for internal mental picturing.  Larry’s confusion was palpable. “If your goal is never to mentally picture, you’ll have a fight on your hands,” I told him, “because that’s what the brain does. It turns everything you think, see, and hear into internal mental pictures.”

“B-b-but,” Larry sputtered, “how can that be? Visualization is new age. I’m sure of it.”

“Visualization is old age. It stems from ancient spiritualistic practices, That's one reason I prefer using the term  'mental picturing' to avoid confusion with that ancient practice," I replied.

The verbal to image simply means “to call up a mental picture.” Mental imaging, describes the process of creating a picture in your mind’s eye of something that is not currently and concretely present in your field of vision. It may be a representation of something you have actually seen (e.g., an elephant) or something that you have never seen (e.g., an elephant with purple spots). Because it happens so automatically, many people take this ability for granted and often don’t think about it consciously. For example, your phone vibrates with a call from a good friend and up pops a mental image in your brain of the person.

This natural brain phenomenon has been around since there was a human brain. You picture things in your mind’s eye all the time. That’s how the brain was designed to function, to create internal mental pictures of what you think, see, and hear. The only thing new age involves brain-imaging studies that have discovered that the right cerebral hemisphere, the Envisioning division in particular, appears to control one's ability to make mental pictures in their mind's eye and then create something new such as a painting, sculpture, a building, or any number of things.  Studies suggest that most successful people, regardless of their field of expertise, demonstrate the right brain ability of internal mental picturing. 

For example, perhaps you are taking a group of students on a field trip. A student says, “I’d like an ice cream cone.” To be sure, a mental picture of an ice cream cone is flashing in that person's brain. You ask, “Do you prefer plain or waffle cones?" as the brain creates pictures of both types.

Maybe you have invited a dozen people over for dinner. While setting the table, you picture the face of each person as you decide where to put name cards.

Then there are vacations. All things being equal, you usually end up in places you have spent time thinking about and have some preconceived ideas of how things will look. When you actually arrive at the destination and compare your expected mental pictures with actuality, you may find that some aspects are a match and some aren’t. Some are better and some are not so good.

“Well,” Larry continued, “visualizing involves coming up with something completely new, and that's dangerous.

Needless to say, it didn’t go over well when I asked if his mother’s face, which he had just seen in his mind’s eye, was completely new. Many new ideas are simply an extension or variation of what you already know. They could also result from looking at what you know in a different way.

“Okay, so how would I appropriately use what you say my brain does anyway?” Larry asked.

Immediately I thought of a favorite game from childhood that I had loved and played often in the car as our family rode from one place to another: I spy with my little eye something that begins with _________ (a letter of the alphabet).

I remember liking the letter “c,” probably because it can be an “s” sound (cent, city, celery) or a “ch” sound (church, cheese, chicken) or a “k” sound (cake, candy, camera).

“Did you ever play the game of I spy iwith my little eye, Larry," I asked. He nodded. "So think of it as playing a game with your brain. Try 'I spy with my little eye,

  • The face of my pet
  • Something I appreciate
  • A possible solution to a thorny problem
  • Where I’m going on vacation
  • A new, creative idea

Larry left my office scratching his head and mumbling that he’d have to think about this topic a bit more before he made up his mind. Closing the door I picked up my chuckle where I’d left off.

Studies have shown many benefits from internal mental picturing.

  • Health issues - Patients are learning to picture wellness. Children with severe asthma are being taught to picture their bronchial tubes expanding and allowing air to flow freely into their lungs. In many cases, this effectively aborts asthmatic breathing attacks.
  • Stamina-related activities - Many athletes, musicians, and other performers use mental picturing in their training as they prepare for their events. They internally picture an ideal performance. When they actually perform, their mind and body tend to follow the picture.
  • Learning strategies - Mental picturing is seen as the basis for comprehension in whole-brain learning. Learners are encouraged to picture, draw, and use drama as they develop new ideas, in order to retain them.
  • Spiritual awareness - People interested in prayer (a form of meditation) are learning to focusing their thoughts in contemplation. This gives brain and body a map to follow. Eventually they can move toward becoming the mental picture they have been beholding.

Long before the advent of moving pictures, people created their own internal movies. Family members gathered around the radio after dinner or read stories aloud. Their brains created pictures in their mind’s eye of what they were hearing, with unlimited imagination.

Today’s world is quite different, with its emphasis on television, movies, and videos. Those mediums largely promote passive mental picturing, i.e., the brain processes what other brains have already created. Studies have shown that viewing large amounts of television may decrease one’s skills of active mental picturing, a key component of both creativity and problem solving.

Although not composed of muscle tissue, the brain resembles a muscle in terms of function. It strengthens with exercise. Every thought creates a movie in your mind’s eye. In effect, you are your own director, photographer, editor, and viewer. Unfortunately, some use this brain ability in negative ways: rehearsing worry, anxiety, fear, and failure, to name just a few. Others, in positive ways, hone their skills to improve their personal health and well-being and be more successful in life. How are you using the natural brain phenomenon of internal mental picturing? Do you allow it to run away with pictures of anxiety and fear or do you create positive mental pictures?

Such choices are no laughing matter.