The human brain is hard-wired for visualization. It constantly imagines how future events will play out so that it can trigger actions in the present maximizing the chance of survival. The brain on autopilot is very good at promoting survival but very bad at promoting happiness. Most of our ancestors lived outdoors and spent a great amount of time in predator-rich environments, be they animals or other human beings. In order to survive, they needed to be aware of signs that could indicate a creeping black caiman or a rival enemy clan member. The negative emotion (fear) generated by detected threats prompted them to take action in the interest of self-preservation.
Most people reading this article live in countries that are not at war and enjoy a much higher level of security than their ancestors. The current defect in our brain’s natural visualization process lies in its attempt to protect us not from imminent physical danger but from negative emotion. Our brain judges negative emotions to be so threatening that it prompts us to seek protection at great cost to our equanimity. This is the function of most fear experienced by people living in civilization. Fear performs its function by alerting us to threats in our environment that may cause greater pain than fear itself. To overcome fear is to signal to the brain that the object of that fear is not inextricably bound with negative emotion.
The main drivers of fear are unresolved issues of the past (i.e. emotional baggage) stored as painful memories. Unresolved issues color our world with negative emotion and create a logic for fear to assert its limiting presence. Fear’s limitations provide short-term comfort but more often than not do not make us better or happier human beings in the long run.
Visualization as a discipline seeks to direct the brain’s natural imaginative process in a way that serves our long-term interests. The primary goal of visualization is to overcome the fears (rooted in unresolved issues) that keep an individual from taking the action they want to take and becoming the person they want to become. Visualization also works independent of fear by associating positive emotion with our goals. For example, if my goal is to read 52 books by the end of the year, one of my chief obstacles may be the hard work and sacrifices necessarily involved. Visualizing the process as pleasant (or less unpleasant) increases the probability of me taking action toward that goal.
The primary goal of visualization is to overcome the fears (rooted in unresolved issues) that keep an individual from taking the action they want to take and becoming the person they want to become.
Most people who visualize are told to imagine a picture in their minds of what they want to manifest. The visualizer who wants to improve his social confidence might conjure up a scenario of him approaching an attractive girl, speaking in front of an audience, or requesting a raise from his boss. Indeed, imagining pictures (still or moving) is a fundamental part of the visualization process. However, a visualization routine consisting exclusively of images is unlikely to be successful.
The key to successful visualization is positive emotion. Emotion in one form or another lies at the heart of all human action. Negative emotion is the driving force of fear. Positive emotion is the driving force of ambition. If fear is to be overcome, then the mind must be programmed to associate the other side of fear with positive emotion.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.Proverbs 4:23
Visualizing positive emotion deconstructs the fear that keeps us from taking action. It also create a deep-seated association between positive emotion and the outcome we want to materialize. Our mind often resists our goals (recall the book analogy above) due to negative emotions associated with their achievement. For example, if I want to build a business, get fit in the gym, or find a life partner, it is certain there will be obstacles. The more positive and less negative emotion my brain attaches to these obstacles, the more energy and drive it will give me toward the objective. And sometimes the objective is not in the achieving of a material goal but in becoming a certain type of person. Positive emotion is the key both to doing and to being. The brain will only let you be happy and confident once it has been trained to interpret stimuli from the world in a positive manner.
Successful visualization consists of two elements: an image in the mind and positive emotion. It is positive emotion that gives life to the image without which the image is powerless. This explains why a microphone may be a source of inspiration for some while an object of dread for others. The gym, the library, and the office all have in common that how we think about them is programmed by emotion. I can visualize myself in the gym, but if the feeling isn’t right my brain will call bullsh*t.
The next time you visualize, don’t just fixate on the image you want to see. Fixate on the emotional experience that makes that image desirable in the first place.