How a child with Chickenpox stopped itching

teddy bearAs you know, I’m a big fan of visualisation.

As I’ve explained before, in many ways the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. As we imagine something, to the brain, what we imagine is actually happening.

In previous blogs I’ve shared scientific evidence of how people have altered physical strength through visualisation, how visualisation can help weight loss, lots on the power of placebos, as well as how visualisation is used to help people heal from illness.

During a workshop I taught last weekend on this subject, a woman shared an amazing technique that her little 3-year-old daughter used to avoid scratching her face when she had chickenpox. It is such an amazing strategy that I just had to share it with you.

Her child’s face was so itchy, the woman told me. Having learned about visualisation from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, she explained, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

She asked her daughter to go find a teddy bear whose face tickled as much as hers. When the little girl returned with a teddy, her mother told her that she should scratch teddy every time her face became itchy and that it would help stop her own itch.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Amazingly, the itch faded on her own face and she didn’t scratch her face once.

It reminds me of how mirror boxes can be used to help people who have lost a limb to deal with phantom limb pain and itches. Say the person had lost their right arm. A mirror box can be placed on the table and the person would lay their left hand down. The mirror then shows a reflection that looks like the person has both a left and right arm.

And that’s what the brain processes. The mirror box tricks the brain into acting as if the person does have a right arm, enabling them to then scratch it. In other words, scratching the left hand, now reflected in the mirror as a right hand, can relieve a phantom itch in the right.

These kinds of techniques work because when you focus on any area of the body, the corresponding region of the brain is activated. Focus on a finger, for example, and the finger region of the brain is activated.

It’s likely, given the teddy-chickenpox example, that even a representation of a body part can have the same effect. In other words, something that we decide represents a part of the body might activate the brain in the same way.

This is how what I call ‘symbolic visualisations’ work. A gentleman who had suffered terrible depression once shared his symbolic visualisation with me. He said he felt broken, so he symbolised his broken feeling as broken shards of a mirror.

In his mind’s eye, he then gathered up the shards, heated them in a cauldron to melt them, and then poured them into a new mould. In effect, he took his brokenness and made himself whole again.

A month or so of daily visualisation like this was a huge tonic for him and brought him out of depression.

He represented the mirror as his feelings, just as the little girl represented the teddy’s face as her own face.

How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!

 

Want to check out ‘I Heart Me School’? Watch the video. Click here to find out more.

How your mind can affect your strength

meditationI’ve written quite a bit about the mind-body connection in my books and in some of my blogs. Among other things, I’ve written about strength improvements through visualisation, rehabilitation following a stroke, and even how to reduce appetite by tricking the mind into thinking you’ve eaten, so I’m always on the lookout for new pieces of research.

Well, in October 2014, researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) published a great piece of research in the Journal of Physiology that showed how visualisation can slow down the loss of muscle, say after a person has had an accident and has limited use. The research is a demonstration of the mind powerfully impacting the body.

In the experiment, 29 people wore a cast from their elbow to their fingers for 4 weeks. Around half of them (14 people) did a visualisation exercise 5 days a week during this time and the other half (15 people) didn’t.

The training sessions were as follows: They had to mentally contract their wrist, given the instruction, “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push … and stop.” This would take 5 seconds and they would then get 5 seconds rest. They did it 4 times in a row and that would constitute 1 round. Each daily session was 13 rounds.

Of course, both groups lost strength in that time, which is to be expected when you’re not doing any exercise at all, but what was amazing was that the group who visualised lost much less strength than the group who didn’t.

The group who didn’t visualise lost 45% strength over the 4 weeks but the group who visualised only lost 24%. That’s half as much! It’s a significant difference.

I used to be an athletics coach and loved it. A few years after I stopped doing it formally, a young sprinter came to me devastated that he was to have a shoulder operation that would put him out of training for 3 months. So we devised a visualisation plan where he would go to the gym in his mind and run on the track in his mind.

He did about 45 minutes of this a day, 5 times a week, going to the gym in his mind and running on the track in his mind. He was totally committed to his mental workouts. I remember laughing when he told me he had just surpassed his bench press PB (personal best) in his mind. He said he could feel the great weight and the strain but had imagined pushing the bar up.

The mental effort worked wonders for him. Not only did he defy the odds and was back in training in half the time (6 weeks instead of 3 months), but he had barely lost any strength or leg speed at all. And his improvement from that point was dramatic. Within a few months he had improved so much that he was chosen for the first time ever to represent his country in an international competition.

The mind is far more powerful that most people assume. I love that there is now a great many pieces of credible scientific research in the area.

The key is that imagining something repetitively has a huge impact on the brain. It creates ‘neuroplastic change’, which is where the brain actually moulds around what you’re imagining, effectively not making any distinction between whether you’re doing the thing or imagining doing the thing.

This is great, because if you’re not yet able to do something perfectly, you can certainly imagine yourself doing it perfectly. And to your brain, that’s really the same thing. Your brain then affects how your muscles perform, whether that’s in running, jumping, swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, or even whether it’s speeding up the healing process following injury or disease, which of course I’ve written a great deal about in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, so I don’t want to regurgitate it here.

So never doubt your ability to do something. If you can imagine it, you can do it!

Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?

piano study brain scansJudging by the brain scans in the image, it doesn’t seem so. The scans are from one of my favourite pieces of research.

Volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes each day for five consecutive days. Their brains were scanned each day in the region connected to the finger muscles. Another set of volunteers were asked to imagine playing the notes instead, also having their brains scanned each day.

The top two rows in the image show the changes in the brain in those who played the notes. The middle two rows show the changes in those who simply imagined playing the notes. Compare this with the bottom two rows showing the brain regions of the control group, who didn’t play nor imagine playing, piano.

You can clearly see that the changes in the brain in those who imaged playing piano are the same as in those who actually played piano. Really, your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary!

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. The stress response evolved in humans to give us the ability to fight or flee when faced with danger. Chemicals including cortisol and adrenalin help kick start the body, pushing blood towards the major muscles to give you strength.

But the exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and adrenalin and pushing blood around the body. The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.

What does all this mean in real life? It means that what you imagine to be happening is actually happening as far as your brain is concerned.

Earlier this year I spoke at a corporate conference, something I enjoy doing as I get to share science that gives extra credibility to self-improvement strategies. Sally Gunnell spoke first. She won the 1992 Olympic Gold medal in the 400m hurdles. Sally explained that winning gold was 70% mental. After failing to win at the 1991 world championships she started practicing visualisation. She did it every day, imagining sprinting, hurdling, and even having the strength to hang on in the home straight.

Through visualising like this, her brain would have undergone changes that improved her muscles, giving her body the capacity to do what she had been imagining.

You can apply the exact same technique in your own life to improve your ability in sports, and even in rehabilitation after illness or injury should you need to. Several studies on stroke patients, for instance, have shown that visualisation speeds up recovery.

Even if you imagine eating, the brain thinks you are eating and there is evidence to suggest that it turns on the ‘I’m full’ signals afterwards. In a simple experiment, scientists showed that if a person imagined eating, if they imagined the entire chewing and swallowing sensations as clearly as they could, they had less appetite for more food afterwards, just as the same would be true if you had actually eaten. This has obvious implications for weight loss strategies. (See my blog, ‘How to Think Yourself Slim‘)

People all around the world also use visualisation to imagine themselves healed or healing from illness and disease. The strategy involves focusing on wellness instead of illness.

You can even use visualisation to give you extra confidence. You can imagine yourself in a situation where you would usually be lacking but see yourself acting with confidence, conveying the body language of confidence.

Whatever you apply visualisation to, you have more of an ability to shape your brain circuits and the physiology and health of your body than most people think.

5 Reasons Why You Should Visualize

Butterfly flyingWe’ve all heard of visualization. Many people visualize daily, either to improve their health or their life situation. Some people try it from time to time.

My personal experience of visualization is that it is highly powerful for a few different reasons. And it’s good to know why! Maybe that’s just my science training, where I need to know the how’s and the why’s. But, honestly, there is no question that understanding the how’s and why’s actually bring you more belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. That’s why I’ve written this short blog about the reasons why visualization is so powerful.

Whether you are visualizing on a health goal or a life improvement one, visualization helps a lot … for the following reasons:

 

1) It makes you feel empowered

When you visualize on better health or achieving a goal, it brings you a sense of inner empowerment. This is because you start to notice small changes in your life as you move in the direction you want to go in.

With health, you start to see improvements and it brings you a belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. The effect of this is that it shifts the sense of power away from the outside world, where you often feel powerless, to the inside, where you feel you are more in control of what happens. And this makes all the difference because it breeds motivation, creativity, and positive emotion.

With life goals, you start to realize that there is actually a lot you can do to move yourself in the direction you wish.

2) Your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary

Research shows that if one person does something and another person visualizes doing the thing, the same brain areas are activated in both of them. And if they keep doing the thing or imagining doing the thing, their brain regions undergo actual physical change (called neuroplasticity) to the same degree.

You can harness this for health. A growing body of research shows that when you visualize improving health, the body moves towards health. And you can harness it for life goals. When you imagine living your dream, your brain processes it as if it is happening now. In fact, afterwards, to your brain, it’s a memory.

3) It focuses your willpower

Regular visualization helps to focus your mind on what you want. One of the problems many people face when aiming for goals is that they lose focus, becoming distracted by the goings on of life. When you visualize on a regular basis, especially if you set aside some definite time each day, it focuses your mind. It trains you to hold your focus despite what else is going on.

And as you stay focused you spot opportunities to move towards your goal. If it’s a health goal, you tend to learn extra insights that can help you. If it’s a life change goal, you’re more likely to be in the right place at the right time.

4) It has health benefits

Countless people all around the world use visualization to help facilitate their recoveries from illness and disease. The most common strategy is where they imagine changing a picture of illness into a picture of wellness, and they do it over and over again, 2 or 3 times a day.

And you can get as detailed as you like. Some people visualize cleaning individual cells, restoring them to health and wellness, and others simple visualize a whole body region in perfect condition. Both scenarios work equally well.

There is now a growing body of research that shows this working. Whether it is through a harnessing of willpower, a sense of empowerment, or that the brain processes what you are imagining as real, or a combination of all three, there is no question that visualization for better health has positive benefits.

5) If you believe in visualization, it works even better

Belief carries great power! The placebo effect shows us that belief can heal. Belief changes brain chemistry and brings about immune, hormonal, and physiological changes throughout the body.

When one person takes a painkiller and the other a placebo, for instance, brain scans look strikingly similar. This is because the person’s belief produces its own chemistry that brings about what they expect to happen – ie., a reduction in pain. In this case, the brain produces natural painkillers (endogenous opiates).

When you do anything and believe in yourself, your ability is enhanced. Any elite athlete will tell you that. When you visualize better health, believing that what you are doing has powerful effects, your own belief amplifies the power of what you are doing. The same is true with life goals; your own belief brings you more energy, motivation, and helps you spot opportunities when they arise.

 

Oh, and one final point: You don’t need to be a great ‘visualizer’. It’s the quality of your intent that matters most. Some people ‘see’ clearly, others just have a vague picture. Some people see out of their own eyes, others imagine looking at themselves from outside. All of these different versions work equally well. We’re all different and we all have different ways of doing things.

My experience is that your intention matters most. If your mind is pointed towards where you want to go, then you’re doing it right.

Can your mind influence your genes?

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Yes!

It’s doing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s impossible, actually, to disentangle your mind from your genes.

When you learn something new, or think the same thing over and over again, the brain lays down neural pathways. But they don’t just spring out of thin air. They are the consequence of a series of events that result in the activation and deactivation of hundreds of genes. But here’s the thing – these events are set in motion by something you’re thinking about!

Setting aside the details for a moment, what we’re left with is that thinking leads to the activation and deactivation of genes. This is what I call the mind-gene interface.

We see the same thing with meditation. Consistent meditation has been shown to bring about structural changes in the brain. With meditation it is mental focus on something – an idea, perhaps, or breathing – that brings about theses effects. An 8-week meditation study at Harvard even showed that meditation impacted 1,561 genes in novice meditators and 2,219 genes in experienced meditators. In the novices, 874 genes were switched on and 687 were switched off.

Some people might wonder why this is important to know.

It’s important because we grow up believing that the mind is impotent, something that we only use to think with and to analyse life events. But this is disempowering. It leads us to think that we can’t do anything to help ourselves or to change anything.

A good friend of mine spent some weeks in hospital over the past year. Being a proactive person with a determination to do what he could to facilitate his own recovery, when he asked what he could do to help himself, he was told, ‘nothing’.

But this response is only a habit of thinking that’s based on the notion that the mind is impotent, and I’d probably have given the same response myself if I was wedded to that notion. Actually, the mind can be thought of as a force, in that the mind’s focus can bring about biological and physiological effects in the brain and body. Knowing this, there is never nothing that a person can do. We have to think, so how about we learn what to think about?

On a totally obvious level, for instance, if a person is sick, thinking about stressful things is not going to help. Chemicals of stress can be produced and circulate around the body. So thinking about calming things can help. Similarly, thinking affectionately is good for the heart. Thinking hostile and aggressive thoughts isn’t.

We’re all chemists in a way. The chemistry of the brain and body responds to what we focus on and how we feel. If we learn what to focus on we can, to an extent, switch on and off different chemistry. We then take our chemistry skills onto a new level. I see this as the next great development in mind-body medicine.

I believe we have a much greater ability to affect our health than we think. We just need to get over the notion that the mind has no effect on the body. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the mind has no effect on the body, ask them if they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy.

The reason I explain the science of mind-body medicine is to give people faith in themselves. I believe that this faith can make a real difference.

Believing in a medicine or in a doctor leads to better outcomes than not believing, so clearly belief has effects. So how about we learn to believe in ourselves? Not at the expense of medical advice, of course, but in addition to it.

Your mind is more powerful than you think. And you are the one who directs it.

How about we learn to focus on things we’re grateful for? How about we learn to feel empathy and compassion more? How about we learn to cultivate thoughts of love and affection? You are a chemist and that would be some nice chemistry.

It’s a start. And at the very least we’re doing something positive with our minds.

 

Resources:

Some good books on the mind-body connection are:

Mine 🙂 ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ & ‘It’s the Thought that Counts

I’d also recommend, Lissa Rankin MD, ‘Mind over Medicine‘ and Bruce Lipton, ‘The Biology of Belief‘.

I also have some mp3 audios: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (live lecture) and ‘6 Principles of Mind-Body Medicine

Video image - PrePromotionBanner300x250

5 tips for making visualisation work

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Here are 5 tips that can be used to help you get the most out of your visualizations, whether you’re applying them to heal your body, to change your life, or to improve your sports performance.

 

Believe in yourself

This is why I write about and teach the science behind the mind-body connection. If you understand that you’re always affecting your body with your mind, and that the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary, you realise that your mind is not some floaty, ethereal, thing that only interprets life events, but something that actually causes changes in the body. This way, you develop faith in yourself, that what you imagine, hope for, or intend, does have effects.

You can only do it right

This is something I say every time I guide people through a visualization process. Many people think they can’t visualise because they think everyone else sees in high definition (HD). Trust me, they don’t. But it’s the thought that they do that makes us think we’re doing it wrong. Actually, most people just get a vague set of images. What matters most is your intention and that you’re not thinking that you’re doing it wrong. I like the word, ‘imagine’ rather than visualise, because we all imagine in our own way. When I imagine, I have images in my mind’s eye but they are rarely that clear. For me, it’s more a feeling and sensing thing.

Relax

This can be easier said than done, but a regular practice of relaxing goes a long way to reducing stress in the body, which can only be a good thing. Meditation is great, as is yoga. Physical exercise is also a good way of relaxing. Eating a good diet can also help, one free of stimulants and high amounts of sugar and saturated fat.

Lighten up

I often suggest that people add a tiny bit of humour to their visualizations. This helps get around the worry that it might not work. When we worry, we activate brain areas associated with fear and anxiety. So if we inject a little lightness into the visualization, we retain our concentration on what we’re imagining and we might even help wire our brain networks away from the worry centres so that optimism and hope are born instead of worry. I encourage people to create a ‘victory dance’ to end their visualization. Basically, you do a silly dance of victory after you finish, and you have to do it until you find yourself smiling. This helps wire lightness into the brain.

The 3 R’s – Repetition-Repetition-Repetition

Research shows that we change brain structure through repetition of imagining movements. Brain scans of people playing piano versus people imagining playing it showed the same degree of changes in the same areas of the brain. But to get the changes required repetition of the movements – real or imaginary. When we stop doing the work, the brain regions shrink again. This is why consistency is key. You don’t become Olympic champion by going to the gym once. It’s important to do consistent visualization practice to get the best results.

 

References:

David R Hamilton PhD, “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body”. Paperback kindle

How to Think Yourself SLIM

woman at scales being weighedWhen I was compiling stories on visualization a few years ago, a woman sent in her use of visualization for losing weight.

She first started imagining pac man type beings eating all the fat cells from the bits she wanted to lose weight from. She was doing it five times a day. She began to lose weight but then was faced with a dilemma. She said, “The first part of the female body to go down during weight loss is the breasts.” She didn’t want that. She’d always been proud in that arena, she relayed.

So she adapted her visualization so that when the pac men were full, instead of just exploding they travelled up the way and deposited the fat onto her breasts. It seemed to work magic.

After 5 months she dropped 21 pounds in weight and gained half a cup size.  She said, “It’s just marvellous.”

And amazingly, she said, she didn’t have any cravings for chocolate and other stuff she was eating so much of.

In a seminar in Sweden that I taught, some of the ladies were laughing heartily through the breakout session. During group feedback on their visualizations, I asked what had been so funny. One of them said they had created the BEST EVER weight loss visualization. Now I was intrigued, as was the rest of the group.

They shared that they imagined themselves as lollypops and Brad Pitt was licking them. And as he did, they got smaller and smaller. I’ll leave that one to your imagination!

In many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imagery. If we visualize something happening then the brain can process it in some of the same ways as if it was actually happening.

Of course, you won’t turn into a lollypop, in case you were thinking of trying out that visualization, but the symbolism of the volume of fat getting smaller and smaller and smaller is what the brain might process as real.

I have come across many people who have used visualization as part of their weight loss strategy. Part of the reason it works, I believe, is that the brain is tricked into thinking that the fat is reducing and so it subtly alters our behavior, cravings, motivation, as well as, perhaps, even how the body stores fat and where it is stored.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University might be onto another novel way of using visualization to control weight.

They asked volunteers to imagine eating before they actually ate.

The study involved 51 people who were asked to imagine eating either 3 or 30 units of a particular food. The food in one of their experiments was M&Ms.

One set of volunteers had to imagine eating 3 M&Ms and they also had to imagine putting 30 coins into a laundry machine. Another set of volunteers had to do it the other way around. They imagined eating 30 M&Ms but were to imagine placing only 3 coins into the machine. A third set of volunteers just imagined placing 33 coins into the machine.

The reason for the coins in a machine was because the muscles used are similar to lifting food into your mouth and it was important that the volunteers all imagined the same number of hand movements.

After they did this, they were invited to eat some M&Ms from a bowl in preparation for what they were told was going to be a ‘taste test’. But it wasn’t really a taste test. It was really so that the experimenters could secretly record how many M&Ms they ate.

Incredibly, they found that those who imagined eating the most M&Ms (30) ate much less from the bowl than the other two groups.

The conclusion of the study was that imagining eating the M&Ms suppresses the appetite to eat more of them, just as if we had physically ate them. It kind of makes sense. It’s almost as if the brain thinks, “OK, I’ve had enough now. I’m full,” even though the person hasn’t actually eaten anything at all.

This is known as habituation. As we eat more, after a point our appetite reduces otherwise we’d keep on eating. It’s amazingly that the same thing seems to happen when we just imagine eating.

So if a person actually imagines the full process of eating – i.e., repetitively chewing and swallowing the food – it produces a similar effect in the brain to actually eating the food.

To the brain, the difference between real and imaginary is a thin line. In fact, in the words of Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who led the study, “The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

It might be that we can imagine eating a meal, bite for bite, before we eat and then find that we don’t feel like eating as much and therefore weight loss is a natural side-effect. However, the research is still in its infancy and there is no data yet on whether imagining eating affects any of the body’s other systems, like blood sugar, for instance, or even whether it causes us to eat so much less that the body lacks the nutrition it needs.

There’s a lot of as yet unanswered questions so I’d caution against imagining eating a meal before eating without first speaking to your doctor. I think that’s just being sensible. If in doubt, show her or him this article.

But it certainly does show us another powerful use of the mind. It’s certainly something to think about…or imagine.

 

Visualizing the Perfect Performance

Andy Murray wins US Open

Now that the Olympics and the Paralympics are over, I wanted to write a short piece on how the mind can improve athletic performance.

Setting aside mental strength, which was clearly demonstrated by Andy Murray when he won the US Open Tennis the other day (I’m writing these words the following morning after having stayed up to 2am to watch the game), visualization – or mental imagery as some call it – can have a huge impact on performance.

The technique is to imagine yourself running the perfect race, or hitting the ball perfectly, or jumping or throwing perfectly. And the key is to do it not just once, but over and over and over again.

I’m forever telling people that thoughts are not impotent. I think we grow up believing that thoughts are just inert, floaty things that once we have them they just disappear into the ether. Not so! Every thought alters brain chemistry. The same kind of thought repeated often actually shapes brain structure and has a chemical impact around the body.

Studies into brain plasticity, for instance, show us that imagining something over and over again is just as good a actually doing it. Harvard researchers had volunteers play piano notes each day for 5 consecutive days. They were compared to volunteers who imagined playing the notes. After the five days, there were significant brain changes in the brains of both groups. The brain had grown millions of new connections in both those who had actually played the notes and those who just imagined it. If you mixed up the brain images, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. Indeed, in many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.

And the effect extends throughout the body. Visualizing moving a muscle actually impacts that muscle as well as the brain region linked to it. One study saw volunteers gain 53% strength by moving their little finger for 15 minutes a day. Other volunteers imagined moving their fingers instead. They gained 35% strength. OK, it wasn’t 53% but, hey, they didn’t even lift a finger to gain their 35% strength. Who needs the gym? 🙂

The technique has now helped stroke patients, those with spinal cord injuries, and even people with Parkinson’s disease.

Most top sports performers use visualization. After breaking the 100 metres world record with a time of 9.58 seconds, Usain Bolt was quoted as saying, “I just visualized and then executed my plan.”

My first attempt at visualization was in 1996, a few months before I joined Sale Harriers Athletics Club in Manchester as an amateur athlete. I spent a few months listening to a visualization tape 3 times a week. At the same time I’d started training down the track on my own. After impressing the head of the club, I was invited to join as a long-jumper. When I did my first competition for the club a few weeks later, I increased my PB (personal best) by over half a metre – at the time, increasing from 5.94 metres to 6.66 metres. I was hooked on visualization after that.

I turned team manager and coach a few seasons after that and helped many athletes to be the best they could be and win medals at National Junior League level.

A few years later, after I’d left athletics, I decided to alter my visualization strategy. I was using a hilly circuit of around 1k to train to keep fit and would run it 4 times with a 3 minute recovery in between each. I’d never tried visualization for training before and had an idea to visualise increasing my stride length. My mental strategy was to imagine being inside my muscles and feeling them stretch massively and effortlessly, as if I was an Olympic gymnast. As I did that, I imagined a longer stride that was effortless. My average lap time in that session went from 4 min 30 to 4 min 10, and it felt much easier than my previous sessions. At the end, I felt I could have run another 2 or 3 laps. For me, flexibility was clearly a big thing.

Visualization can be used to increase strength, flexibility, mental strength, calmness, or technical ability.

So how to do you actually visualize?

Here’s the steps:

1. Sit or lie down, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do this for about 1 minute.

2. Imagine yourself doing your thing – running, jumping, hitting a ball, etc. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing this. You can do it over and over again over the time period if you wish. See yourself doing it perfectly, gracefully.

Some people find it easier to see themselves in the 3rd person (looking at themselves), others in the 1st person (seeing through their own eyes). Use whichever technique is easier for you. Some research suggests that 1st person visualization is slightly better, but the jury is out on that one. You could try both techniques and eventually work with the one that brings you best results.

3. After 5-10 minutes or more, bring your attention back to your breathing and then open your eyes.

 

How often?

It depends upon how serious you are about your event. I’d recommend you do it every day as the neuroscience research shows that repetition is the best formula.

Your mind is a powerful tool. Don’t underestimate it!!

 

How to switch on a light with your mind

chemicals in headCan you imagine being able to switch on a light with your mind? Or adjust the volume on the TV by just thinking about it? Or even drive your car by imagining yourself driving? These things sound like they’re straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, but in reality we’re not actually that far from it.

It is well known that brainwaves change depending upon what we’re thinking about and that brain areas are specifically activated when we focus our minds on different parts of our bodies. This means that if a person imagines moving a finger then we get activation in the finger area of the brain, but if they imagine moving a toe then there’s activation in the toe area instead.

What if scientists could record the brain activation and channel the activation signals into a computer. And what if the computer was programmed to link each different signal to different things around the household, like lights, TV’s, and other appliances? A finger command could turn on the light, a toe command could adjust the TV volume. A ‘nose’ command might even boil the kettle.

The reality is that we’re almost there with the technology. In pioneering research published in the scientific journal, ‘Nature’, in 2006 a tetraplegic person had a tiny chip inserted in his brain (known as a BCI – Brain-Computer Interface) that recorded activation of specific brain areas associated with simple imagined movements. He was able to move a cursor on a computer screen and even open an e-mail with his mind.

And not only that, he played a computer game, controlled a robotic arm, and adjusted not only the volume of the TV but changed the channel as well, all by thought.

I have personally played a ‘heart’ game created by the Institute of Heartmath that uses heart rhythms to move computer images. After some practice, I was able to adjust the height of a hot air balloon on a computer screen by altering my heart rhythms through relaxed breathing.

Using a BCI, Researchers from Graz University in Austria even helped a paralysed person control a character in a virtual reality simulator by thought alone. The research paper they published was called, ‘Walking from Thought’ as the person could make the character walk down a street simply by imagining himself walking. The next logical step in the research is to create prosthetic devices that move just as arms and legs do – according to intentions.

And more recently this kind of brain technology is being experimentally adapted to see if it can give the scientist Stephen Hawking the ability to communicate. He has been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (motor neurone disease) and has greatly outlived the predictions of doctors who, when he was diagnosed at 21 years of age, predicted he would only live a few years. He celebrated his 70th birthday in January of this year.

Up until now he has been able to create vocal commands on a computer by making tiny, controlled twitches of a muscle in his cheek. But he is now losing the use of that muscle and with it the ability to communicate.

Professor Hawking has been working with neuroscientist Philip Low, CEO of NeuroVigil, based in San Diego, who is adapting a piece of technology called ‘iBrain’ (a BCI device) to record brain waves that are associated with some of Prof Hawking’s thoughts. The data can then be fed into a voice synthesizer to recreate the words. If it works out it will be a massive breakthrough.

So perhaps it might not be so long before we’re able to do a lot of things around the house and at work just by thinking about them. Imagine being able to activate cleaning programs in your house just by thinking about cleaning (oh, the joy), and selecting musical tracks to play just by singing a few notes in your head, or even selecting a movie to watch by just recalling a single scene.

I’m so excited….getting a bit ahead of myself. 🙂

 

References:

For the research where the person opened an e-mail with his mind, see: L. R. Hochberg, et al, ‘Neuronal ensemble control of prosthetic devices by a human with tetraplegia’, Nature, 2006, 442, 164-171

For the ‘Walking from Thought’ research, see: G. Pfurtscheller, et al, ‘Walking from thought’, Brain Research, 2006, 1071(1), 145-152.

For more information on BCI’s, see chapter 6 of David R. Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, (Hay House, 2008)

For more info on how different brain areas are activated depending on where we put our attention, see chapter 6 of David R. Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, (Hay House, 2008)