As long ago as the 1930’s psychologist Edmund Jacobson demonstrated that if you visualise yourself performing some action, such as lifting a weight with your right arm, the muscles in that arm show increased electrical activity. Other researchers have found that picturing something travelling across your field of vision, such as a running animal, results in more eye muscle activity than imagining the same animal stationary.
At the University of Lowell in Massachusetts, cognitive psychologist Robert Kunzendorf measured electrical patterns produced in the retinas of twenty volunteers, five of whom were capable of producing extremely vivid mental imagery. First he asked each to look at different coloured lights being flashed before them and found that, for example, red produced one pattern, green another and yellow a third. When he next asked the five skilled visualisers merely to imagine those same lights flashing he found exactly the same electrical patterns were produced. More remarkably still, when he flashed one colour – say red – onto the screen, but told them to imagine it was another colour – for instance green – they regularly reported seeing that other colour. What’s more in a quarter of the cases their eyes responded as if they were actually seeing that different colour!
Visualisations in Medical Practice
The power of the imagination to help heal the body is well documented. One of the first medical practitioners to exploit visualisations for the benefit of his cancer patients was Dallas radiation oncologist O. Carl Simonton.
He used a combination of relaxation and vivid mind movies, in which terminal patients pictured themselves attacking tumour, for instance by imagining their white blood cells as white knights triumphing over the dark forces represented by cancerous cells. In many cases the tumours reduced in size and in some there was a complete remission of the disease.
Other studies have shown that appropriate imagery can strengthen our immune system and play a beneficial role in overcoming a wide range of health difficulties, including asthma, depression, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction. But bear in mind that the power of the imagination can be used to harm as well and enhance physical performance. Negative, gloom-filled, images of failure will undermine your chances of success just as surely as positive mental imagery can improve it.
A dramatic instance of a negative sensualisation’s lethal power is described by Denis Waitley in his book Empires of the Mind. It involved a railway worker named Nick, a young man with a vivid imagination, who was accidentally locked inside an isolated refrigerated boxcar in the freight yard. Because all his fellow workers had left early to celebrate the foreman’s birthday, no one witnessed the accident or heard his ever more desperate cries for help. Finally Nick slumped on the floor in despair.
While there was plenty of fresh air in the car, he could already feel the cold seeping into his bones. Into his mind came vivid images of his body getting colder and colder.
He began to tremble violently as the zero temperature started to gnaw at his bones, seeing ice form around his blue lips and on his eye-lids. Feeling himself coming weaker and weaker to the point of death.
One of his last acts was to find a piece of cardboard and scrawl a final, poignant, message to his wife and family. “So cold, body’s getting numb,” he wrote piteously. “If I could just go to sleep. These may be my last words.”
The next morning when help arrived it was too late. The fit young man was lying dead on the boxcar floor, his final message beside him. An autopsy showed every physical sign that he had frozen to death.
But what makes his story truly remarkable and tragic is that the refrigeration unit was faulty and the temperature inside the boxcar had never fallen below 61degrees Fahrenheit. The young man had simply sensualised himself to death! He had felt intense cold when no such plunge in temperature had occurred. He saw himself becoming weaker and weaker as non-existent hypothermia apparently drained the warmth and life from his body. He heard his breathing becoming slower and more laboured. Though all these sensations occurred only in his mind they proved powerful enough to kill him!
Turning Your Fingers into a Ring of Steel
You can demonstrate for yourself the way in which the mind can affect your body by means of this simple experiment. For this you will need the assistance of someone whose physical strength more or less approximates to your own. Here’s what you do.
Form a circle using your thumb and first finger of your right hand.
Now ask a friend to try and break the circle apart using a finger from each of their hands.
Chances are that, unless that person is much weaker than you are, they’ll have little or no difficulty in doing to.
Now imagine a steel ring inside the circle formed by your finger and thumb. Not only should you attempt to see this as vividly as possible, for instance by picturing the light glinting off the shiny surface of the steel, but also to feel it pressing against your skin. Notice the coldness and hardness of the metal and the pressure your muscles are exerting on it.
Once again invite your friend to try and break the circle part pulling your fingers apart.
On this occasion, unless they are significantly stronger than you are the challenge is likely to prove beyond them.
The Importance of Sensualisation Rehearsals
Sensualisations provide a unique training ground in which to rehearse any new behaviours that might be difficult or embarrassing, to practice in real life. As author Frank Barron commented in his book A Source Book for Creative Thinking: “The sorcery and charm of imagination and the power it gives the individual to transform his world into a new world of order and delight, makes it one of the most treasured of all human capacities.”
The advantage of exploiting the unlimited freedom the theatre of your mind provides is that it becomes easily possible to develop as many different versions of any situation as you wish.
By doing so, you can then to compare likely outcomes to the various approaches you might decide to take and the different responses you might want to make. Imagining yourself carrying out some activity as you would ideally wish to do it makes it far easier to perform with the same degree of excellence in real life (See also my article Sensualisation in Sport, available as a FREE download).
Using Sensualisations in Your Everyday Life
Sensualisations can be used to enhance your performance in any activity where you feel you are not currently achieving all you are capable of achieving, from making friends to making love; passing driving tests to coming over well in job or promotion interviews. You can use them to set and clarify your key goals, increase motivation, improve concentration, focus your energy and attention more accurately, boost self-confidence when confronting fresh challenges, reduce stress, improve your public speaking; cope with aggressive confrontations, improve physical and mental well-being and bring performance zapping anxiety under control.
Your Emotional Brain Doesn’t Understand English!
A further essential point to keep in mind is that, while our emotional brain which is where memories are laid down – cannot understand instructions in the form of words it is powerfully affected by more basic and primitive forms of communications, such as images, smells, sounds and bodily sensations.
In her thought provoking book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain American psychologist and art teacher Betty Edwards asks why it is that a majority of adults seem to have a drawing ability rather worse than that of most twelve-year- olds! The answer she proposes is not that adults lack either a child’s hand-eye co- ordination or their mechanical dexterity. Rather, she claims, it is because while growing up we gradually loose our ability to “see”. By this she means that visual perception changes from being a largely right brain process to one occurring more often in the logical left hemisphere of the brain. As a result the intuitive, and creative experiences of childhood where the right hemisphere is in the ascendancy give way to rigorous analysis. This results in a sort of “sighted blindness” in which we see without actually seeing and perceive without fully perceiving.
She also offers a simply but insightful way of demonstrating this effect for oneself. All you need to do is take a fairly complicated line drawing and copy it twice. The first time have the original the right way around but on the second occasion turn it upside down. Unless you have a truly artistic streak, your second copy – made from the inverted drawing – should be a significant improvement on the first. Try it and see for yourself!
Why does this happen?
Her explanation, which seems entirely reasonable, is that when the drawing is the right way up the left hemisphere takes command of the task and imposes a logic on the drawing that prevents you from actually seeing what is in front of your eyes! When, however, the picture is upside down the left hemisphere abandons the attempt to make logical sense of it and surrenders control to the right side of the brain. Once the right hemisphere takes charge, you are able to see the image more clearly and so reproduce it more accurately.
Why Sensualisations Prove So Powerful
Recent research has shown the widely held and seemingly common sense view that we have five separate senses – hearing, seeing, taste, touch and smell – is fundamentally flawed. A series of experiments conducted at Harvard University by Alvaro Pascual-Leone has revealed the presence of what are called “multisensory” neurons, that is nerve cells which respond not just to one sort of stimulation – such as light or sound – but to a great many.
This has given rise to a belief that far from having centres in the brain dedicated to, say, vision or smell, each of these centres is capable of responding to all forms of incoming information even though they may tend to favour just one of them.
To test this remarkable theory Pascual-Leone blindfolded sighted volunteers and taught them, over a five-day period, to read Braille. As they were engaged on these, and other “touch” sensitive tasks he carried out scans to see what parts of their brain was most active. After five days of training he discovered that the visual centres at the back of the brain, which had previously shown no response to tasks unconnected with sight became switched on during touching and hearing.
In other words the nerve cells in the visual centres, no longer being needed to process images, were being called upon to help out other parts of the brain.
From this, says Professor Pascual-Leone, we can assume that: “Tactile and
auditory input into the ‘visual cortex’ is present in all of us and can be unmasked if behaviourally desirable.” (Nature, Vol. 401. page 587)
When we simply visualise an activity, therefore, we stimulate chiefly those areas of the brain specialised for seeing – which mainly comprises the occipital regions at the back of the head. During a Sensualisation, by contrast, many more parts of the brain are stimulated so producing not merely a far more intense construction or reconstruction of an actual event but also one that will exert a far stronger influence over both the conscious mind and the emotion driven limbic system.
Part of the value of Sensualisations is not just that they can help liberate you from performance restricting b-locks ( See the Bo-Tau breathing section of this web- site for further information about these blocks to achievement) but that they help you experience every aspect of the world about you more clearly, vividly and mindfully than you may have done for years. By fine tuning your sensations enabling in this way the transform even the most ordinary and mundane of surroundings into richly rewarding sensory experiences.
- Sensualisation is an ability we all, to varying degrees, possess and which can be perfected through practice.
- Images work powerfully not only on our ideas and emotions, but can also effect the way we respond physically as well.
- Sensualising a particular activity results in the same electrical impulses being sent to the muscles involved as would happen were that action really occurring.
- The language of the limbic system in which b-locks arise also involves images as well as other basic sensory responses such as smell, touch and taste.
- By using all five senses to create or recreate a situation in which you are currently having difficulties it becomes far easier to eliminate these barriers to performance.
- The starting point is to focus more closely and intently on just one sensory element – such as sights or sounds – in the world around you.
- Begin with the one that comes most easily, for many this is the visual sense, before moving to all the remainder in turn.