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There is some evidence that visualization works, at least under some circumstances. In other words, if you imagine something, then you might well be able to attempt it.

I apologize that I don’t have enough time to give a fuller account, with evidence, but here are some musings that might be productive for those who wish to dig deeper.

Visualizing an event can cause neural stimulation that in some circumstances has been shown to correlate with the neural pattern of actually undertaking the event for real.

By now, there is the oft-repeated example of visualizing free-throws in basketball and numerous other accounts of sports-related successes attributed to mental rehearsal.

This is like “muscle memory” in piano playing – i.e. rehearsing something often enough makes it “second nature”. Actually, it’s even more potent because there is evidence that mentally rehearsing a piano study will accelerate competence in that study (versus only practice). Of course, this is not a substitute for practice, but that is not the subject of enquiry here.

At a very simple level, it seems plausible that without imagining a certain future, we cannot expect to arrive there. With a sample size of one, I know that I used to dream about being an engineer in Silicon Valley. Somehow, I ended up doing just that.

I had the privilege to hang around in an electronics workshop when very young. I had no idea of what all the components were, nor how they worked, yet I never failed to play with them in the imaginary role of inventor.

Given that we know how conscious thoughts emerge by “bubbling up” from an inaccessible well of subconscious ones, it stands to reason that activating certain subconscious patterns (e.g. via visualization) could increase in some way the chances that our conscious thoughts align with the buried vision.

I intend to research more concrete data about this, but my hunch is that for visualization to work, assuming it is based upon the mind’s neurons firing in sympathy with the actual action we imagine taking, we probably need to be quite detailed and specific with our visualizations.

For example, the Russian chess player in this article seemed to be rehearsing actual games versus merely thinking about the idea of playing chess. Such moves, forgive the pun, have been widely reported by chess masters.

I have found myself that when imagining certain ideas, it pays to force myself to think about the real details versus the more abstract concepts. I have no evidence that this works, but there are reasons to think that it might based upon what creative thinking might actually be (let’s say based on some kind of Chomskian view of creative use of language).

Therefore, if we want to imagine ourselves building a business empire, say, then we should probably rehearse specific steps that might get us there rather than invoking a feeling of what it would be like to be there (or, perhaps, not “here”).

I think this is where a lot of folks go awry. I have met many people who say they want to be an X (artist, entrepreneur, whatever) but never seem to take any steps. Perhaps their problem is that they spend too much time imagining the general sense (i.e. the emotions) of the final destination instead of the more concrete tiny steps required to get there.

And one thing we do know about mental rehearsal being useful is that it seems to work when we rehearse actions that require mental activation of our motor skills.

This might suggest that a better visualization strategy is to be even more specific about imagining these concrete tiny steps very literally as the actual (physical) steps we might take to undertake a task. After all, lest we forget, all actions that we take to do real work ultimately involve some kind of motor action (or set of physical circumstances).

So, perhaps we imagine ourselves getting on a specific train to a specific destination and walking into a specific office and confidently shaking the hand of a specific someone whom we think might be, say, a co-founder of a company. Visualizing such actions might be far more useful than thinking more abstractly about whether or not he or she will like me or how well my pitch is going to come across, and so on, even if that leads us to construct a better pitch. (Again, visualizing is no substitute for actual work.)

I used this technique when I landed my first job as a chip designer. I had read that cognitive bias causes interviewers to make their mind up very early on, based upon first impressions, and then proceed to rationalize their decision post-hoc. Before attending the interview I sat in the car for nearly an hour whilst rehearsing the hand-shaking, eye contact and smile (based upon certain body-language theories) at the expense of rehearsing technical questions (or, in those days, “where do you see yourself in X years” questions).

Returning to the various studies, like free-throwing of basketballs, the data shows some evidence of performance improvement, but not much. Therefore, we might be tempted to be dismissive of the marginal gains and conclude that visualization isn’t all that useful.

However, it’s important to consider the usefulness of marginal in these various experiments versus the potentially massive gains in taking steps towards a certain destiny that we desire for ourselves.

In the case of using visualization to, let’s say, increase one’s chances of pursuing a certain course of action, like becoming an entrepreneur, any method that gives even a small percentage advantage is worth pursuing.

This is especially so when taking into account the nature of the problem. Often what the visualizer is battling against is lack of action in the first place, rather than lack of performance per se.

There are many means to increase performance given a certain action, but almost no means to increase performance given no action. So any technique that gives even a slight nudge in action is worth it.

Also, and this is a whole other subject, the nature of “owning” our destinies is essentially a creativity problem in the sense of having to solve problems defined by various constraints, such as a lack of experience. Axiomatically, creativity has to involve unpredictability (of overcoming constraints in various forms) otherwise there is no creativity.

And the only solution to unpredictability is to test what happens when breaking the particular constraint that gives rise to the unpredictability. Otherwise we are not being creative.

In such circumstances, the value of testing ourselves (against a particular constraint) cannot be underestimated and so if visualization helps us to take even the tiniest of steps, versus none, the payoff could be far greater than we expect.

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