I like to think that the work I do sits at the intersection of spiritual and scientific.
One of the tools I’ve been drawing on lately is visualization, and it’s a perfect example of how a practice that has long roots and deep meaning as a spiritual practice is now being validated as advances in brain imagining give us some insight into how and why it works.
Humans have used visualizations in many religions, across the whole span of human history, as a way to connect with a greater cosmic energy, whether that was a particular deity or the flow of the universe. Through visualization, people consciously worked to raise their own energy to match that of the universal life-force, and it empowered them by allowing them to imagine how life could look when they were living as their most elevated selves.
More recently, though, people have started to use visualization to help them reach their personal goals and achieve success. The fact that high-achieving professionals in lots of different fields are tapping into visualization is enough to at least make you curious, right?
And we’re talking about big-name people who have accomplished incredible things—professional athletes like Michael Phelps and Lebron, actors like Jim Carrey and Idris Elba, wildly successful entrepreneurs like Sara Blakey of Spanx, and even global leaders like Bill Gates and Oprah have all talked about how visualization has helped them excel in their vastly different fields.
And research has shown that visualization can lead to some pretty amazing outcomes for all of us regular folks too. Visualization practices have been linked to
So if you’ve been hesitant to try it because it feels a bit woo, now is a great time to reconsider.
“Okay,” you may be thinking, “but how does it work?”
You know I’m the last person to tell you that you can just picture yourself as a billionaire and then watch the money start rolling in, so I was really curious about the science behind all of these findings.
We’re so lucky to be living in a time when the incredible advancements in brain imaging give us the ability to see, and begin to understand, what happens—on a chemical and a physical level—when we practice visualization, and let me tell you, the science is pretty incredible! Neuroscience shows us that it’s a combination of the hormones our brain releases and the parts of our brain that are activated when we imagine the possibilities.
You ready for a little neuroscience nerding? Let’s go!
When we visualize, the area of our brain known as the RAS (reticular activating system) starts to light up like crazy. Our RAS does a lot of important work, but we’re going to focus on two main things here. First, the RAS processes almost all of our senses (except for our sense of smell). Second, it serves as a connection point between our conscious and subconscious mind. Our RAS is responsible for taking all of the billions of pieces of sensory data we encounter every second and filtering out the vast majority.
Wait, what? But why? Why would our brain want to just throw out good data?
Well, just sit for a second and try to process every sound you can hear right now. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones—your dog snoring in his bed, your air conditioner whirring, the construction noise from across the street.
I’m talking about everything. The sound of your heart pumping. The sound of your joints creaking. The sound of your stomach digesting your breakfast. The sound of lightbulbs buzzing. The sound of water moving in the pipes behind your wall.
And even that is only a fraction of the sensory input you’re exposed to every single second. If your brain had no way to filter that data, it would be completely overwhelmed.
Your RAS plays its part by making sure you consciously notice things that are important or helpful to you.
Here’s an example most of us can probably relate to…
You’re at a big party. There are dozens of people, so there are lots of conversations happening all at once. A friend is telling you a story, and you’re truly listening to what they have to say.
And then suddenly you hear your name, and you immediately know someone about 5 feet away is talking about you.
Maybe they’re telling a funny story, or maybe they’re gossiping, but your brain is instantly pulled to what you can catch from that conversation.
It’s not that they’ve called over to you. And they’re not speaking any louder than anyone else in the room. In fact, their voice sounds way quieter than your friend speaking right across from you. But as soon as they said your name, your brain lit up.
That’s because your RAS knows the sound of your own name is really important to you. So no matter how much other noise is swirling around you, no matter how many other sounds need to be filtered out to listen to your friend’s story, the second someone says your name, your RAS immediately catches it and brings it to your conscious attention.
You might’ve noticed this in lots of other areas of your life too.
If you’re a parent, you know that no matter how many other kids are screaming at the playground, the second your kid starts to cry, you automatically know it’s them, even if you can’t see them. Your RAS knows the exact sound of that cry is incredibly important to you and will filter everything else out to make sure you hear it.
If you’ve ever been in a busy restaurant and suddenly notice your favorite song playing—even though it’s whisper-quiet and you couldn’t name a single other song that had been played all night—that’s your RAS too.
Your RAS is the reason that the day you decide you want to buy a white Jeep Wrangler, you suddenly start seeing white Jeep Wrangler’s on every corner.
How is that possible?
Because our RAS takes direction like an absolute champion.
There aren’t suddenly more white Jeeps out on the road. There aren’t suddenly fewer blue Camrys and gold Yukons and black Atlases.
It’s that when you set an intention—“I’m going to buy a white Jeep Wrangler”—your RAS takes in that information and will do whatever it can to help you find one. It will weed out all of the other irrelevant cars, but it will make sure you notice every single white Wrangler on the street.
Okay, but what does all of that have to do with visualization? I’m glad you asked!
Here’s why I can nerd out over brain science all day long—because when you understand how your brain works, you can figure out how reprogram it to work for you.
When we practice visualization, we’re training our RAS. We’re programming by telling it what our goals are and how we hope things will play out. And that RAS of ours is a champ. It will collect up those goals and store them in the Very Important Information file.
And then it will start to home in on any detail it thinks will help us reach that goal.
Let’s say you’ve been thinking about changing careers, which feels a little intimidating and overwhelming. So you find yourself a quiet spot and visualize yourself happily working in that new field, and it feels so great.
Your RAS perks up. This made you really happy, so your RAS has a job to do—filter out all the noise so that you can notice the things you need to reach that goal.
Suddenly you’re seeing job postings everywhere you look. You’re scrolling mindlessly through Instagram, and you notice that your favorite podcaster is going to be interviewing one of the leaders in that new field. You’re listening to NPR on your commute, and there’s an entire piece on some of the most recent developments in that field. You’re chatting with a friend, and they casually mention that their cousin is a career coach.
That really is the magical overlap of spiritual and scientific. When you practiced that visualization, you raised your vibrational energy to match that new reality, and you trained your RAS to look for any opportunities that would move you closer to that goal.
You didn’t need to change anything about the universe; you just needed to align yourself with your highest aspirations and then stay open to making that goal a reality.
I think the biggest thing holding people back from diving into visualization is that people worry they’re doing it wrong.
Well, never fear, my friend! That’s where I come in!
If you want an intro to the technique or want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your visualization practice, stay tuned because I'm dropping a walk-through video later this week! (Subscribe to get notified when it drops.)
Here’s to the spiritual and the scientific and embracing both on this journey!
When you're ready, here are 3 ways I can help…
Stop & Shift: This book will teach you a simple yet powerful technique to help you build your mental strength and rise above life's turbulence.
The Visualization Masterclass: Go beyond just daydreaming about your goals and learn how to connect visualization with tangible results.
Leading With A Growth Mindset: Join over 119,000 other learners inside Leading With A Growth Mindset. This comprehensive course will teach you how to strengthen your greatest asset: your mindset, and create a thriving workplace.