Why Does Visualization Not Work For You?

11/22/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the "new age" culture, visualization is a powerful tool that is recommended to bring people to realize their dreams in their lives. In recent reviews, I have also recommended visualization as a tool to help get people to their imagined goals. I have substantiated my view on this in the following ways: (1) Expert athletes use visualization successfully to get to their goals; (2) Visual imagery helps recovery from stroke. While these are tow powerful points of evidence that visualization works, why is it that visualization is so unsuccessful for so many people? Here are a few suggestions.

The first question is: when you visualize, do you visualize in the first person or in the third person? For example, when you imagine reaching your goal, do you see yourself in your goal or do you feel yourself reaching for your goal? When you see yourself reaching for your goal, you are not in the experience of yourself. As a result, the power of the image is not as great as when you only feel yourself reaching for your goal. In fact, some research has shown that imagining in the first person is in fact more powerful in generating movement toward a goal than imagining in the third person.

Here is an example. If your goal is a door, then imagine first, yourself walking toward that door. That is a good start and a way to start the visualization process. However, there is a step beyond this. For the second stage, imagine yourself being in the situation of reaching for the door, but feel yourself in the situation and see only the door toward which you are walking. This second visualization is a more effective one. It is this, which must be practiced if you are to engage your "action brain" in the process of taking you toward your goal.

The second factor that can enhance your visualization process is to feed the information to your brain in digestible fragments. The navigator in your brain is the posterior parietal cortex. This part of your brain takes in information from your short-term memory and builds a navigation plan for action. If you fill your short-term memory with too much "stuff", it will not retain it. Also, if you give your navigator too much information, it will "freak out". That is, your brain operates so that even your visualization needs to be given to it in a way that it can digest it and use this information to guide you toward your goal. In the example of the door, if the door is one minute away, this is easy. However, if it is around six corners and then at the end of a tunnel, your brain may not be able to handle all f the information at once. Break the visualization into parts.

Your actual path may not be in stages, but your brain sometimes needs information in stages so that it can take this information in accurately and make the necessary plans for action. A frequent example is that people will "visualize" having a certain amount of money and never get it. The goal of the money is important. But it is also important to believe in a process that can get you there. While you don't have to imagine the entire process in your conscious brain, knowing that you can think of ways to get there orients the brain toward your goal rather than away from it.

Remember that when you imagine an action or a mechanism, your brain activates as though you are already doing this. This brain activation is helpful to the brain's navigator when it has to come up with an action plan.

In summary then, visualization works better when you imagine powerfully in the first person and when you give your brain digestible bits of information t get to its goal. Try this out, and see how the power of visualization is biological process that cooperates with you action brain to get you to where you are.

There are many more factors that can strengthen your visualization. To find out more about this, visit

If you are interested in understanding applications of brain science to personal or professional career or other changes, you may consider the workshop: The Neuroscience of Change and Transformation: Executive Coaching Tools for Embracing a New Era (