Visualisation – It’s like weight-lifting for the brain

The benefits of visualisation and how this popular mental rehearsal builds confidence and reduces stress ⎮2 min read
Published in Neuroscience
Visualisation – It’s like weight-lifting for the brain

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If you have ever used virtual reality (VR) technology, you will likely have experienced that disconnect between what you know to be true and the virtual encounter of your senses. For example, you may be cognisant that you are standing in a lounge room wearing VR goggles and playing a game, however, if you receive realistic visual information indicating that you are about to fall off a cliff, you may experience intense fear responses such as high heart rate, rapid blood pressure and hyperventilation. It can be unnerving to experience your body react involuntarily to a fictious creation, but this example can help us understand the power of visualisation.

Visualisation, also known as ‘mental imagery’ or ‘mental rehearsal,’ is a process whereby a person creates a realistic, multi-sensory experience of executing a performance or skill in their minds-eye. It’s been likened to watching a movie of your ultimate performance; however, some athletes describe the experience as more similar to being the director and lead actor in the movie. In sports, visualisation is a well-used training and preparation strategy that can assist athletes with developing and honing skills, building confidence and reducing stress. 

How does it work?

Visualisation is a highly specialised technique, and is used in elite sports and other professional fields that require high skill and accuracy. A 2003 study published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise found that visualisation triggered similar activity in brain regions to those triggered with a physical performance of a task. The brain responds to a vivid mental image in the same way as to a real experience. Visualisation physically changes the brain. Used regularly and effectively, it creates and strengthens neuronal connections and pathways. This process is known as neuroplasticity.

Visualisation is an exciting and powerful tool. In a school-based setting, students can utilise this technique to learn new skills, increase motivation, improve skills and increase confidence in activities such as public speaking, music performances, sports, interviews and even taking exams.

Tips for using visualisation effectively include:

  • Conduct visualisation when in a relaxed state
  • Endeavor to make the experience as vivid as possible by engaging all senses
  • Create your imagery in ‘real’ time, not in fast-forward or slow motion
  • Focus on the process and outcome
  • Focus on imagining the desired skills or techniques
  • Practise regularly to develop the skill and maximise the effectiveness of the process


Brandon, C. and Ivens, C. (2009) Thinking Skills for Peak Performance: Unleash Your Potential.  Macmillan Education, Australia

To conclude, I talk about preparation and the strategies students can implement to maximise their ‘peak performance’ at exam time in Part 4.

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