Can You Imagine Your Way to Success or is that Just New-Age Gobbledegook?
Posted by Trevor on 21 March 2013 | 5 Comments
I had an alarming email today from a reader who said “I don’t want to imagine something good that I can’t actually believe right now will happen.” From Tony Robbins to Brian Tracy to Zig Ziglar you will hear the gurus say that when you believe it you will see it. To that I say “gobbledegook.” Actually, I use other words but will leave them to your imagination. You don’t need to believe in anything, whether good or bad, to alter the outcomes of your experiences because life is a physical process that follows physical laws.
I know very little about basketball. I did watch the Minnesota Timberwolves a few times when I lived in Minneapolis, so you could argue that I know less than little about the game. A well-documented study, however, conducted by Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago was done where he split people into three groups and tested each group on how many free throws they could make.
Group One practiced foul shots each day for thirty days. Group Two was instructed to “imagine” shooting foul shots each day for thirty days. Group Three was instructed to do nothing. When tested, Group Three showed no change in their success rate, which is hardly surprising because they did not practice. Group One, and Two showed an equal improvement in success of 24%.
Why? Physical practice of mechanical arm and leg movements is known to improve athletic performance, although if you were to watch some of my soccer team performances lately you might challenge that premise. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we play, sometimes we just… well, suck. Generally, however, the more we practice a movement or play, the more motor cortex gets dedicated to the neural pathway that controls it, and soon hitting successful shots becomes second nature. We get “into the zone,” when we just know we will make the shot. Group One’s success is easy to explain.
The Group Two result has mystified scientists for years, but we now have scientific proof (see Three Simple Steps) that the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Simply by imagining making free throws (which by nature means never missing a shot made in the mind’s eye) physical performance improves.
So if we can improve physical performance by imagination can we really improve other aspects of our lives simply by imagining better outcomes? Or is that just fanciful new-age nonsense?
Everything we do in life is associated with specific neural pathways among the 100 billion neurons in the brain. We now know that the brain behaves more like a muscle than previously thought, and the more a neural path is “lit up,” the more it craves to be lit again. That is why we see patterns of success breeding success and failure followed by a cascade of issues.
Successful people tend to exude confidence, positive outlooks, and physical mannerisms that reflect their can-do persona. That is because the neural pathways that control their simple body language have been regularly lit up. They stand straighter, move faster, speak and write well. They were not born that way, they simply became like that because of neuron exposure to beneficial habits. In the same way, people who have failed a lot tend to stoop more, be clumsy and accident prone, and their speech and body language reflect their sense of self-esteem. That is not their fault, but a neural pathway.
To change from one neural pathway to the other we have the same choices as the basketball test groups. We can do nothing in which case our lives will pretty much remain in whatever pattern they are in. Like Group One, we can practice different outcomes by deliberately exposing ourselves to different stimuli. If we are in the clumsy group and crave for confidence, we might read lots of self help books and attend seminars. If we are successful we might start to offer a helping hand to those less successful, and in doing so (without the mentality shield in place) expose the brain to a cascade of failures. Both reversions are common. To keep with the sporting topic, it is common for a great player to join a mediocre team and pretty soon become a mediocre player. A great player rarely is able to raise the overall team performance. From experience of soccer I know that whenever I joined a team that played at a higher level than I thought I was at, I improved as a player. When it happened in reverse, I became as sloppy and error prone as those around me.
Alternatively, like Group Two we can simply spend time imagining success as already happened, as with imagining successful free throws. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between real and imagined we have the ability to build new neural pathways, even when the actual real-world experience is lacking. Using our imagination, we can light up different neurons by imagining new information. If shy, we imagine ourselves as the soul of the party. The new neural paths will cause us to alter body language, speak and behave more confidently, and eventually we start getting invited back to parties. If lonely, we imagine ourselves walking hand-in-hand with the perfect partner, laughing at each other’s jokes. The new neural paths stop us looking awkward and unattractive. If stuck in an unfulfilling job, we imagine ourselves leaping out of bed in the morning, excited by the great adventurous workday ahead. Our new attitude in the workplace attracts attention and opens doors we didn’t even know existed.
In any aspect of life all we have to do is imagine what we want and our bodies and minds will respond in a manner that starts to attract it. It is a physical process, and nothing mystical at all, and the beauty is that you don’t have to believe in any of it. You just do it and see what happens.