The science behind visualization

Visualization is forming images in your mind to help you accomplish your goals. In theory, it sounds great – you imagine yourself doing something and BAM! You get it done.

But does it really work?

While visualization may seem like new-age hype, there’s plenty of scientific evidence and research that supports its effectiveness.

Your brain on visualization

The brain is a very flexible organ. It’s constantly growing and expanding.

When you learn something new – from riding a bike to speaking Japanese to roasting a chicken – you make an imprint in your brain, i.e., you make a memory. The more often you repeat or practice the task, the stronger the imprint becomes and the easier it is to recall. 

What the brain can’t do, however, is distinguish whether you are physically experiencing something or simply imagining it.

According to the International Coaching Academy’s neuroscience and visualization research paper, “if you exercise an idea over and over [in your mind], your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object in the world.”

The paper continues:

The thalamus [the part of the reality-making process of the brain] makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus, any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality … The concept begins to feel more attainable and real, and this is the first step in motivating other parts of the brain to take deliberate action in the world.

When we visualize an action, the same brain regions are stimulated as when we physically perform an action. Your brain is training for actual performances. Thinking about picking up your left hand is – to your brain – the same exact thing as literally picking up your left hand.

The power of this can be seen in stroke victims. When a person suffers a stroke because of a blood clot in a brain artery, they no longer have blood flow to that region, causing blood tissue to die and paralysis of certain parts of the body.

However, as speaker, psychiatrist, and author of the books Life Unlocked and Your Brain and Business Srinivasan Pillay writes in his Huffington Post column, “imagining moving a limb – even after it has been paralyzed after a stroke – increases brain blood flow enough to diminish the amount of tissue death.”

In other words, stroke victims are able to keep parts of their brain alive through visualization.

There’s also research that shows mental practices are almost as effective as a true physical practice.

A study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared people who went to the gym with people who carried virtual workouts in their heads. The finding, according to Psychology Today, showed a 30 percent muscle strength increase in the physical gym goers. And the virtual gym-goers? The ones who just pictured working out? They saw a muscle strength increase of 13.5 percent. That’s right. Just by thinking about exercising, these individuals became stronger.

This study confirms what athletes have known for decades. Picturing yourself accomplishing your goal is crucial to actually getting it done.

But you don’t need to be an elite to benefit from visualization – there are a plethora of benefits for everyone (just check out our article of the 5 benefits of visualization for everyday runners & athletes).

Ready to get started?

You should approach your mental training the same way you approach your physical training – adding on slowly. The activacuity app is a great place to start as it’s broken up into different segments then goals and programs based on your experience and on where you are in your training.

And, if you want to take it to the next level, for visualization to be most effective, you need to literally see it. Our brain thinks in images. So use the app to get started and then paint a picture, create a Pinterest board, cut out inspiration from magazines, etc. –anything that visually supports your goal.

And as always – let us know how visualization has impacted your life.


  • Read more studies of how visualization helps certain aliments – from anxiety to asthma to cancer – on the Academy for Guided Imagery.