How to improve your visualisation skills
Hypnosis relies heavily on visualisation. Visualisation is the formation of a mental image of something. In the context of a hypnotherapy session, you might visualise yourself giving a confident presentation or responding calmly when you have an injection.
Everyone has the ability to form a representation of an object or place, for example, in their mind, but the capacity with which they can do it varies massively from one person to the next. Cumming and Williams (2012) suggest that imagery consists of a collection of skills that can be improved with practice and experience. That’s good news!
I have lost count of the times a client has said to me that they don’t have a very good imagination or struggles to visualise things. In this post, I’m going to share with you what I suggest to my clients about how to develop your ability at visualisation so that you can benefit more from your self-hypnosis practice and hypnosis generally.
The first three exercises help to develop your initial formation of images in your mind whereas the latter three help to build on the image, giving you more control over it and building the level of detail.
Recalling a memory. Using your own experiences can be helpful in developing your visualisation skills. Think about something that happened to you recently that was nice. Bring it to mind and play the memory out in your mind. Try to remember as many details about the experience as you possibly can.
Start with an outline and colour it in. If you were trying to imagine a red door, for example, pretend you have a pen and are drawing around the outline of the door repeatedly to form its shape. Always start the pen in the same place. You should start to get an image of a rectangle. Then imagine colouring that shape in with a red pen or pencil. You can go over the colouring a few times if you wish to build it up. You should start to get a rough image of a red door now. You can leave it there or you can try adding on the detail such as a door handle or hinges in a similar way or imagine sticking them on like you might stick a carrot on a snowman for a nose.
Recalling what you’ve seen in reality. Spend some time during the day looking at an object, for example, a mug. Notice everything that you can about the mug - it’s colour, shape, does it have an image or writing on it? Notice the shadows and reflections of light on it. Then close your eyes and remember everything about that cup. If you need to, you can open your eyes, look at it again, then close them and keep going through this process to build up the image in your mind.
Describe what you see in words. When you are imagining something, describe in words what you can see. You do not have to do this out loud, in your head is fine. You might say something to yourself such as “I can see a tree”, “There’s a cat over there”, or “I can see the waves lapping against the shore”.
Use a mantra. You might say to yourself “focus on the door”, for example, if you are imagining a door to keep your focus in place. Or if you are imagining a more comprehensive scene, such as an image of you when you are feeling calmer, you might say to yourself “focus on calm me” or “focus on future me”, for example.
Bring in other senses. Up until now, I’ve been focusing on what you can see. Sometimes it can be easier to bring to mind the feelings that you might have in a scenario, or how an object might feel to touch it, or how your body would respond as you opened a door or walked down some stairs. For others, it might be easier to imagine smells or sounds.
One field that has spent a lot of time researching visualisation is sports psychology as mental imagery is used widely by many sports people to help improve their performance. Out of this research, layered stimulus-response training (LSRT) has been formulated as a way of effectively developing someone’s ability at mental imagery. As you will see, it makes use of some of the things I’ve already mentioned above.
LSRT is a process that has been developed to help people generate and control their imagery experience. It makes use of layering which makes it easier to generate the image in the first place but also helps to progressively add more detail to the image in order to make it clearer and more vivid.
Within the studies, participants were asked to think of a recent experience so that they could easily recall it from their memory, so I am going to use the example of me recalling a meal out with friends to illustrate the process used within LSRT.
Firstly I would describe the situation in as much detail as possible. In the studies, participants spoke out loud as the process was being facilitated by the researcher but you can either say the words out loud, say them to yourself in your mind, or even write them down, whichever you’d prefer. Then with my eyes closed, I would imagine the meal with my friends. Afterwards, I would rate the image’s quality and clearness on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is no image at all and 5 is a clear image. Then I would reflect on what aspects of the image were particularly vivid, clear and easy to imagine and other bits which were not. The studies showed that at this point, it is normally information about your surroundings that is easiest to imagine. Having reflected upon this, I would then imagine the meal with my friends again in the same way, and then develop it by adding an additional layer to it relating to my response to the situation, such as feelings of fullness as the meal progressed, the smells and tastes of the wonderful food, laughter, and the emotions I was experiencing. Then I would spend some time reflecting on my mental imagery like before. Then I would reimagine the meal with my friends in the same way, adding a further layer to it relating to meaning such am I feeling a bit nervous or just excited to see my friends? This cycle of imagining, reflection and development can be continued, adding further layers of detail at a time to make the image richer and more vibrant.
And there you have it, an evidence-based way of developing your visualisation ability. In fact, LSRT has been shown to be a more effective way for improving imagery ability than imagery rehearsal alone (Williams, Cooley, & Cumming, 2013; Cumming et al, 2016).
Cumming, J., & Williams, S. E. (2012). The role of imagery in performance. In S. Murphy (Ed), Handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 213–232). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Cumming, J., Cooley, S. J., Anuar, N., Kosteli, M.-C., Quinton, M. L., Weibull, F., & Williams, S. E. (2016). Developing imagery ability effectively: A guide to layered stimulus-response training. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8(1), 23–33.
Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus-response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 60–71.