We all know how hard it can be to reach goals: lose those five pounds, quit smoking, get an exercise routine going. Not to speak of finding a new job or giving up destructive habits like drinking or overspending. But it is possible, and with the help of a surprising technique.
It turns out that our thoughts can have a powerful effect on our brains. If we think something to be possible, it may actually happen. This is not just a tool of the new age spiritually inclined, or of those who subscribe to the Laws of Attraction. It has actually been scientifically validated.
Maybe the most compelling experiment happened at the Harvard Medical School, when neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone measured the brain activity of two test groups. One of them learned simple riffs at the piano, that they physically practiced for a week. The test group merely imagined they were practicing simple riffs at the piano. When measuring the brain activity of both groups, they found a stunning result: both test groups were found to have formed new neural pathways, regardless of whether the exercise had happened physically or in their brains.
Another study, looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone.
Harvard neuroscientist Ron Siegel added another layer to the theory, when he proposed putting a positive spin on the goals we have. He believes that simply by thinking positively about something we plan to achieve, we increase the probability that it will happen, which in turn makes us happier.
British scientist David Hamilton puts it all together: the brain seems to be unable to distinguish imagination from reality. In his book "How your mind can heal your body", he describes how some people even heal from illness simply by imagining that they'd get better. Visualizing positive outcomes can work with weight loss, lowering depression, physical illness or exercise improvement. The caveat is that one has to believe in the capabilities of one's own mind in order to take advantage of it. If it isn't given, it won't work.
"You don’t need to be a great ‘visualizer’. It’s the quality of your intent that matters most", Hamilton writes in his blog. "Some people ‘see’ clearly, others just have a vague picture. Some people see out of their own eyes, others imagine looking at themselves from outside. All of these different versions work equally well. We’re all different and we all have different ways of doing things. My experience is that your intention matters most. If your mind is pointed towards where you want to go, then you’re doing it right."