Awareness – Perception – What Is Visualisation?

Friday, February 15th, 2008 at 5:34 pm.
by pre.

You’ve been asked to ‘visualise’ things for a few weeks now, to conjure up images in your mind, it’s time to address what exactly it meant by the word ‘visualise’.

In short, we’re talking about visual processing, essentially using the area of the brain devoted to visual reasoning, spacial skills. In theory, a blind man should still be able to visualise. He can still touch his fingers to your face and gain an ‘image’ in his mind of what you ‘look’ like. Indeed, if only in the movies, we see blind people “visualising” though their fingers all the time.

Just about everyone who’s not suffered a stroke or other brain illness is capable of visual processing. To take an example from a Stephen Pinker book, “How The Mind Works”, imagine a capital letter D, rotated clockwise by 90 degrees. Further, visualise the number 4 on top of this newly rotated D, standing on it’s back. When you have that image fixed in your mind, drop the right-hand side of the number 4 to leave just a triangle on a stick standing on the back of the capital letter D.

Ask yourself: What does this new shape represent?

Almost everyone correctly identifies it as an iconic description of a sail-boat.

This is what we mean by ‘visualisation’, that same skill you used to identify the ship, the sail, the mast. The output from the visual processing system.

We use this system all the time in daily life. If I tell you that Jane is taller than Joe and Joe is taller than Jim you can arrange these people in height order in a mental image fairly easily. Even without knowing what Jim or Joe or Jane actually look like, you can still ‘visually’ arrange their symbolic representations in your mind in height order. Indeed, you can continue to do so as we add in John, who’s between Joe and Jim, and Jerry, who’s between Jim and John. This is certainly a useful way of thinking, and probably what most people intuitively do when asked to think of these people, their heights, and answer questions about them.

Much of this processing will be done unconsciously, but even in people who are aware that these kind of tasks activate the visual cortex of a brain in a PET scanner, even in people who deliberately try to imagine a picture of these imaginary people, the experience is of course not the same as actually seeing a line-up of real people.

For a start, it’s not actually visual. There is nothing in your visual field, it can be done with your eyes open, while staring at a blank page or watching a TV show. It’s using the visual processing units of the mind, but it’s not the same as actually seeing. Compared to actually ’seeing’ it’s a shadowy and vague experience indeed.

The second main difference is that of detail. When you look out at the real world, the one you can see with your eyes, the area of the visual field in which you actually see with proper detail, the part of your retina which has enough rods and cones to be worth a damn, covers about the area of your thumbnail at arms length. I know it doesn’t feel like that, but if you fixate on one point and try to see details in a moving thing away from that point you’ll find it impossible. In order to actually see the detail in a thing we have to move your eyes to look at at.

The entire scene is built in your brain from a series of rapid saccades, scanning for detail and finding it and filling it into a scene. When you’re looking at a sentence on this page, you can’t see enough detail to ‘read’ a word just two words away from the one your eyes are pointed at. If you stare at a “word” in this sentence you can barely read the preceding “Stare”. The detail just isn’t there until you look at it.

Now the same is true of ‘visualisation’, you can only ’see’ (IE process) a minute bit of ‘visual’ information at a time. In order to ’see’ detail you have to zoom-in, focus, succade your minds eye from one segment to another.

Perhaps the biggest difference between seeing and visualising is that when looking at an object the data comes in through that dense patch of retinal neurons whereas when ‘visualising’ an object the data has to be constructed by the mind. Which is much harder work!

When using visualisation processes to try to change your brain’s response to something, to practice something, to exercise a transcendence skill, you should use as much detail as you can imagine because this will lead to a stronger emotional response. Note that this is still imagined detail. Visualisation is an inherently constructive process.


At this point, an example will be useful. Compare the following two descriptions, try to take note of any images that form in your minds eye, of emotional responses to those images, of the vividness with which the images project.

Description One:

A man sat on a chair

Description Two:

A tall man, wearing a long grey overcoat, timidly approached the plush green armchair before suddenly turning around and immediately dropping his arse down into the soft cushion, the momentum of his denim trousers pushing creases into the velvet lime seat-covers.

Now, neither description actually projects onto the visual field. Reading neither of them can tell you what the gentleman in question actually looks like, yet the second is still more ‘visual’, it enables the visual cortex to join in the processing, forms more emotionally vivid impressions on the mind.

The more time and effort you put into mentally succading from one detail to another, trying to build up an entire scene, the more emotionally relevent the ‘picture’ will become.

Finally, try to remember that there will be massive variation in people’s abilities in these skills. When trying to visualise a scene, as with looking around at the real world, some people will be more aware of the process than others. Some will know that in order to see the detail in the eye of a painting they have to look at the eye, while some will look at that eye and not notice they have done so, just assume the whole time that they were looking at the whole picture.

There will also be variation in people’s level of self deception. If you ask someone to imagine a clown, no doubt they will. If you then ask them “What colour are his eyes” some will mentally succade to the eyes and have an answer before they’re aware they’ve done it. Others will be more aware that they’re constructing the colour of those eyes, previously unnoticed, in order to give the report.

Likewise, some will not notice that the detail in their imaginary images wasn’t there until they looked at it. They’ll just look, without even noticing they have succaded their minds eye, and find it there.

Variation will also exist in what people think is a fair report of their internal experiences, what they mean by the word ’see’. How readily they will claim to ’see’ mental images, or chemically induced hallucinations, or the solution to a problem, or the meaning of a sentence.

Some of this variation, no doubt, will be genetic. Some, equally doubtlessly, will simply be a question of how practised at the skill a person is. It may be impossible for some to visualise as well as others, but it’s unlikely that anyone would find it impossible to improve.

We have designed this month’s guided meditation file to help you to improve your visualisation skills, to better understand them. To this end you are asked, very explicitly, to physically look at an object, and then later to visualise it. To compare the two experiences, to learn how to make the second more like the first.

We’ve spent a whole article on what we mean by ‘visualisation’ because it’s very important you don’t get discouraged that your imagined experiences aren’t as striking and immediate as watching a movie. They aren’t that way for anybody. They do not have to be in order to work.

They are, however, more vivid for some than others. Some people automatically fill in the details as they mentally succade to different parts of a mental image. After a lifetime of imagining and playing, many people fill in those details automatically, without thinking. As you practice it more, you’ll find it easier, there’s no known reason why these skills can’t be improved with practice and attention just as
every other skill can be improved.