Friday, December 1, 2023

Carpenter Effect – How visualizations bring us closer to our goals

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Glass backs, pendulums and dowsing rods actually work. However, not because supernatural powers guide us, but rather the pure power of our thoughts. Visualizations – a mental technique that is becoming more and more popular through top-class sport – can also make things happen. At least under certain circumstances, as sports psychologist and ZHAW lecturer Jan Rauch knows.

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Dr. Jan Rauch is a lecturer in psychological and mental training, team psychology and solution-oriented consulting at the ZHAW Zurich and co-author of the book “Mentally strong on the mountain”.

Mr. Rauch, visualizations are an integral part of training for the Swiss national team and Roger Federer. What does it mean?

Visualization is about imagining images: I see myself performing a movement or winning a marathon. But feelings that go along with the pictures are also part of it. When I imagine how proud I will feel when I cross the finish line, that is also a visualization.

And what are they good for?

Visualizations are not only used in sports, but also in work or everyday life. But they are not fundamentally good. If I constantly imagine what others have and I don’t, it can cause stress. I won’t suddenly become rich just because I think about it. Still, visualizations can help get you there.

History of visualizations

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As early as 1852, the English physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter discovered that just imagining certain images and movements can trigger subtle, virtually unnoticed muscle movements in us. This is how he described it in his work “Nature and Man”.

With the “Carpenter effect” named after him, the scientist laid the foundation for the mental technique of visualization, which is now part of the training schedule of many top athletes. But even unathletic people can benefit from this technology.

How come?

By triggering positive motivational stimuli that make me want to tackle it and show me the necessary steps.

Suppose my goal was to work at the BBC. What would such a visualization process look like?

Try it! Imagine yourself sitting at the BBC…

I’m in the newsroom. Phones ring, keyboards clatter. Push notifications are constantly flashing, it smells of coffee and cold smoke.

And? How does that feel?

It’s going ok.

Wonderful! Here you can see what such a visualization makes possible: You realize that you want to join the BBC – but not under these conditions. This could trigger the motivation to think more specifically about what your perfect working future might look like and what you need to do to get there.

What if I’m not really sure what I want?

Then take it step by step: Think about how you want it to feel when you reach your destination. This is easier with someone to coach you. However, visualizations are not a panacea. They just help you work toward something more purposefully.

Under what conditions do visualizations succeed?

If I instruct someone to imagine something and they think about something different every five seconds, that’s difficult. That’s why the ability to concentrate is an important prerequisite.

Conversely, visualization exercises also train concentration, which works better in a relaxed state. And: The kinesthetic level is particularly important for sporting goals.

Kinesthetic level?

Ideas that involve physical sensations: How hard do I grip the tennis racket? At what speed do I throw the ball up? The more precisely I imagine the muscle parts and then activate them, the better I can “mentally train” the movement. I benefit most from this for physical challenges.

Why this?

There are studies that show that when you intensively imagine a movement, very similar areas of the brain are active as when you actually move. Except the motor cortex, which then makes the movement. With the detailed imagination, I simulate the movement in my brain. Like with the backing of glasses, where they are actually carried out. However, this has nothing to do with supernatural powers.

The interview was conducted by Gina Buhl.

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