Making a mark in an ever more competitive arena is tough, and entrepreneurs are seeking novel ways to gain an edge. The new generation of entrepreneur is beginning to look to neuroscience for insights into improving their performance. Psychologists have long understood the benefit of visualization as a means of behavioral therapy, but its application can extend far beyond this.

How entrepreneurs can leverage visualization: a neuroscientist explains

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Visualization has been demonstrated to improve music ability, athletic performance, self-confidence, mental health, and even physical strength. From a neuroscience point of view, visualization can be used to improve performance in almost any framework, using only the power of the mind, and business is no exception.

Mike Tranter is a neuroscientist at the University of California San Diego, specializing in the neural circuitry within the brain. He holds a PhD in neuroscience and is author of the bestselling book A Million Things To Ask A Neuroscientist: The Brain Made Easy. Tranter explores the benefits of neuroscience in everday life and now he is turning his attention to helping entrepreneurs gain an edge in business, particularly using visualization.

Making visualization intentional

As Tranter explained, “your brain naturally uses a form of visualization every day. The frontal cortex is heavily involved in decision making and future planning. Throughout the day, you make decisions, whether consciously or not, based on expected outcomes and potential consequences to your actions.” Interestingly, visualization enables someone to take control of this process and direct themselves to scenarios where they decide not only the result, but the choices and actions during the process.

“When you close your eyes and visualize something, you engage the neural circuitry in much the same way as if you were to really experience it,” explained Tranter. “For example, visualizing your partner will activate the visual cortex in the brain, similar to if you are seeing them in front of you.” Simply the act of visualizing can activate associated memories, emotional context, and even alter your heart rate. “Your brain doesn’t really care that you’re not actually having the experience, your neurons are still activated.”

Creating long term change in your brain

“By using visualization, your brain’s synapses are bombarded with messages as if you are constantly experiencing and repeating a behavior.” Over time this leads to adaptive changes in the brain, called plasticity, “where the brain connections adapt over time.” When having a real experience, such as learning to play the piano, synapses would be firing and plasticity would be taking place. Visualization of playing the piano triggers the synapses and creates plasticity in the same way.

Tranter explains that taking advantage of this neural process can “help to develop your skills when used in the real world.” Close your eyes and imagine the most confident, successful version of you. What do they say, how do they speak, what do they wear? Using a technique called outcome visualization can make these feelings familiar, and soon it becomes second nature to act like the person you see. Visualize yourself being accepted for your dream role, hearing a yes from your dream client, or seeing a specific number in your bank account. Your brain will think this welcome news is really happening, and you will act accordingly.

How entrepreneurs can leverage visualization: a neuroscientist explains

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Changing how you experience the real world

Practicing visualization for key events can result in a process called classical conditioning, which is an automatic response to a stimuli or experience in the real world. “Say, for example, you have a presentation coming up. Visualizing the moment you stand up in front of the audience, over and over again, until it brings excitement rather than anxiety, would translate to the feeling of excitement (at least partly) when the real time comes.” You can change your reaction to fear or annoyance in the same way. Picture yourself running up a steep hill and enjoying the experience. Picture yourself hearing a loud siren whizz by and feeling calm.

Visualization works best when what you imagine is as real as possible, so “engage all your senses.” When picturing specific scenarios, visualize what you can hear, what you see and even smell. Tranter says “this will cement those experiences in your brain much better.”

For example, if you will be meeting a potential client in a conference room you have used before, try to remember how it looks, how it smells, or even the feel of the table in front of you. If you will be meeting with a new client, will you be standing or sitting, will you shake hands or embrace another way? It may feel strange at first using this level of detail, but the science backs it up, as participants in studies consistently gain more improvement with greater levels of detail in their visualization.

An intrinsic idea to visualization is that you need to visualize something as it would happen in real life from your own perspective. What would feel real to you? Will you be anxious or confident? Will your heart be racing, or will you be sweating? The more realistic the visualization, the better you will be prepared.

Giving you an edge in business

How can this help the modern entrepreneur, you might ask? Tranter recommends than in order for visualization to give you an edge in business, you should “imagine situations and pitfalls along the way, so when they do occur, your brain thinks it has already experienced them.” The technical term for this is mental contrasting, developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, who specializes in goal setting and behavior.

If you want to advance your use of mental contrasting to an even higher level, you should think about and plan how you will overcome any obstacles you may encounter. You should write them down and rehearse them or even add them to your visualization.

You could visualize “being challenged on your ideas when making an important pitch, or hearing adverse news about the economy or a key client.” In doing this, when it occurs in real life, your brain has already adapted itself to deal with the emotions that may surface.

Visualization can take the element of surprise out of every encounter. If you have prepared for the client to be unhappy, the interviewer to be scary or the audience to be huge, your brain feels like it has already dealt with that part of your scenario. You now have more headspace to focus on delivering your message.

But where to start?

The most common question around this technique is, “where do I start?” Here, Tranter gives advice to those entrepreneurs who want to dive into visualization but are new to the idea. “Start with doing it for ten minutes in a quiet, relaxed and familiar environment, like your bedroom. For the best results, at least to start with, try to pick a point in your day when you are not too tired or stressed, perhaps an hour or so before bed.”  Eventually, as you become more confident and experienced, you can find moments throughout your day wherever you are. This could be in a park at lunch, on a train or subway, or even in a lobby a few minutes before a meeting.

Visualize what you want the rest of your week to feel like. Visualize winning a new client or achieving your biggest business goal. Visualizing the future and imagining it happening can lead to being less shocked when it actually happens. Taking away the shock factor might lead to more considered responses instead of emotional reactions. A calm, unruffled leader who cannot be surprised is a unique individual.

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