Visualizing the Abyss

There is a large group of people who believe that visualization of what one desires will yield positive results.  Of course, asking for more details relating to this bit of magic leads to vague answers that sound like little more than mystical mumbo jumbo.  In the land of instant gratification, this is worse.

The problems with visualization self-help methods have been well-documented and thoroughly examined.  Quite simply, these visualization exercises don’t stand up to any kind of serious inquiry.  They are, however, a gold mine if you write about them or do the standard series of lectures at Red Lions across America.  You, as a speaker or writer, tell people what they want to hear. (“Just visualize it, and it will happen.”)  The reader or audience member does the exercise (the less one has to work for the goal, the better), and then sits back and waits for results.  It’s a win-win situation for the creator of a visualization method whether or not audience members reach their individual goals. 

If, by chance, some people do get what they visualized, you will have more followers.  If, more likely, there aren’t any results forthcoming, all you have to do is turn it around on the visualizer.  “You didn’t want it badly enough.  You weren’t focused.  Buy my next book, as it will give you the keys to unlock what you desire.”  (The Secret is so powerful that it takes several books to teach its basic lessons.)  These fictions satisfy a need, which is why they keep selling.  It’s not the success rate which pulls in readers.  It’s the hope that life’s little problems can be solved by merely wishing them away. 

Starvation.  Sex crimes.  Herpes.  Poverty. War.  Death of a loved one.  Addiction.  If the power of wish worked, wouldn’t this world be a vastly different place?  If visualization was science, wouldn’t famine be wiped out? 

If all this “positive visualization” movement did was sell books to those frantically looking for simple solutions to complex problems, there would be no harm, no foul.  Buyer beware, as they say.  But researchers Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen published an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (a serious publication where statistical data is mandatory and submitted articles are peer reviewed before publication) that points out some of dangers of this movement.  Experiments were done which showed that the conjuring of positive fantasies actually causes a person to be less ambitious.  Positive visualization, according to the researchers, actually drains the body of the energy needed to get to the desired goal, and tricks the brain into thinking it has actually achieved it.  One experiment that caught the attention of Forbes detailed what happened when water-deprived test subjects were told to visualize a glass of icy water.  Their brains responded as if they had really drank the water.  Interesting in a lab setting.  Possibly deadly if one is stranded in the desert.  (As an aside, a website about healing cancer naturally proclaims that by keeping about a tablespoon of saliva in your mouth and visualizing yourself without a particular ailment will actually make that ailment go away!  If you still can’t see the problems with visualization, you need to stop reading now and check yourself into a mental hospital.  Don’t worry, though.  While there you can just drool your insanity away.)

If you delve into experiments that actually offer “proof” that visualization works, your investigation will inevitably lead to terms like “psychic powers” and other New Age thinking that has muddied the waters of the self-help genre.  Dig deep enough and it all becomes magic.  (In fact, just read the reviews of Creative Visualization on Amazon.  More than one refers to the book as “magic.”)

There is no real “magic” when it comes to self-improvement.  What one needs to do is actually spend time reaching into the deepest and often darkest parts of one’s soul and acknowledging that which you find.  You have to look into that abyss Nietzsche wrote about and see what stares back.  You have to go places you never thought you would, otherwise you are lying to yourself about yourself.  You aren’t working with a complete knowledge of that which drives you.  If you don’t understand those things that make you tick, no amount of visualization is going to help.

I know plenty of people who love reading self-help books, especially those in the visualization movement.  (I’ve often thought about writing a few under a pen name to help supplement my income, and I still may.)  I’ve kept quiet around most of them, as arguing this topic is futile, and I do believe that it can act as a stepping stone to serious introspection in the right person (a rarity).  I can’t help but think, however, that if one repurposed all that time spent visualizing that which they think will “fix” them and instead really worked on those things, then it wouldn’t be too long before real results would appear.  To get there, though, one must know themselves inside and out … not just let a false sense of self manifest an unexamined goal and hope for the best.

“Faith: not wanting to know what is true.” -Nietzsche

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