The following is an except from an article I wrote a number of years ago on the topic of imagery versus visualization. I would like to revisit this issue by sharing my thoughts from the article:
There are a number of scientific theories about how the human mind processes information. One prominent premise, as evident in a great number of books on sports psychology, is that the mind processes information in pictures. In these publications the reader is encouraged to use visualization techniques by closing their eyes and seeing or picturing themselves in their mind’s eye performing some aspect of their life or their sport. The reader is told that visualization skills will help them improve their physical performance, achieve their goals in sports and life, and even allow them to enhance their self image and self esteem. These books are filled with case studies and testimonials from athletes who have utilized visualization techniques with great success. This wave of success has lead to an ever increasing demand for sports psychologists to conduct visualization exercises and provide athletes with visualization skills at all levels of athletics.
Many law enforcement trainers have embraced this theory of information processing and have adapted it into the arena of mental preparation and conditioning for law enforcement officers. Based on the research and success from the world of athletics visualization techniques are seen as proven a method of engraining the most desirable programs into the subconscious mind. The carryover into the fields of firearms training and defensive tactics are immediately apparent and officers around North America are continually encouraged to use visualization techniques to enhance their skills. Officers are very rarely taught how to use these skills, only told that they should use them to improve their performance.
As much success as athletes and law enforcement officers have had with visualization techniques there is a problem with this theory of mental processing. The problem lies in the reality that not everyone processes information visually. In fact, some behavioral scientists believe that only fifty to seventy percent of the population is visually wired and actually process information in pictures. This means that if you take a room full of law enforcement officers and have them go through the exercise of closing their eyes and seeing themselves or picturing themselves in their minds eye performing a skill, between a quarter and a half of them would be unable to accomplish this task.
While the participants who are visually wired will see the pictures, for the others it is as if the movie screen in their mind screen is blank. This inability to see the pictures leaves them wondering what is wrong with them, why they are unable to complete this simple task. Most officers who are unable to see the pictures will never say anything to the trainer guiding the session for fear of embarrassment. They will however, be convinced that visualization does not work for them (and they are right). If they do speak up about their inability to see the pictures, they are usually told to try harder and eventually they will be able to do it. Increased efforts simply lead to further failures firmly entrenching the belief that for some unknown reason they are failures, and unable to tap into the power of their subconscious mind. In future sessions, they will simply go through the motions completely convinced they cannot utilize this powerful skill. The negative effect intensifies when the trainers informs them that visualization is a simple yet effective tool that they must use to enhance their ability to win violent confrontations. Now, these officers will not only wonder why they cannot visualize, they may begin to question their ability to be successful on the street.
The question for trainers then becomes how you can overcome this hurdle to ensure that every officer can harness the power in their subconscious? The answer is quite simple and lies in a competing theory on how the mind processes information; the theory that professes that the mind processes and stores information in images, not in pictures. Each person experiences those images in a way that is unique to them. Some people imagine events in the first person, as if they are actually living it, while others experience events in the third person. For those people that are wired visually the images will be in pictures although they will experience the images differently.Variations include the clarity of the pictures, whether they are in black and white or color and even here there are varying degrees of the brightness or vividness of colors.
The key here is accepting that everyone can imagine – not everyone can visualize. Some would argue that this is simply semantics and the two terms: imagine and visualize mean the same thing and are therefore interchangeable. It is important to understand that the subconscious mind processes information literally. Therefore, visual language only speaks to those who process images in pictures. For the rest of the population you may as well be speaking a foreign language. This concept is extremely difficult for visual people to understand, but makes perfect sense to all those people who are not visually wired. To those people who have read all the sports psychology books and sat through all the visualization sessions wondering what was wrong with them – why they couldn’t see the pictures, this theory makes perfect sense.