Mental Imagery

Mental Imagery – Creating Your Future

Top sports people and communicators often use mental imagery or rehearsal to improve their performance. Bandler and Grinder developed what they called Future Pacing as a way to test changes achieved during an NLP session and to make sure these changes carried through to real life.

One of the biggest problems in any learning situation is making sure we have our new skills and knowledge when we get back home. Learning tends to be context (and state) dependent. Meaning theory isn’t necessarily translated into practice, or the changes don’t last.

Have you ever gone to a course on improving communication only to go home and yell at the kids? Or, maybe you know someone who successfully controls mega dollars at work but can’t balance their checkbook.

How mental imagery works

lemonWatching a highly involving movie in an associated way can give us the same adrenaline rush as the real life experience. We can scare ourselves witless imagining in detail some worst possible consequence of our own choosing.

Imagine a beautiful smooth yellow lemon. Smell the citrus fragrance as you slice into it firmly and feel the acid juice on your fingers. Now take a big bite of that tart lemon. Does it trigger facial muscle movements and saliva gland activity?

When we imagine doing something there are corresponding physiological responses. Muscles make tiny movements. Our nervous system responds as if we were actually doing it. We trigger hormones and glands.

When we physically practice a skill, we create neural pathways. After a time we can perform that skill naturally and automatically. We teach our muscles and brain a particular pattern.

Immersion and Association

The key to successful mental rehearsal is vivid and congruent association. Practicing seeing yourself performing a skill dissociated engages few muscle movements and neural activity. Automatic pathways are created by immersion in the experience. Likewise, if you want to future pace someone else you must help him or her experience immersion.

If you have ever been to a movie where you were aware of how long it was taking, of sound effects that seemed out of place, of music that was inappropriate, you probably know what I mean.

Of course, sometimes you want to undo some automatic pathways. The The NLP Phobia Treatment technique is useful here.


When we physically practice something, mostly we are practicing failure. I throw the ball in the basket and miss many times before I get it in. Therefore, the neural pathways I am creating are not the ones I want.

If I practice perfect performance in my imagination, the micro muscle movements are creating pathways of perfect performance.

In pressure situations, such as during actual game performance, what you want is unconscious perfect performance. Anything other than automatic reactions (or instinct) will get in the way. Consciousness and internal dialogue will get in the way.

Pilots practice simulations to get experience in emergencies. It is much too expensive and dangerous to practice a real life engine failure for instance. Simulations allow automatic responses to develop, as long as the model/equipment is accurate.

While we can rehearse small discreet skills such as aim, speed, peak states and ball skills of course, we still need actual physical practice to provide the holistic context. We can only rehearse part of our interactions with other players, together with a constantly changing situation.

Downside of mental imagery

Many if not most of us use the power of mental imagery to our detriment. We commonly mentally rehearse others and ourselves into a negative future. We don’t even have to get into some kind of metaphysical discussion to understand this.

Anxiety for instance is a future emotion. People make themselves anxious by imagining unpleasant things consciously or not. While the intention is usually to prevent these unpleasant things happening, mostly it sets up a template for this to occur.

For example, have you ever thought something like “I hope I don’t get nervous at the job interview”? Then imagine how awful if would be to mess up, how much of a loser you might appear etc. Seeing unpleasant pictures of yourself and then beating yourself with critical self-talk is enough to make anyone nervous.

This is not the same as rehearsing answers to possible questions or objections. Many do not understand the difference however.

NLP Applications

NLP extends and refines mental imagery. Some important applications of this NLP technique are

Developing skills

The most common form of mental imagery outside NLP is to set up a blueprint or template in your neurology. A skill is something that has moved from something that you consciously achieve to unconscious competence.

Achieving outcomes

Outcomes usually require sustained and ongoing behavior and responses. The New Behavior Generatoris a specific form of future pacing for this type of application.

Sales and Persuasion

Mentally rehearsing others is a useful sales tool. Successful persuaders enable others to vividly imagine enjoying their product or service (or them)

Testing changes

It is important to test changes you make for yourself or someone else to ensure the change is successful (future pacing), and there are no internal objections (ecology check).

Anchoring changes

Future pacing is a powerful way to anchor or connect changes and resources to possible future situations or a particular event (such as a sporting performance).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Related Posts