I want to learn to visualize better. Is this possible?
October 4, 2012 6:21 PM   Subscribe

I don't seem to have the capability to visualize things in my head. I'd like to. Is this possible to learn? If not, how can I get more out of meditation when I lack this ability?

My partner and I took a yoga class where there was a relaxation section at the end. He found it very relaxing; I was a little bored. I realized afterward that it was because he is a good visualizer. When they said 'picture yourself on a beautiful beach' he could actually see a picture in his head like he was watching a movie. I can't do this and I am a little jealous. If you asked me to 'picture' a beach, I would not actually see a picture, it would be more like just thinking about the word.

Is there a way to learn how to visualize better? If not, is there a way I could use meditation differently to get more out of it? He has this great relaxation effect from it and I'd really like to have that.
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just a shot in the dark, but maybe an excercise where you actually look at a picture for a minute, then close your eyes and recall out loud as many objects or features as you can about it. Repeat and try to improve your score.

Possibly this will exercise your brain's photo-recall abilities? Just an idea.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:28 PM on October 4, 2012

Some people do not visualize. One of these people is Oliver Sacks, author of The Mind's Eye which discusses, among other things, what is known about it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:42 PM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, some people are more visually oriented than others, and sight is something that most people can communicate easily about because of how our language is structured. But plenty of people use their other senses more heavily in memories and visualization.

How do you learn best? Listening to someone speak? Feeling how an object is made? Use what your strengths are for this, too.

So instead of thinking how you would look sitting on a beach, instead concentrate on the other aspects of that scenario. How would the sand feel beneath you and on your skin? How would the wind feel blowing on you? What does the ocean sound like? Are there birds making noises too? What does it smell like? Is the sun warm on your skin? Is the sand wet and cold or dry and hot? Can you taste the salt in the air?

"Visualize" is a shortcut term. There's more than just the sense of sight involved in it.
posted by Mizu at 6:44 PM on October 4, 2012

You might also just substitute "remember" for "visualize" and remember a time you were walking on a beach. This is less helpful with things like "visualize yourself surrounded by light" or whatever, but the mechanism for memory is not that different than the mechanism for imagination. You might start with something familiar, like visualizing yourself on your commute to work, and then work up to something less familar/more relaxing.
posted by judith at 7:38 PM on October 4, 2012

is there a way I could use meditation differently to get more out of it?

Yes. You could learn to do meditation through some technique other than a cheesy yoga class. (Visualization is also important for some Tibetan techniques, but irrelevant for meditation in general.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:29 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

For example, you could attend these meditation classes. (You seem to be in Toronto, where they are offered by a Korean-American Zen Buddhist tradition. I don't have enough local knowledge to recommend them, but they would give you a different take on meditation.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:42 PM on October 4, 2012

You could try drawing. First visualize externally, then develop the ability to do so internally.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 9:22 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I ask you to "Remember the day you moved into the dorms (or your first apartment, or whatever)," are you able to summon sensory memories -- what the room specifically looked like, the quality of the light, where things were positioned?

Next, what if I asked you to "Imagine that you are arriving at a hotel room. Imagine opening the door with your keycard, carrying your suitcase in, and putting it on the bed. Picture yourself checking out the room, noticing if they folded the end of the toilet paper into those funny points. Imagine looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror before heading back out into the hotel room."

If you were able to do the first and the second, the issue might be that "beach" is just too vague and that you need more verbal guidance for what to visualize. It's easier to imagine (i.e., visualize) something if you are able to use details you've experienced in reality or from movies/films. If you weren't able to do the second (or either one), and have never been able to, then it could be that you're cognitively a special snowflake, along the line of Obscure Reference's explanation.

Another way to look at it: when you read a novel, do you picture the action as if you are acting it out, or perhaps as if you were watching a movie? Or do you only see the words and not imagine the action taking place at all?

Improving your ability to visualize is like when you learn how to read and go from piecing the words together to creating an imaginary experience (with sights, sounds, scents, tastes and sensations) in your head, based on the words you read. You might need to insert more concrete steps to access the to-be-visualized situation -- hear "beach" and think, sense by sense, what a beach has felt like (do you feel warmed by the sun? cooled by the breeze, lulled by the sound of the surf?), and by asking yourself to consider the elements thing to be "visualized," you'll be telling yourself the details of the plotless story of "JoannaC At the Beach."
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:27 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding trying a different kind of meditation. I've always found visualisation-heavy guided meditations difficult to "get". Meditation focusing on breath, body sensation and state of mind is much easier to practice, and a huge amount more beneficial, for me.

Classes in insight / mindfulness meditation are what I'd reccomend. Or have a look at mindfulness in plain English for an excellent start in self-led practice.
posted by protorp at 3:12 AM on October 5, 2012

When I was much younger, I'd give myself tasks, like: memorize the walk from A to B in exactly the time it would take to walk. so I would have to imagine whatever I used to see in that span of time. This was very, very good for my mental health, because there was no time for worrying about me while I did it
posted by mumimor at 12:21 PM on October 5, 2012

I have actually found mindfulness meditation - which is the kind of meditation that has the largest evidence base around mental and physical health benefits - is actively made harder by the fact that I am a strong visualiser. Even 'body scanning', which is the technique they start you off on and which everyone tends to find easier, is made significantly harder by my inability to think about, say, my left foot, without instantly generating dozens of pictures of anatomical illustrations of the foot, artist's studies of the foot I have seen, and so forth. With my eyes closed, I think about e.g. where the blood vessels in the foot are instead of the actual tactile sensation of having a foot. It is so. hard. not to do this. Even when I'm doing the more woolly kinds of meditation like the one in your yoga class, it can still be a bit of a problem: if I am told to 'imagine a beach' I have a tendency to put too much detail in so that it becomes effectively a long daydreaming session with cues rather than meditation as such. Honestly, I like being a visualiser, but in meditation it is a distraction as often as not.
posted by Acheman at 1:56 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

previous thread on this topic.
posted by mmoncur at 4:16 AM on October 9, 2012

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