The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Harnessing the Imagination

Webster's Dictionary defines imagination as the "act or process of forming a conscious idea or mental image of something never before wholly perceived in reality by the imaginer (as through a synthesis of remembered elements of previous sensory experiences or ideas as modified by unconscious mechanisms)." Imagination, then, relates to mental representations or "images" which have been internally generated or constructed. In the words of Glanvill, "Our simple apprehension of corporeal objects, if present, is sense; if absent, is imagination."

Imagination is also associated with creativity and innovative thinking. William Shakespeare wrote:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact . . . The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare's allusion to imagination being associated with eyes "in a fine frenzy rolling" and glancing "from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven" corresponds with the NLP notion that eye movements accompany internal cognitive processes. Glancing from "heaven to earth" would involve moving from visualization to feelings or actions. Glancing from earth to heaven would imply moving from feelings to images. The implication being that imagination is primarily an interaction between internally generated activity within the visual and kinesthetic representational systems.

Imagination may be contrasted with memory and ongoing sensory experience. Memory is the recollection of something one has already experienced in ongoing reality. Ongoing sensory experience involves the receiving of information through one's sense organs relating to the immediate external environment. Imagination involves forming a mental image of something that is not necessarily related to one's past experience, nor in the ongoing environment. However, as Webster points out, imagination does involve "the power to recombine the materials furnished by experience or memory." Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, claimed, "Imagination is of three kinds: joined with belief of that which is to come; joined with memory of that which is past; and of things present, or as if they were present."

Many NLP processes involve the use of imagination. Imagination may be used to create dreams, visualize outcomes, and see the longer term effects of those dreams and outcomes upon our lives. According to philosopher Bertrand Russell, "It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be." By using our imagination and creating mental images, we stimulate and alert our neurology to a particular direction, triggering self-organizing, cybernetic processes which begin to automatically and unconsciously work towards achieving the outcomes we have imaged. As the old adage states, "Energy flows where attention goes." When we imagine a goal or dream in our mind's eye, it allows us to recognize and mobilize the resources necessary to turn imagination into reality - what Walt Disney called "imagineering."

Imagination is also necessary to create and understand symbols and metaphors, and to provide motivation and meaning for our present actions. According to Albert Einstein, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Einstein claimed that knowledge of the past and present was essentially "dead," and required imagination to bring it to life and put knowledge into action. As novelist and historian H.G. Wells maintained, "All youth lives much in reverie, thereby the stronger minds rehearse themselves for life in a thousand imaginations."

Imagination and Imagery

Imagination is clearly based on our ability to create mental imagery. Webster's Dictionary defines imagery as "visible representation of objects," such as "pictures produced by an imaging system," or "mental images; especially: the products of imagination." In NLP, the term is used to refer to the activity of the visual representational system. From the NLP perspective, images are considered one of the primary building blocks of a person's model of the world. In particular, imagery is often used to define desired dreams, visions and outcomes. As Aristotle put it:

"(1) No one can learn or understand anything in the absence of sense, and (2) when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image...To the thinking soul images serve as if they were contents of perception...just as if it were seeing, it calculates and deliberates what is to come by reference to what is present; and when it makes a pronouncement, as in the case of sensation it pronounces the object to be pleasant or painful, in this case it avoids or pursues."

According to Aristotle, we construct a mental map ("image") of the future from associations drawn from ongoing sensory experience. The mind then "calculates and deliberates" by "seeing" or constructing mental "images" of "what is to come by reference to what is present," through memory and imagination (according to Aristotle's famous Law of Association). It is this internal map that determines whether we will perceive an object or situation to be "pleasant or painful."

Because it is produced by the body's nervous system, imagery can also influence the body in several ways. Often, images of goals and outcomes form a focal point or "attractor," around which behavior becomes cybernetically self-organized. People use mental pictures of future outcomes and consequences as the basis for mobilizing or choosing particular actions in the present. In hypnotic work, imagery (often in the form of symbols and metaphors) is used as a means to understand and direct unconscious activity and create trance states, usually through the method of 'guided fantasy'. Imagery can also influence the function of the autonomic nervous system. Mental images, for instance, have been used to stimulate immune system functioning and other healing processes.


Visualization refers to the process of forming mental images. From the NLP perspective, visualization involves purposefully directing the activity of the visual representational system. Visualization may utilize memories, fantasy, or a combination of both. It is one of the fundamental processes through which people build their inner models of the world.

The ability to form visual images has many uses. Visualization, for example, is one of the core tools used by NLP and other applied psychological methods for the purpose of planning and "programming" changes in behavior. It is also the basis of the ability to "dream," create and innovate. For many people, visualization is the primary component of imagination. A characteristic of many geniuses, for instance, is an exceptional ability to visualize. In fact, people like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Nikola Tesla, and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, all ascribed their creative genius to their ability to visualize.

Visualization is often used by sports psychologists to help improve athletic performance. Numerous examples exist of how visualizing has promoted the increased development of physical skills. In one study, for instance, gymnasts who were to learn a new move were divided into two groups. One group was instructed to visualize themselves being able to do this particular move, while the other group was given no instructions. A couple of weeks later, when the time came for them to do this particular move, without the benefit of any previous physical practice, the group who visualized had a 50%-60% success rate, whereas the group that had not visualized had only about 10% success initially. In another example, a basketball team was split into two groups in order to practice "free throws." One group physically practiced making the shots. The other group was instructed to sit in the bleachers and mentally practice by visualizing that they were making the shots. When the two groups competed with each other to see who performed better, those players who visualized actually made more shots successfully than the group who had actually practiced.

Visualization is also used in various types of therapeutic work, typically in the form of 'guided fantasy', and has long been a primary tool for mind-body healing. Carl and Stephanie Simonton, for instance, incorporated visualization as one of the main components in their treatment of cancer.

Sometimes people tend to approach visualization as if it were able to produce almost "magical" effects. From the NLP perspective, however, because visualization is an activity of the body's nervous system, it can also influence the body in several ways. For instance, visual images of goals and outcomes can form a focal point or "attractor," around which behavior becomes cybernetically self-organized. Thus, visualizing future outcomes and consequences can stimulate and mobilize the activity of the nervous system (both conscious and unconscious) in the present. This activity may also include functions involving the autonomic nervous system. Research has shown, for instance, that certain forms of visualization can stimulate immune system functioning and other healing processes.

Many NLP techniques incorporate visualization as a key element. The New Behavior Generator, the Swish Pattern, Future Pacing, the Visual Squash, VK Dissociation, and the Disney Imagineering Strategy, all rely heavily on the process of visualization. However, almost all NLP techniques make use of visualization to some degree.

Mental Rehearsal

Some time ago, a study was made of people who had survived airline accidents. Someone interviewed a number of people who had been involved in serious plane crashes but had survived, often unhurt. They were asked how they had managed to get free of the wreckage, with so much chaos going on, while many of their fellow passengers did not. It is an interesting question because escaping an airline wreck is not something you get much chance to practice. How do you prepare yourself to do something you've never done before?

The most common answer to this question that the survivors gave was that they had run a kind of mental 'dress rehearsal' over and over in their minds. They would visualize the sequence of undoing their safety belts, moving out of their seat, running down the aisle to the nearest exit, jumping down the slide, etc. They would repeat this imaging over and over, feeling themselves doing what they saw in their picture, until it seemed that they had already done this activity many times before. Then, after the accident, when there was total havoc, they did not need to waste any time or conscious awareness thinking about what to do. The program was already in place. One of these people even mentioned that after the crash, he found himself going out the exit and suddenly realized he could hear the person who had been sitting next to him screaming that he couldn't get his seat belt off.

Mental rehearsal relates to our ability to practice a process or activity in our minds. In NLP, mental rehearsal is used to strengthen or improve behavioral performance, cognitive thinking patterns and internal states. When applied to behavioral performance, mental rehearsal involves creating internal representations, in the form of images, sounds and feelings, of some behavior or performance we desire to enact or improve (as an actor might silently rehearse lines for a play). Mentally rehearsing a cognitive strategy involves repeating the sequence of representational systems, and their accompanying accessing cues, that make up a particular mental program (the steps of the Spelling Strategy, for instance). To mentally rehearse an internal state, a person would repeat and anchor the physical patterns (posture, gestures, micromovements, etc.) and the cognitive qualities (type of internal imagery, inner voice, kinesthetic sensations, etc.) associated with that state.

When applied to behavioral performance and internal states, mental rehearsal involves the repetition of the same behavioral or emotional content in different imagined contexts (e.g., holding the same posture and using the same tone of voice in a varitey of situations). When mentally rehearsing a cognitive strategy, however, it is important to apply the same representational sequence, or form, to a number of different types of contents (i.e., practicing the Spelling Strategy using a variety of different words).

At the level of behavioral performance, there are several different strategies for mental rehearsal. The mental rehearsal of a particular activity may be done from either an associated or disassociated perspective, for example; i.e., imagining a situation from one's own perspective or watching oneself from the point of view of an observer, as if watching oneself in a movie or video. Mental rehearsal done from an associated perspective is like entering a "virtual reality" and becoming the actor in a play or movie. From a dissociated perspective, mental rehearsal allows a person to be more like the editor or director of the play or movie. Thus, when done from an associated perspective, mental rehearsal can be used in order to internalize, or "install," a particular behavior. When done from a disassociated perceptual position, mental rehearsal can be used to anticipate possible consequences of a particular action in a situation (its ecological impact or appropriateness, for instance), as a type of mental simulation.

In order to actually internalize a behavior, mental rehearsal is typically more effective when it is done from an associated perspective. The most direct form is to simply project oneself into a future situation, and imagine delivering the desired performance. To mentally rehearse a speech, for instance, you would imagine being in the future situation, and create a multi-sensory representation of the way you would like to perform. As you mentally rehearse giving an effective and compelling speech, you would imagine what you would be seeing in that situation, feeling the movements and expressions of your body, and hearing what your voice would sound like as you gave the speech.

Other strategies include the New Behavior Generator Strategy, in which key elements of the desired performance are first described verbally. The linguistic description forms the basis for constructing a disassociated visual image of the desired actions. You then imagine enacting the performance you have fantasized from an associated position, and check your feelings of confidence and congruence about doing the imagined behavior. If there are any doubts, you return to the verbal description and either add to it or refine it.

Submodalities are an important influence on the effectiveness of some forms of mental rehearsal. Certain qualities of images, feelings and sounds can be important to include in order for the nervous system to internalize a particular pattern of behavior. In addition to whether or not an image of oneself is pictured from an associated or disassociated perspective, for instance, the quality of color, movement, depth, focus, distance, etc., of an image can make it more or less effective in leading to the desired behavioral results. This is particularly important for mentally rehearsing an internal state.

In addition to the New Behavior Generator, mental rehearsal is a key element of many NLP techniques. In fact, a form of mental rehearsal called "Future Pacing," in which a person imagines enacting changes in behavior in specific contexts, is a final step in practically every NLP intervention.


Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being; Dilts, R., Hallbom, T. and Smith, S., 1990.
Changing Belief Systems with NLP; Dilts, R., 1990.
Overcoming Resistance to Persuasion with NLP; Dilts, R., and Yeager, J., 1992.
Visionary Leadership Skills; Dilts, R., 1996.

Also see the NLP Pattern of the Month or the Archives if you are interested in checking out NLP in more depth.
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