Visit any climbing gym and you’ll likely see climbers stretching out their arms, mimicking the project that they are currently working on from the ground. This may look odd to non-climbers or to newer climbers, but this form of visualization is extremely powerful. The reason visualization is effective is because of how the brain treats memories. Studies have shown that the brain actually doesn’t make the distinction between real memories and fake ones — including those that were visualized. The 2012 study, The Future of Memory: Remembering, Imagining, and the Brain, suggests that much of the same brain network is responsible for dealing with memories that are both real and imagined. Relying on this feature of the brain, you can actually use visualization as a tool to build confidence and practice the path or steps you need to achieve a specific goal.
Let's return to the example of the climbers visualizing the route they’re working on. Imagine two separate climbers, one simply climbs the route and when they fail to send it, they rest and wait their turn and watch others attempt it, the other while resting visualizes the route, mentally practicing it. Both climbers in a single rotation physically climbed it once, but the climber who makes her best effort to visualize the moves is able to trick her brain into thinking that she’s done it more than once, and as a result gets more practice on the route compared to the other climber. The visualizing climber allows her brain to experience the motions that the brain may not be able to effectively distinguish as false; this is likely even more true as more time as elapsed from the visualized practice. You can almost compare this scenario to where you study or practice something so intently, think back to your first week of high school Spanish class, or doing something you are so completely engrossed in that you start dreaming about it. After your brain has a period of consolidation, by the time you return to practicing a dialogue in Spanish class, or go back to attempting the route, you may find that you’re better at it. This experience is often most pronounced when the problem was completely new to you, and by the time you have practiced both physically and through visualization, you grow more confident in the subsequent approaches to the problem.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been a goal oriented person, and I always practiced what I now understand is visualization. This was often applied to my career, sports, and other goals. I visualized being at the goal post even if in reality I was nowhere near it or what seemed like very far from it. When I was a junior designer, I saw myself as a creative director. While working on apps, I visualized that it would one day become wildly successful. In terms of YouTube, even when I first started, I shot and edited my videos as though millions of people were watching them! Today, in my climbing, I always visualize myself working through the problem at hand. During this visualization process, if I cannot imagine completing the route, then the chances of me ever completing it is very low. This works almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: I can because I think I can/I can’t because I think I can’t.
Granted, there is an element of your brain being completely rational in properly assessing what it can and cannot do, being merely a coincidence that visualization has any power to change that outcome. Visualization works with things that you have some real control over. I can visualize walking to the corner store and paying $10 for a lottery ticket as much as I’d like, but it would not make me a lottery winner, nor will it meaningfully improve my chances of being one. Exploiting the fact that the brain treats practice, both “real” and “fake” as legitimate practice nonetheless, I firmly believe anyone who visualizes their goal and the steps needed to accomplish it has an advantage over people who do not.
Adam Ondra, arguably the world’s best professional climber, utilizes visualization as a technique to improve his climbing. In 2017, he successfully sent the world’s first designated 5.15d named Silence in Hanshelleren Cave in Flatanger, Norway. In addition to other training techniques that helped him get the send, he attributes visualization as a substantial one. If you’re unfamiliar with the region or the backstory behind it, do yourself a favor look for the short film titled Silence on YouTube that captures his progress on the project. The cave that contains the route is massive — from a distance it looks as though the earth opened up a hole around a lush green landscape to reveal a massive rock formation. From the inside looking outward, if nature had its own baroque style, the way the fractals juxtapose the Norwegian country side would make most outdoor enthusiasts blush.
Ondra’s physiotherapist Klaus Isele, an experienced climber, helped Ondra practice the odd and difficult movements on Silence using visualization. Ondra breaks down the three ways he uses visualization:
Ondra did all three, and even went through the length of building out portions of Silence at an indoor gym. It took Ondra over four years of practice and visits to eventually send the climb.
Visualization During My Mom’s Battle With Cancer
Like I mentioned earlier, I visualize or attempt to visualize almost everything I do. This includes long running goals that takes years of progress and consistent care. Some might think about my tendency to visualize everything, particularly things that take a great deal of commitment or is difficult to achieve, is a way to set myself up for great disappointment. However, this point isn’t without merit. After enough set backs and disappointments, the mind develops a desire to protect itself and the body from wasted effort. This is natural and is necessary for survival to maintain momentum and confidence, but I think that to make real strides in improvement, it’s better to visualize and to increase your chances at success than not. Ironically, using visualization as a goal setting tackling technique requires preparation for failure.
When my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2013, our family was devastated. We never imagined that this would happen to us because she felt young, and was so full of life; she was an amazing person and was the foundation of our family. Despite the diagnosis, we never saw it as a death sentence and everyone including my mom was onboard to fight the cancer back into remission for good. So, early on we came up with a plan of attack and divided the tasks for her treatment. We decided who’d drive her on certain days, pick up her medication, and who’d help her with the day-to-day tasks around the house. We did all of this around our work schedules and personal lives. I gave up full time work and switched to contracting, which allowed me to take up bulk of the day-to-day responsibilities. Throughout this process, I visualized her remission along with the steps we needed to take to get there. When there was red tape from the hospital, we tried to find ways around it. We needed to ensure that the doctors who supervised our mom's care resembled a partnership as opposed to dictatorship. For five years, this was what we did, and when her cancer went into remission, it was complete confirmation that my visualization helped with the result.
Cancer treatment is damaging to one’s body, painful, and trying. The latest in scientific research guides how medicine is practiced, but there’s still a ton of collateral damage — radiation treatment is not as surgical as one would think as healthy cells are still destroyed in the process, and the entire body takes a toll in chemotherapy. Cancer treatment’s presence as part of your everyday life can be unpredictable. Lymphoma can be beaten back into remission for a period, but it can return or another type of aggressive cancer can appear from seemingly nowhere, as was in our case. To this day, I still consider the remission a success, and that all of our work and visualization was not in vain.
When the doctors found out about the brain cancer in my mom, in 2018 -- five years after her initial diagnosis with lymphoma, they told my sister first, who then told me after I pleaded with her to tell me over the phone while driving toward the hospital in traffic about the bad news. My heart sunk. When I arrived, I volunteered to break the news to my mom.
“Mama, es otro tumor.”
“Como? En Donde?”
“En el celebro. I’m so sorry mom.”
“Como? Por que? Se peleado por tantos anos?”
“Yo se mama te quiero mucho, I’m so sorry.”
She asked slowly and calmly her doctor what could be done from here, pleading for help. She was utterly surprised and thought that the visit was routine. The doctor set expectations low, and explained that my mom only had a matter of weeks to live. Our family’s mindset shifted from doing all we can to fight to cancer to ensuring that she lived her last weeks well. We didn’t have much time left with her, and couldn’t spend it upset about why this was happening.
I don’t believe practicing visualization ever gave me false hope, or set expectations too high. I was never under the illusion that my mom couldn't die from cancer. Instead, I focused on what we hoped to be the outcome, and simply thought about the things that needed to happen to progress toward the goal. The way I reconciled goal setting and visualization with “failure” in the context of my mom’s death is with the understanding that the worst case scenario isn’t the end of the world. I don’t regret setting the expectation that my mom would beat cancer, and that I visualized it. We were disappointed in that someone who fought so hard and long could lose, but we also found present meaning in making most the time she had left. It would be foolish to lose sight of the underlying reason why we wanted her to beat the cancer in the first place.
It’s better to visualize one’s goal than not. As a numbers game, if you can’t meet your goal, you can just move onto pursuing something else. The burden and shame related to “failure” does not last forever. On the other hand, to pursue and only visualize the goals you’re sure of can be a lot more painful. If you fail to meet a goal you were so sure to meet, you will have your confidence shaken in your overall ability as opposed to just your judgment.
My one takeaway from supporting my mom until the very end was that I was able to experience the great love that we had for each other. The five year struggle leading up to the final discovery of the brain cancer revealed this, and this discovery is something I value deeply. At any point in the entire process, I could have bailed and completely surrendered mentally, and completely distanced myself from what was happening. I could have given up, and in turn miss out on this final experience I had with my mom that I now would not trade. The experience of love feels very difficult to put into words, but it’s analogous to the experience of struggle when you go through trying adversity.
The desire to go contrary to what is most efficient is what’s special about being alive. Instead of protecting myself, and “wasting” energy on fighting an inevitable, as was the most rational choice, I chose struggling anyway; the same way I choose struggling now when I pursue my goals.