Basic Visualization - Playing In Your Mind

  • Posted on: 29 December 2021
  • By: David Trammel

One of the things I've always been good from childhood was visualizing what a collection of parts would look like when they were assembles into the finished project. This skill was polished by a high school course in blueprint reading and drawing. I even have a sturdy blueprint table and the tools in my basement shop now. Its a good solid table, wide and flat, capable of being set at various angles to make it easier to draw on, though now I mostly use as a work bench for hand crafting projects. This was before computer programs like Autocad came on the scene and made it easy.

Now that developed skill helps me in physical projects like my on going basement storage addition. I can sit for a few minutes and look over an area I'm going to modify, and mentally go step by step into the construction. I can usually catch problems before I hit them, by mentally building the components. This inner visualization also helps with many other day to day tasks. I rarely use my cell phone's GPS and map apps, instead preferring to navigate around St Louis with a set of physical street maps and a mental compass of which way is North. It also helps me remember where I place things (more on that later).

This ability is sometimes called "spatial intelligence" and is defined as “the ability to mentally manipulate objects in space and to imagine them in different locations and positions". It is considered one of the eight types of intelligence categories in Dr. Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligences theory. The other seven are linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, naturalist, intrapersonal, and interpersonal.

We all know people who seem to excel at one or more of these categories. You may excel yourself in one of them yourself. Unfortunately it's become accepted "fact" that doing so is rare and something only a few have, when such a view is so wrong and narrow. Look back at in historic times before modern communication shrunk the World and is was quite common for travelers, explorers or trader to speak several languages, even a dozen fluently. The term "Renaissance man" literally arose in the time after the Dark Age, and meant a person who was proficient in a wide range of skills. As a Green Wizard, embrace your potential to be more.

Let's take some time and talk about how YOU can develop this skill.

Looking At The World In Three Dimensions
Most people would be surprised when I say we don't look at the World in three dimensions much anymore. I blame our fixation on first television, then our computer and now our cell phones. Our conceptualization of the World has shrunk to a tiny flat screen and with that, our field of view. You've seen no doubt, a Youtube video of someone, nose deep into their phone who walks into a telephone pole. Or maybe into a door. Or sadly, backs off a cliff to their death while trying to take a selfie?

We've tricked ourselves into a two dimensional view of our reality and to un-trick ourselves we need to reverse the process.

Exercise One: Stepping Out Of Yourself
Sit down in front of your computer with it off and the screen dark. Get comfortable and position yourself so you are facing the screen directly. If you use a laptop, I recommend putting it on a table or desk, and not in your lap. We want to isolate the visual of the screen from the other environmental inputs like the weight of the laptop in your lap.

Take a few minutes and just observe the desktop or table. See the computer as part of the scene. Then once you've got that image in your mind close your eyes.

Slowly pull the point of view you have from seeing the computer and the desk, and into seeing YOU seeing the computer and the desk. You should begin to feel a sort of strange sensation. What I feel is a compression of my mental image with the boundaries around it getting darker. That outer dark is that third dimensional mental space, and a recognition that your reality isn't flat.

Everything we think is real is actually electrical impulses transmitted from the cones and rods in the back of our eyes, up our optic nerve and then collected and processed by our brain cells. The first step in learning to visualize, is to be able to create a mental space on which to paint your visual image. And to recognize your internal separation from the exterior reality. Practice this exercise until you begin to feel this separation.


One side benefit of this exercise is you should start to see your peripheral vision to expand. I'm not sure why, maybe its the recognition that you begin to have that your vision tends to be focused and in a tunnel. You will begin to catch flickers of movement behind your shoulders that register. Don't try and focus on them, just allow them to be there.

This "beyond the boundaries" is very helpful in your night vision. If you drop something in a dark room, don't look at where you think it is, but off to one side. Your eye is made up of two types of specialized cells, Cones and Rods. Cones see colors well but do poorly in low light light. Rods see colors poorly but pick up light well. Cones dominate the center region of your eye, and Rods the sides. At about 15-20 degrees off center, your eye is almost exclusively Rods. So to look for a dropped item in the dark, look off to one side and allow the vague difference in light to pick it out for you.

Exercise Two: Field Trip
For this next exercise you need to take a trip to a local store or large public space. It should have lots of paths and aisles if possible, places you can turn and change direction often. Something like a Home Depot or other large big box hardware store is ideal. We will need something from there for the next exercise. This exercise should take about half an hour.

Enter the store and grab one of the hand baskets. Pick and arm and put the basket on it. Which one doesn't matter because you'll be moving it back and forth. Walk into the store for a bit then turn so the entrance is to your left. Move the basket to your left arm. Now walk straight for a bit.

The basket is going to represent a compass arrow in your mind. Each time you turn I want you to move the basket so it continues to point back towards the entrance. If the entrance is to your front, then lean the basket that way. If its to the rear, then lean it that way. Walk around the store for a while while trying to keep a mental image of where the entrance is to you. when you are done, then walk back to the entrance.

After a few times of doing this exercise, you should be able to leave the basket and just keep a mental arrow in your mind as you walk around the store. I use a compass image myself. You may decide on another image but you'll want to get one you can keep and use for later exercises. Do this exercise until you can walk into a store and keep the direction of the exit in your mind without a prop.

Once you have gotten yourself used to this personal compass, you can adapt it to use outside. Your reference for this will be the Sun. Unless you are out around noon, the Sun will be either to the West or the East, and depending on the season, a bit South too. Mostly in the Winter. If you practice you should be able to keep a mental image in the back of your mind as you drive around. If need be, use the larger streets to rekey your sense of direction. Most of us know whether a particular street runs North/South or East/West.

Before you leave the hardware store, go back into the Paint Department. Go to the display of paint chips and grab one in each of the primary colors of Blue, Green, Yellow and Red. Grab one in White as well as Black too. Go for ones that "pop" out at you with some vibrancy. I like the ones that are long and you can cut the particular color off as a pocket size cue card. We will use these in the next exercise.

Creating In Your Visualized Space
The first two exercises should by now have given you the ability to call up a personal visual space. We now want to start creating images in there, and begin with basic colors.

If I say "Think of Red", what pops into your head? If you are like most people you'll have this vague sort of image. Maybe it will be a reddish color, maybe you'll just get a feeling its red without the color. Maybe you'll get a clear image only to have it fade away. I had a real hard time with this myself, so don't stress if you do too. Not everyone's inner eye is the same, nor do the same images come to everyone as easily.

Practice, practice, practice, as they say.

Exercise Three: Painting In Your Mind
This is where the paint chips you got in Exercise Two will come in handy. Clear a space on your desk or a table, then get the paint chips out. Take a pair of scissors and cut the most vibrant color from the others. Put those on the table and put the others away. Look over them. Take your time. When you are ready, choose one chip. Hold it up in front of your eyes. Focus on the color.

From time to time, close your eyes and see if you can bring the color up in your mind. You don't have to picture the color in any particular shape, though if you are having trouble, try imagining a square like the chip in your hand. The first few times, even the first 100 times, the color will be like grasping water. It will be there then slip out of your hand. When this happens just bring your mind back to the task. Continue to look at the chip, close your eyes, try to imagine the color, then open your eyes again after a minute or so. Don't though spend more than 15-20 minutes on this at any one time. These exercises can get tiring and being tired won't help.

Start picking one chip out in the morning before work, and carrying it through the day. When you have some free time, do the exercise. It some point you should be able to imagine a color, and hold that color in your mind.

Exercise Four: Adding Touch
When you have the chance, pick up a bag of 3-4 small foam balls like you find at pet stores for cats. Get the soft kind and the ones in single colors. If they have a texture its ok but smooth is best.

Go back to your table, sit down and get comfortable. Put the paint chips and the foam balls onto the table. Hopefully you'll have one or two of the foam balls which come close to the color of one of the chips. Match them up. Begin Exercise Three with the paint chip. Once you have the color in your mind, put down the chip and pick up the corresponding foam ball.

At first, just roll the foam ball in your hand. Feel the way it moves between your fingers. Squeeze it from time to time. Close your eyes and see it in your fingers. Keep at it until you have a picture of it there, like the paint chip. The reference of the color from the previous exercise should help. Do this for 3-4 minutes then switch to a different color. Again no more than 15-20 minutes total.

Start taking one of the foam balls with you during the day. When you have a few minutes, do the practice both with the chip and then with the foam ball.

Alternate Exercise: For some variety, try placing the foam ball under your bare foot and roll it around. Close your eyes and concentrate on how the ball feels to you, while imagining it with a bright color.


Memory Practice: "Kim's Game"
As you do these exercises, I think you'll find some interesting side affects. Your focus and attention will probably pick up. This exercise would help that, though you'll need a second person to help.

Based on the 1901 novel "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling in which the protagonist plays the game during his training as a spy.
Kim's Game at Wikipedia"

"The game is called both the Play of the Jewels and the Jewel Game. Kim, a teenager being trained in secret as a spy, spends a month in Simla, British India at the home of Mr. Lurgan, who ostensibly runs a jewel shop but in truth is engaged in espionage for the British against the Russians. Lurgan brings out a copper tray and tosses a handful of fifteen jewels onto it; his boy servant explains to Kim:

"Look on them as long as thou wilt, stranger. Count and, if need be, handle. One look is enough for me. When thou hast counted and handled and art sure that thou canst remember them all, I cover them with this paper, and thou must tell over the tally to Lurgan Sahib. I will write mine."

They contest the game many times, sometimes with jewels, sometimes with odd objects, and sometimes with photographs of people. It is considered a vital part of training in observation and was later added to the book "Scouting Games" by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, who names the exercise "Kim's Game". It is used by several branches of the military around the world.

As an alternate, if you are by yourself, see if you can pick up one of the adult versions of the game "Memory", which involves matching tiles. This one is particularly challenging: "Princeton Architectural Press Classic Paperbacks Memory Game"


Exercise Five: Packing Groceries In Your Mind
Now that you've had some practice creating in your mind, let's go to a slightly different slant on visualization which you can practice.

Get out a reusable grocery bag and a half a dozen paperback books. Spread the books out on the table, with the open bag behind them. Study each cover. Pick them up and turn them over and study the back. Once you have them in your mind, close your eyes. Imagine yourself picking each book up, and putting it into the bag. Once you have them in there, picture yourself taking them out. Do this several times.

Then, do the action for real. Actually pick the books up and put them into the bag. Then take them out.

How does the action feel, having done the mental work first?

Practice this before you go to the grocery store. Then at the store, as you get items (don't buy a lot of things the first few times, just enough to fill the bag half way) mentally picture how you will load the bag. When you get there tell the clerk you'll bag your groceries yourself and do what you had done in your mind for real.


A Good Beginning
These exercises should get you the basics of visualization and a good beginning. For now, practice these and we'll come back to this subject next month.


I've done it while reading. So has at least one friend of mine. Safety Announcement: don't read and walk!

I've also seen a seagull fly into a lamppost, and far too many birds that have collided with windows.