Three kinds of visualization
I know, dividing something into three groups is a rhetoric trick. So I use it this once, so what? It is easier for me to describe three kinds of visualization than to go into a serious discussion.
We visualize to remember, to get motivated and to have fun.
The three kinds of visualization are very different. When we visualize to remember we focus on structure and details. To get motivated we focus on archetypes and processes. To have fun we visualize whatever entertains us.
The evolutionary advantage of visualization
The most basic form of visualization can be noticed in various marsupials like mice. Certain mice underwent a procedure that removed all inhibitions during their sleep. And in sleep, they acted as they would during the day: foraging for food, running for predators, mating or fighting for the right to mate.
It is much easier to relieve the same event in our imagination than to actually do it. The brain reacts in a similar way, ensuring a better reaction in a real-life situation. This affects memory, motivation, and joy. The joy is an important factor, as it is nature’s way to tell us that we do the right thing.
Occasionally visualization can also backfire without external help. We may relive traumatic events without a way to improve our performance and end the trauma cycle. Alternatively, our imagination can create something unnatural and unacceptable, not because of evolutionary advantage, but because we see patterns in noise.
Seeing patterns in noise is strange. Interestingly enough it is a quality of any deep neural networks, including artificial intelligence. In fact, the state of the art neural networks are also trained to dream. The methodology is called GAN (generative adversarial networks). The method includes two cooperating networks. One network creates patterns of noise that resemble reality, and the other needs to discriminate between the real images and created patterns.
Either way, our imagination is not limited to what we actually see, but also includes strange and wonderful things.
Since we can create something resembling reality in our imagination, we often use it. Above I stated three such uses: encoding information, generating visual symbols that activate some automatic responses and creating alternative realities for our entertainment. Clearly, we can do many more things, like running thought experiments or training focus by focusing on yantras.
What is common for these examples: we do not rely on automatic visualization. We guide the visualization ourselves, or with the help of others.
The easiest way to guide the visualization is through storytelling. When we read books or watch a good movie, our imagination adds scenes and generates a visions.
The bandwidth of visualization
While all people are different, and the quality of visualization improves with training, not everything can be visualized. Our visualization has bandwidth: some level of complexity and details, beyond which we cannot imagine. To see where this limit lies we can visualize an object in all clarity we can master and start adding details. At some point, we will start making an effort, and then we will stop visualizing clearly.
Funny, but we cannot even see in full detail. Our eye catches full resolution only in a small circle in the middle of our visual field. Everything else is blurred. The further we get to the peripheral vision, the more blurry we see. This compression of information allows our brain to handle visual data with very little energy consumption. And similar information handling limitations apply to our imagination.
Getting the raw materials
We can visualize many things, but certain things are easier than others. If we saw something in real life or in a movie and it has a name, we will easily visualize it. This is somewhat strange, but something that is abstract or cannot be named is hard to visualize. For example, ancient Greeks did not have a word for blue, and they often visualized red sky.
We use our imagination to create stories, video games, and virtual reality. Then we use our imagination to take this raw material and modify it. This creates positive feedback, an explosion of imagery we can imagine. 100 years ago people simply did not have the raw material to imagine such strange things like wormholes and transformer robots. Well, maybe Einstein could because he was a genius.
The brain of a genius
Certain brains are wired differently. This can be a birth abnormality, the way the brain handled trauma or a result of some strange training. These brains can process visualization differently. When we read Einstein’s articles we understand he could keep more details in his imagination than we do, and in a more stable way manipulate them. Van Gogh saw colors differently, and also imagined them differently. Maybe he was partially color blind. A high number of genius suffered from synesthesia, where senses are not separated and feed each other, creating further imagery.
A genius can often imagine things well beyond what we mere mortals can handle. Then, the genius can make these things tangible for our advantage, making us also capable of manipulating them.
We kind of understand what abstract art is, but how is it representing the thigs we visualize? Abstract expressionism is very symbolic, presenting raw feeling in color. Other forms are various shapes. We often draw similar shapes when doodling. What do they represent? What imagery represents abstract words?
In our courses, we treat abstract words in several ways. When the situation is simple, there is a well-known visual symbol or branding corresponding to the words. More often, there are simple examples or alternations we can imagine. If everything else fails, we separate them into pieces creating an image for each piece.
If abstract stuff is so hard for our brain, why should we bother imagining it? I do not have a real answer. Maybe we simply want to push our limits, or maybe there is a deeper reason in the way we perceive certain lines and colors.
Algorithms perceive reality differently and can visualize things humans do not expect, further widening our horizons.
Visualization as a mirror
What we visualize is a sort of a mirror to who we are. Ancient people visualized animals or chimeras of sorts. Medieval people would visualize angels and demons. Our visualizations are often depersonalized, sometimes blowing the line between the real and imaginary. Our reality itself became strange and dream-like.
Lucid dreaming used to be hard. People did not eat for days and prayed or meditated to get into the trans state. Today it is easy. We watch digital imagery before we go to sleep, and it stays with us in some ways. The tricky thing is to wake up, getting bored with the dream. Quite often the main difference is a higher resolution of the actual reality. If we start spinning like a dancing dervish, our dreams will also spin one after another, further blowing the line between reality and the imagination.
Taking visualization further
Meditation often includes focusing on a single image. This is hard and requires practice.
Memory training often includes walking mental palaces, switching the focus through the rooms in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion.
Motivational visualization often involves fading one state to make another state clear.
Is it possible to multitask visualizations or to make visualization wider than our visual angle? My training with some of the exercises on this site shows that it can be done.
Possibly, by stretching our visualization we can also stretch our minds and transcend our current limitations.