Top execs use this visualization trick to achieve success—here's why it works, according to a neuroscientist

Credit: Igor Emmerich

When she wanted Barack Obama to be elected president, Oprah Winfrey made a vision board with a picture of him and a picture of the dress she'd wear to his inauguration. In fourth grade, Katy Perry made a vision board of her "hopes and aspirations" in music. And a 2016 TD Bank survey found that one five small business owners used some sort of vision board when starting their business.

"You would be surprised how many high-powered executives secretly have action or vision boards at home or saved on their computers," neuroscientist, medical doctor and executive coach Tara Swart tells CNBC Make It.

Swart, who quit her job as a psychiatrist to teach people how to use neuroscience to achieve their goals — including using vision boards as a tool — says she charges $60,000 a year retainer and has worked with executives at major companies like KPMG, LinkedIn, MIT Sloan School of Management, Samsung, Sony, SAB Miller and Stanford Business School.

But do vision boards actually work? Swart says there's science behind the mechanism, you just have to use them correctly.

"I prefer the term 'action board,' as we are looking to create something that will inspire and manifest in your future through your actions, rather than merely a vehicle for daydreams of second homes abroad and lots of money," says Swart, author of "The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain."

While Swart admits the idea of a collage helping you achieve success may seem silly, there are neuro-processes involved.

Tara Swart, a neuroscientist turned executive coach.
Credit: Clara Molden

Vision boards prime your brain to recognize opportunity

For one thing, looking at images on a vision board primes the brain to grasp opportunities that may otherwise gone unnoticed, says Swart. That's because the brain has a process called "value-tagging," which imprints important things onto your subconscious and filters out unnecessary information. The brain assigns a higher "value" to images than written words on a "to-do" list, says Swart, and the more you look at those images, the more those images move up in importance.

And if you look at it right before you fall asleep every night, the images will be imprint even further, says Swart.

As your brain transitions from wakefulness to sleep (it's called hypnagogia), lucid thoughts, dreaming and creativity occur. Swart says if you focus your attention on something during that period — particularly on something new — those images tend to dominate your dreams and pattern your thoughts. It's known as the "Tetris effect" (named after the 1980s video game). Once the images have been embedded in your psyche, Swart says, they act as a visual directory and your brain will start to filter out data that is not relevant to them.

Seeing is being

Visualization is another way action boards work.

When looking at the pictures on your board that represent what you hope to achieve, you should visualize what it feels like to already be there, says Swart. It's important, she says, because to the brain there is little difference between a strongly imagined vision and the actual experience of the thing happening.

However, you may want to also visualize yourself doing what it takes to achieve your goal.

It's true that imagining something can result in tangible benefits — studies have shown that people who imagine themselves flexing a muscle achieve actual physical strength gains, for example. But research also shows that visualizing only outcomes (like getting an A on a test) rather than work it actually takes to get there (like studying) hinders success. (This research has been cited to show the ineffectiveness of vision boards by some experts.) It's why many athletes visualize themselves executing their feat or playing a big game as a method of prep.

It can reduce the stress around taking action

Swart says that using an action board regularly (she recommends placing it in a highly visible area like next to your bed or in your closet) can also help you make better decisions and be more willing to take action toward achieving your goals.

Normally, when you try something new, the body has a stress response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline. In other words, new things can be scary. However when you repeatedly look at images related to your goals, your brain no longer sees them as new.

"The process reduces the [physiological] fear response to any new situation or person, making you more likely to take healthy risks, collaborate and embrace opportunity," Swart says.

Of course, vision boards alone don't get you to your goals, says Swart. "It cannot just be that you create a fantasy image of your ideal life and wait for your life to magically change. You've got to do things too and move yourself towards that."

Correction: Swart's yearly retainer has been changed from $30,000 to $60,000 a year. 

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