Natan Sharansky is an author and politician who spent 9 years in a Soviet prison after being accused of spying for the U.S. While in solitary confinement, he played against himself in a hermitic form of mental chess, pretty much convinced the he might as well use the opportunity to train himself to one day becoming the world champion. Remarkably, in 1996 Sharansky was able to beat the world champion Garry Kasparov.
Visualization is a mental training technique employed by many athletes and sportsmen. To quote World Champion golfer Jack Nicklaus: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.”
Among sports, visualization is probably most pronounced in chess. Every player has to “visualize” possible positions several moves ahead in order to select the best next move. Visualization is thus an essential skill to succeed; other skills such as tactical prowess, strategic knowledge, and positional insight can only be optimized with a certain degree of chess visualization.
For this reason, board visualization exercises are an important part of every chess player’s training routine. One of the most spectacular of these drills is called “blindfold chess.” Blindfold chess is a form of chess wherein the players do not see the positions of the pieces or touch them. It’s the same version of chess that Sharansky played in his cell.
By playing blindfolded you are forced to maintain a mental model of the board in your head. It’s a way to practice maintaining a fixed mental view of the game while calculating through myriad variations.
In standard club level chess games, leaving a piece “hanging” is quite a common mistake. Why does it happen? Because in a certain sense even when you are playing standard chess you always have to play “blindfolded.” When you are calculating your moves, you have to imagine a chessboard that’s not really there. And you can easily overlook certain chess pieces, utterly forgetting them even though they’re right in front of your eyes.
Modern brain studies reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions – mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So what really happens during visualization is that the brain is training for actual performance.
If professional athletes and chess-players use this technique to improve their performance, how can we use it to enhance our lives?
Begin by establishing a goal. Visualize yourself in the future, having already achieved it. Hold a mental “picture” of it as if it were occurring to you right at that moment. Depict the scene in as much detail as possible. Try to be engaged in the scene with as many of the five senses as you can. This is crucial.
Practice this every day, maybe adding it to your meditation routines. In the beginning it could appear as a waste of effort, but the this is the truly only way for you to “cheat” your brain into believing that you’re not just dreaming, but experiencing something “real.”
By imaging the future in such vivid detail, you create an awareness of possible actions you can take to attain it. Holding an image in the mind increases our understanding of the particular details that are required to materialize it.
It is like unconsciously mapping out the piece exchanges you need to make on a chessboard to ensure victory, ahead of the actual moves. To again quote Sun Tzu: “Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces.”
image: Venus blindfolded courtesy of Mirko Tobias Schaefer through CC BY 2.0 via Flickr – edited