Neuroscientific research reveals that physical ability can be influenced and even trained by mental imagination. The data clearly indicate that mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice. This knowledge could be very useful for athletes and their coaches.
Doidge1 described the following experiments in his book The Brain That Changes Itself:
"Everything your 'immaterial' mind imagines leaves material traces in the brain and in the body. Each thought alters the physical state of your brain connection. Each time you imagine moving your fingers across the keys to play the piano, you alter the tendrils in your living brain." (p. 213)
"An interesting experiment with learning a simple routine on the piano shows how training the imagination improves physical performance. Two groups of people who had no experience of playing the piano were given a simple sequence of notes to learn. One group, the 'mental practice' group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second "physical practice" group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. . . . The level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group, however substantial, was not as great as in those who did physical practice. But when the mental practice group finished its mental training and was given a single two-hour physical practice session, its overall performance improved to the level of the physical practice group's performance at five days ... We all do mental practice when we memorize answers for a test, or rehearse any kind of performance or presentation. But because few of us do it systematically, we underestimate its effectiveness. Some athletes and musicians use it to prepare for performances." (p. 202)
"From a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound . Brain scans show that many of the same parts of the brain are activated in imagination as are in action, and that is why visualizing can improve performance.
In an experiment that is as hard to believe as it is simple, Drs. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole showed that imagining that one is using one's muscles actually strengthens them. The study looked at two groups, one that did physical exercise and one that imagined doing exercise. Both groups exercised a finger muscle, Monday through Friday, for four weeks. The physical group did fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each. The mental group merely imagined doing fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each, and at the same time imagining a voice shouting at them, 'harder! harder!'. At the end of the study the subjects who had done physical exercise increased their muscular strength by 30%. Those who only imagined doing the exercise, for the same period, increased their muscle strength by 22%. The explanation lies in the motor neurons of the brain that 'program' movements. During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted." (p. 204)
This research suggests that imagining an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in actually performing it.
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