Moving Better By Just Thinking About It

The Thinker

One of the main themes of this blog is that the brain has far more control over strength, speed, flexibility and coordination than most people imagine.  Nothing makes this point more clear than the fact that we can dramatically improve our physical performance by doing nothing more than thinking about it.  In this post I will talk about the surprising effects of visualization on physical performance.

Movement visualization has been used by many elite athletes, dancers and musicians to improve performance for a long time.  Science has been interested in the effects of visualization on physical performance since the 1920s.  Although there have been conflicting results, research has left no doubt that imagery can improve physical performance.  Here is a brief summary of some interesting results.

Numerous experiments have shown that people can increase their physical skills by imagining themselves practicing the skill.  For example, in one experiment two groups of people were taught a series of notes on the piano.  Neither group had ever played before.  One group practiced playing the notes for five days, two hours a day.  The second group simply imagined playing the notes for the same amount of time.  At the end of the experiment, the imagining group had improved almost as much as the practicing group.  In fact, they had completely caught up after two hours of hands on practice.  Further, their brains showed objective changes in the neurons that control the skills.  How is this possible?

The reason we can improve movement by thinking about moving is that these two activities are actually very similar neurologically.  Performing an act with coordination requires firing the right sequences and combinations of neurons that control the movement.  Practice will strengthen, grow and optimize the organization of these neurons.  Imagining an act will activate almost exactly the same networks of neurons and will therefore improve them in the same way.  In fact, visualizing a certain movement will cause almost undetectable muscular contractions in the same patterns and sequences that control the actual movement.  So, if you looked at brain scans of people moving and imagining the same movement, you wouldn’t see much difference.  The bottom line is that coordination and skill reside in the brain, and from the perspective of the brain, imagining movement and moving are not as different on the inside as they appear from the outside.

Here’s a quick experiment you can do to verify this for yourself.  Imagine writing your name as fast as possible with your dominant hand.  Now imagine writing it as fast as you can with the non-dominant hand.  If you are like most people, you will be significantly slower in visualizing action with the unskilled hand.  Movement and imagining are both limited by the same thing – your brain’s organization in regard to the action.

You can also increase strength purely by thinking about lifting weights.  In one experiment, researchers had one group of people practice maximal contractions of a certain finger muscle.  The second group simply imagined the maximal contractions.  At the end of the study, the physical group had improved finger strength by 30 percent, while the imagining group had improved strength by 22 percent.  This proves that strength is a quality of the brain not just the body.  One reason that we can increase strength by purely mental changes is that the central nervous system (“CNS”) acts as a governor on our strength, preventing us from hurting ourselves with uncontrolled force.  Part of becoming stronger is simply developing the skill of having the CNS activate more muscle fibers at one time.  And as with playing a piano, we can improve this skill just by imagining it.

What about that most overrated of all physical qualities, flexibility?  Surely we can only enjoy the benefits of lengthening our muscles by engaging in hours of boring static stretching, or by pummeling our muscles into submission by painful bouts of foam rolling?  Perhaps not.  Imagery may work for improving flexibility as well.  One study has shown improvements in range of motion from a five week program of imagined stretching.  The research is somewhat questionable in my mind because the subjects were synchronized swimmers, who are obviously not quite like the rest of us.  Despite these limitations, the result seems very plausible given what we know about how the CNS controls muscle flexibility.  Like with strength, the CNS acts as a governor on flexibility, limiting the extent to which the muscles can extend.  If the CNS is concerned that a large range of motion (“ROM”) will cause an injury, then it will stiffen the muscles that limit that ROM.  If you get more familiar with the ROM and more coordinated in performing it, this will tend to reduce threat and therefore stiffness.  Because visualization practice can make you more coordinated, it can therefore make you less stiff.

So what’s the central message here?  That skills, strength and flexibility are largely determined by the actual physical structure of the neurons of the brain, and that these structures are changed by what is essentially mental activity.  Therefore, choose exercise that is challenging to your concentration, attention and awareness, as opposed to exercise that is just challenging to the body (i.e. treadmill running, static stretching, machines).  As usual, I will recommend Z-Health and the Feldenkrais Method as excellent options.

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15 Responses to Moving Better By Just Thinking About It

  1. Hello, Todd,
    I am sincerely thankful for all the information you have shared and I appreciate the effort to assist affected musicians – but I have a problem with the assumption in the title of above article, also applied in the experiment you mentioned in it.
    According to research (A. Brandfonbrener: Previous music-induced pain problems in a population of 330 freshman music school students. Presented at Medical Problems of Musicians & Dancers, June 19–22, 2008), 9 out of each 10 piano hopefuls have experienced playing-related pain in their hands even before they reached the college; would you believe that it was so because so many of them (and, let’s not forget, also their teachers) haven’t just thought of moving any better in playing?

  2. Hi Todd
    I have just recently started following your blog. What you say here rings a bell with an experience of mine which had always confused me. In 1992 I moved to Paris. For the first time in my life, after ten years of studying piano, I had no piano to practice on, even occasionally. However, also for the first time in my life, I was able to regularly attend jazz gigs by world class musicians. I tried to make a point of sitting where I could see the keyboard if they were pianists.
    After a couple of years, I had an opportunity to sit down at a piano again while visiting some friends. To my astonishment, rather than getting rusty in the meantime, I was able to play improvisations of a complexity and fluency I had never achieved before!
    The whole subject you touch on here speaks very directly, not only to how we learn skills and assimilate experience, but also to the issue of the ‘passivity’ of the spectator/listener in relation not only to the arts, but a wide range of spectacles. I wonder if anyone has made studies of how simply watching athletes (for example) might improve athletic performance?

    • Peter,

      Thanks for the story, very interesting. I don’t know of any studies on this, but the idea of “mirror neurons” may explain your experience. Mirror neurons are a recent discovery I think. They seem to have many uses. They allow you to experience what an other person is experiencing, to feel empathy, imitate speech, actions of others. They are critical in the learning process. Mirror neurons fire when you watch someone else move in a certain way or even feel a certain way. They cause you to feel or imagine the movement or the emotion in a way that will help you learn the emotion or movement. This is probably why we enjoy watching actors or great athletes. We share th experience. I have personally had the experience of playing much better tennis or squash after watching great tennis players or squash players up close. For some reason the tv doesn’t seem to help as much, you really need to be up close. Perhaps its the mirror neurons. I also find it interesting that many eastern religious traditions have a concept which I believe is called darshan – which involves somehow absorbing the positive spiritual energy of an enlightened person simply by being in their presence. Perhaps mirror neurons again. Maybe I will write my next post on this issue ….

  3. Todd,
    Very interesting. Do you have any references on mirror neurons you could point me to already?
    The difference with TV and film is very intriguing to me. I am doing an MFA in video art at the moment, and my particular interest is how placing multiple screens in a negotiable space changes the viewer’s experience, vis a vis working with a single flat screen in a dark room where the viewer has to sit still. My exploration is intuitive rather than scientific, tho.
    I have read interviews in which the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas claimed that watching Terminator — in theory not his kind of movie — would set off a whole chain of neuro-motor reactions in the body as you imagined you were doing yourself what you were seeing on the screen. Even viewing Hollywood blockbusters, therefore, may not be called an entirely ‘passive’ experience.
    Yet, there does seem to be something fundamentally different about watching a 2D image versus really seeing (being present with) the thing it is an image of. I know some claim that it can be physically damaging to brain development if young children are exposed to too much TV.
    I can theorise all day about this difference in terms of philosophy or politics, but I had never really tried to translate it into how it might affect our basic perceptual/motor functions. Thanks for getting me thinking!

  4. There is an good, easily readable book called ‘Hockey Tough’ by Dr. Saul Miller, a sports psychologist, who discusses how hockey players can use visualization. As mentioned, it’s both beneficial to watch footage (especially of yourself succeeding), as well as visualizing.

  5. Hi Todd
    Thank you for your article! I am a basketball player and I was wondering how one would incoparate visualisation around one’s training sessions? You mention that training and visualising both have similiar effects on the brain but what do you think is the best way to incoparate the two?

    Thank you

    • Filip,

      Glad you liked the article. I am not an expert on exactly how to incorporate visualization, I just know that in principle it can work. I think that most elite athletes use visualization without even really trying to consciously use it as a technique – they just have their minds on the game all the time, even when they are not playing. If you are that kind of guy, you will be using visualization without even trying. Good luck!

  6. Wonderful theory but one important point is missing. How do they do imagination exercise? Even in Feldenkrais ATM, when it comes to imagination part, it simply asks us to imagine. That is not sufficient information to evaluate effectiveness of imagination.

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