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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