The Neuroscience Behind Visualization

Have you ever had someone tell you to visualize yourself successfully completing a task before attempting it? What about "power-posing"?

Do these things have merit? Is there actual science that we can observe that proves that these things are helpful?

Warning: This post will include wordy/sciencey terminology. It is designed to prove a point and provide actual evidence behind something that has been considered to be anecdotal evidence. Don't be afraid. It contains really good research about how Visualization can help you accomplish big tasks and challenges.

Mastery of a certain skill or set of information requires hours of study, work, and practice. Employers demand proficiency from those who are on their payroll and professional athletes get paid millions of dollars for their high level of expertise in their specific sport. With this prodigious demand for excellence in the workplace, neurobiologists are trying to identify the most efficient method for training or practicing the desired muscle/thought pattern.

Visualization is a unique tool that is used by many successful individuals in order to “mentally rehearse” a task before they physically attempt to complete the task. This allows for the individual to be mentally prepared for the situation that they will be introduced to during the job.

In his book Brain Power, Karl Albrecht defines visualization as “all non-verbal thought forms that your brain organizes into a spatial pattern, not just mental pictures” (Albrecht). Albrecht continues to emphasize that visualization requires input from all senses in order to create a full environment in which you can imagine yourself into so that the created scene seems more real and, therefore, helps you connect on a deeper level. Albrecht writes that, “using visualization really amounts to recalling whole patterns like these and extracting the needed information from them by examining whatever mode of sensation seems to have encoded it most accessibly” (Albrecht).

With all of this sensory information being taken in and stored for future use, it is important to note that all of this stimulation is picked up and translated by the nervous system so that actions can be taken and movements can be determined. Daniel Wolpert, a renowned neuroscientist and professor at the University of Cambridge, asserts that the only reason we even have a brain and neural system is to coordinate movements or retain information that will help us coordinate movements in the future. He argues that, “So think about communication -- speech, gestures, writing, sign language -- they're all mediated through contractions of your muscles. So it's really important to remember that sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important, but they're only important to either drive or suppress future movements. There can be no evolutionary advantage to laying down memories of childhood or perceiving the color of a rose if it doesn't affect the way you're going to move later in life” (Wolpert).

In his TED Talk, Wolpert explains his idea of "movement chauvinism". In this way of thinking, he illustrates that the most important thing that the brain does is control movement. Everything that we do. Everything that we are... drives movement. Movement is the key to life.

Whether or not movement chauvinism is the be all and end all, it is no secret that movement and coordinated muscle contractions that are used to achieve a certain goal are vital to life and biological fitness. It is clear that the nervous system plays an enormous role in muscle movement.

All of this background information leads up to the idea that, if the nervous system is the major control system for the skeletal muscle movements used in performing everyday activities then, could there be a way to train these muscle patterns by solely thinking about/mentally rehearsing the particular pattern? This idea of visualization has been tossed around the business and athletic worlds alike because of anecdotal stories. These stories often include individuals pretending to go through a particular upcoming situation so that, when the real situation arose, they would be more prepared and perform at a higher level.

One well-known example of visualization is the story of Major James Nesmeth. Nesmeth loved to golf in his spare time even though he consistently shot in the mid to high 90s every round he played. After being called to active duty, Nesmeth was captured and imprisoned as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for seven years. During his time in isolation, Nesmeth claims he visualized himself playing 18 holes of golf every single day for seven years. What first became a gimmick to maintain his sanity soon turned into a challenge to see how detailed and realistic he could make his pretend golf outing. He used memories from past golfing experiences to recreate the sensations of a round of golf and incorporated as many aspects of the game as he could recall. When he finally returned to the United States, the very next time he set foot on a golf course he shot a 74. He lowered his average score by over 20 points by simply committing to active visualization every day for seven years.

Stories like this are inspirational and can help motivate people to really focus in on their goals. It is evident that our neural system plays a crucial role in muscle coordination and movement. However, is visualization scientifically valid? Nyberg et. al. conducted a study to try and analyze the difference between learning via physical training and learning via mental training. In order to get statistical data to compare the means of the two experimental groups, the neuropsychologists designed a finger tapping game that required the participants to press a series of buttons in the correct order shown on a screen as quickly as possible.

After the averages were collected, the participants were split into two experimental groups and a control group. One experimental group practiced the game by physically tapping on a table while following along with the on-screen instructions. The other group followed along with the on-screen instructions, however they were not allowed to move their fingers. Instead, they were told to imagine that they were tapping their fingers to practice the task while keeping their fingers interlocked and visible on the table. The test was given again after a week of training and the results showed that both groups saw significant improvement from their beginning scores (Nyberg). While the physical training group saw a more dramatic increase in mean scores, the mental training group showed a large increase as well, showing that mental visualization can improve motor coordination. The figure above gives a clear graphic of the increase in mean from the pre-training test to post-training test with the white column serving as the controls from both groups.

Taking this idea of visualization and its impact on improving motor function and coordination a step further, several experiments dealing with the same topic suggest that experienced participants tend to benefit from visualization more than novices. In 1980, RC Noel showed that subjects that were classified as being highly proficient at tennis saw a substantial increase in performance after using visualization techniques for two weeks while those who were classified as lower ability players saw a slight worsening of performance (Noel). This affirms the idea that more experienced athletes benefit more from visualization. One potential reason for the improvement in performance could be that the experienced athlete has a plethora of mental images, sounds, and knowledge to properly visualize a scenario that incorporates many different sensations. The more sensory information stored in one’s memory than the more specific and realistic mental rehearsal one can immerse themselves within.

The toughest part of scientifically proving visualization’s merit is finding the mechanisms in the brain that play a role in the mental imagery process and determining whether or not the neural loci can be isolated. The neural pathways involved in visualization would be strongly linked to the memory storage system in our brain, as well as the motor cortex in the frontal lobe. An article published in 1995 titled Mental Imagery in the Motor Context suggested that the visualization pathway “involves control mechanisms which are activated in parallel with the main stream of information. These control mechanisms imply a storage of operations performed at each level in as many motor memories as there are levels. These memories are used as a comparator for controlling the unfolding of the action” (Jeannerod).

Specifically, Jeannerod maintains that it is a complicated network of neurons that are involved in visualization because the brain scanning involved in their study was inconclusive and showed variable results. Nevertheless, visualization seems to be most effective when it is used in parallel with motor training and other facets of learning information to help bolster one’s ability to understand and coordinate movements.

  • Nyberg et al. -- Group-averaged sequence-specific training effect (trained > untrained). Following motor training, increased activity was observed in SMA (A: x, y, z = 4, 0, 78) and cerebellum (D: x, y, z = 42, −74, −22; 0, −78, −8). Following mental training, increased activity was observed in SMA (B: x, y, z = 0, 4, 56) and visual cortex (C: x, y, z = 4, −82, 14). The spatial extent of these activations exceeded 35 voxels. Differential activity is visualized on a single-subject anatomical MRI image from SPM2.

The figure above was taken from Nyberg et. al. study that was mentioned earlier. It gives a clear graphic of the brain activity as a result of motor training and mental training. One of the notable differences between the motor and mental training from this MRI image is the area in the visual cortex that was activated during the mental training and visualization. To be clear, the visual in the MRI image only shows the activated areas of the brain that were differential (activated in one training method and not the other) and statistically significant (spatial extent of the activation exceeding 35 voxels).

The image illustrates the differences in brain activity while the participant is completing the training, visual or physical, before the second attempt at the task. The ties between the mental training and visual cortex is intriguing because it suggests that, even though the participant cannot see the task during visualization, their visual cortex is still stimulated during their mental rehearsal which could possibly speed up or fine tune the pathway that is about to be used during the actual task. This could be the reason for the increased performance after visualization and mental imagery.

While it is very likely that visualization processes are closely tied to the motor and memory areas in the brain, I believe that it would also be worth looking into the mirror neuron system that has been discovered in the brains of monkeys. The system has been shown to help interpret the actions of others as well as imitate another action after one has observed a particular motor movement (Stefan). This could be an interesting avenue to look into because of the correlation that has been shown between previously observed movements/sensations and visualization. If these mirror neurons play a significant role in imitation after observation, then they could also play a role in the repetition of an action after mental rehearsal that concentrates on previous observations of that same task. This also implies that experienced performers would obtain a greater benefit from mental imagery than their novice counterparts because the experienced performers have been in more situations where they can gather observational information that can be used by these mirror neurons for imitation and mental scene construction. Further studies need to be conducted in order to elucidate the potential link between the mirror neural system and mental imagery.

The impact of visualization and mental rehearsal before performance of a particular task has been shown to increase scores and provide an overall benefit for those who choose to fully invest in their mental imagery. Sports psychologists and entrepreneurs have begun to implement visualization in order to get their patients/employees prepared for future scenarios that they might encounter. What started out as anecdotal stories of people improving themselves by simply running through pretend situations in their head has turned into one of the most intriguing and practical scientific studies in neuropsychology. There undoubtedly needs to be more research done on the topic in order to isolate specific neural pathways that control the visualization process so that researchers and psychologists can perhaps look at that area of the brain to study learning disabilities or poor muscle coordination. However, until then, visualization should remain a key component of anyone’s preparation regimen in order to maximize performance by selecting, preparing, and fine-tuning the neural pathways that will be used during the completion of the task.

If you want to learn more about what the latest research says about visualization and how it could help you achieve your goals, reach out to us today! We would love to help you on your path to improving your health and performance. Prime Performance Rehab serves active adults in the Charleston area get out of pain and get back to doing the things they love. Send an email to info@primeperformancerheab.com today to connect with us!

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