How mental visualizations improve physical skills [explained]

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A version of this article[1] first appeared on psyguitar.com, where I write about how psychology and neuroscience help guitar playing.

Visualization is a way to perceive using your mind’s eye, and visualizations tend to help people improve their skill performance.

Visualizations help musicians[2], physiotherapists, dancers, stand-up comedians and speakers, and sportspeople[3] perform better, and can also help others overcome fears[4] like stage fright and lower performance anxiety. Any skill that needs rehearsals can benefit from visualizations. It is a technique to improve most perceptual-motor skills – skills that need your brain to actively perceive and move parts of your body in sync.

Visualization practice can be 50% as good as actual practice because the brain continues to rehearse the skill as a mental simulation. Click To Tweet

What are visualizations?

Let’s backtrack. Visualization is a part of mental imagery, specifically, imagery that takes the form of visual details. You can have auditory imagery too, which is hearing with your mind’s ear. But for the sake of simplicity, people call all forms of imagery visualizations or imagination. Example – Imagining yourself throwing basketball free throws and repeating that motion is a visual visualization. Imagining yourself playing an instrument is a visual and auditory visualization.

You can visualize code, music, design, cooking, social interactions, sports, engineering, etc.[5]

Think of visualizations as mental practice[6]. It is symbolically rehearsing your skill in the absence of accurate physical movements[7]. Slight air guitaring is fine, but then the more you move, the more it is “embodied” and not “symbolic”. Embodied means that your visualization is very closely tied to physical movements and processes in the body. Modern research says that almost everything that happens in the mind is not actually just symbolic or cognitive; it is embodied[8] – events of the mind are processed and created using specific processes outside the brain but located within the body.

If you look at visualizations as a way to analyze your skill and rehearse it, you are not just doing a neural repetition; you are actively thinking about your skill. That is a metacognitive process and possibly the most powerful mental tool to learn.

How effective are visualizations?

In Alan Richardson’s 2 part review (part 1[9], part 2[10]) of mental practice research and related performance gains, there is an interesting finding summarized through 30 years of research. Across a wide variety of perceptual-motor tasks like darting, basketball, juggling, finger movements, card sorting, finger dexterity, tapping, etc., physical practice has the highest improvement in skill, as expected. But mental practice gives a far higher performance gain than no practice, and is sometimes almost equal to physical practice. In some cases, no practice led to 10% improvement, but mental practice gave over 60% improvement, and physical practice gave a maximum of 450% improvement across many studies. Alan’s research does highlight some studies where visualizations repeatedly worsened performance, and he suggests that visualizing endlessly (called massed visualization) interferes with actual performance. To prevent this, visualizations need to have accurate details.

A quick summary of effects found across studies gives us these 2 approximate formulae about how good mental and physical practice are for improving skills.

Physical practice (PP), No practice (NP), Mental practice (MP).

  1. PP > MP > NP Physical practice is greater than mental practice, which is greater than no practice.
  2. PP = 2MP = 10NP In short, physical practice is 10 times better than no practice, and mental practice is 5 times better than no practice. And mental practice is half as good as physical practice.

Alan’s research says a few other things that are relevant for sports people, musicians, craftspeople, and all other physical-skill-dependent people.

  1. Visualizations can lead to bilateral transfer. Bilateral transfer means skills acquired by one hand apply to the other hand.
  2. Visualizations are also more efficient and more potent when a learner is familiar with the visualized material. So you should visualize something you are currently learning and not just fantasize about something you wish to play one day.
  3. Visualizations should typically last for just a few minutes (I recommend 20 seconds to 3 minutes). Otherwise, you would lose focus, and the visualizations would interfere with your physical skill. On top of that, over-visualization can actually lead to habituation and neural numbing via a process called “reactive inhibition” – if you overplay a neuron (through visualization or physical practice), it becomes less (not more) sensitive and reduces its firing rate.
  4. Detailed and accurate visualizations improve performance more.

When you learn something, the brain encodes it. Encoding means it is converting sensory information into a learning pattern that is stored as a memory in the brain. All techniques and sound patterns you learn are encoded memories and are governed by the brain’s motor cortex and somatosensory cortex.

The process of encoding is not straightforward. It is lengthy and extremely unstable because the neurons that encode the memory have to themselves biologically stabilize. And unless you actively let the brain stabilize them, they will decay. We call this process of stabilizing neurons “learning”.

Interrupted sleep, or learning too many things without any practice, or giving your practice very little importance translates into the brain not using its resources to stabilize those neurons. Practice is the most common way to stabilize them, but physical practice is not necessary each time. That’s where visualizations play a role.

There is neural replay after a newly learned skill which first converts your sensory information into memory (encoding) in the form of neural activity. This activity is replayed by the brain to strengthen it. Instead of just letting the brain replay it on its own, you visualize and let the brain replay those neurons to enhance that automatic neural replay. Research shows that imagining something engages similar or a part of the same neural activity as physically doing something. So imagining yourself throwing a dart will engage neurons that are actually used while throwing the dart.

Visualizing yourself doing physical skills can improve skills because the brain then rehearses the neural connections and signals muscles to make movements. Research suggests it's half as good as actual practice in some cases. Click To Tweet

When is mental practice most useful?

  1. Your practice is intense and muscles are fatiguing.
  2. You are recovering from injury.
  3. You have to rehearse freshly learned movements when physical practice is not possible, like learning just before a long commute.
  4. You cannot afford long practice hours.
  5. You need scaffolding – metaphorical training wheels – during physical rehabilitation.

How to visualize

First, keep your eyes closed or open based on your comfort with visualizations and how vividly you imagine yourself doing your skill, like playing an instrument or molding clay. Know what you want to visualize first. Otherwise, you shoot in the dark and YMMV. It’s best if you’ve performed that skill or seen someone else do it clearly before you start visualizing.

There are 4 ways you can visualize, and each of them has a different role to play in your performance.

  1. Egocentric visualization: Egocentric means self (ego) centric, where you visualize yourself practice from your 1st person point of view. This way of visualization brings details, and precise technical aspects, including the sounds, movements, and location/color details, into awareness, and your brain encodes those better.
  2. 3rd-person allocentric visualization: Allocentric means other (allo) centric, where you visualize yourself playing from a 3rd-person point of view. 3rd person allocentric view gives you confidence and a general sense of feel, and the brain encodes that. It gives an audience perspective and a way to distance yourself from yourself, so you can analyze what you are doing.
  3. Low construal visualization: Construal means depth of understanding. Low construal means very high details, like a mental close-up view. Low construal detail allows you to encode your mistakes and analyze your ideas. High construal is a big-picture view, so it is better done as allocentric or egocentric visualization.
  4. Positive visualizations: Positive visualization is about imaging a better skill level or overcoming fear in the absence of real threats. So if you are a musician with stage fright or have low confidence in performing well, visualize yourself doing better. It’ll set you up for actual better performance. In a therapy technique called “exposure therapy,” a client is exposed to a fear-inducing element like a spider, gradually, starting with photos, toy spiders, and then real spiders, while the client relaxes. This reduces phobias. Similarly, visualizing yourself is like exposure therapy in a diluted form.

The first 3 of these visualizations also follow the time dimension. You can visualize in slow motion, high speed, and actual speed.

Consider your attention; what does it actually do? Attention filters information and selects information to process meaningfully. Attention and working memory are powerful mental tools. Imagine a torch that puts focus and you can adjust how narrow or broad it is. That’s your attention. Now imagine that torch also records what it sees for a short duration, and you get to adjust how much details there are.

All 3 visualizations and all 3 tempos change what your attention brings into focus.

Slow motion gives you clear access to details. High speed gives you a big-picture view. Actual speed gives you a confirmation of what you know. I recommend being able to visualize at all 3 speeds with all visualizations.

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Your visualizations should have a goal. Ideally, this mental practice is practice; it is to get more accurate and comfortable with your physical skills.

How visualization improves learning and motivation

If you haven’t learned, can you still visualize? Yes. There is a simple reason – while learning, if you know how something should sound, trust that the brain has perceived it better than your fingers can reproduce it. Since visualizations are symbolic, there is no physical demand on the body. You have the mental capacity to think symbolically and use your visualization as a “target” or “goal” for your physical practice.

Where exactly are these mental practice performance gains coming from? Answering this question is hard, and we explored encoding and neural replay. But there is more.[11] Current studies suggest a number of possibilities[12]:

  1. Mental rehearsal, aka visualization, creates extra motivation due to familiarity with the learning task. Mentally doing something feels familiar because it’s repeated, and people like familiarity. Familiarity makes things feel easy, simply because familiar things are far easier to process and carry less uncertainty/threat/ambiguity.
  2. While learning, when memory is encoded, mental training improves connections between symbols and neural representation of the thing first learned. It’s like associating letters with sounds while learning the first language, but often more sophisticated.
  3. Rehearsing mentally improves memory for what is to be done for good performance, so it is easily used on purpose after many mental rehearsals.
  4. When imagining a movement, the physical muscles receive an “action current,” which is a neural impulse to start the movement. Other brain regions then stop that current and prevent complete movement. However, in most cases of visualization, there are minor body movements. These action currents put muscles in a ready state called “priming”. Experiencing the impulse makes it easier to perform a muscle procedure like finger movements at a later stage. Even without priming, you can anticipate future movements faster if you already know how they should go and are now familiar with them through mental practice.
  5. Body movements like swaying, tapping, head movement, air-guitar, etc., during visualization improve learning because body movements add an extra reinforcement layer to learning. When the body is involved, learning is encoded at a deeper level. So it is like a small fraction of actual learning with deeper sensory learning. Music is itself considered embodied – the body is inherently involved in musical processing (outside the brain). So body movements facilitate musical learning at a deeper level which strengthens musical and motor/fine-motor memory.
  6. There is continuous feedback between the body and the brain, so visualizing initiates that feedback and rehearses the mental and physical components by just activating one of them first. This is more pronounced when visualizations are vivid and accurate.
  7. There is lesser muscle fatigue because of intense practice. Performance doesn’t improve during fatigue, but a drop in performance is better managed by not fully activating all muscles.
  8. Because there is actual learning and an increase in motivation through mental rehearsals, there is lesser uncertainty about the “feeling” of performing. So this increases confidence.

This is why visualizations play a role in the popular “fake it till you make it” approach – fake it in the mind, and you make it in real.

Takeaway

Visualizations lead to actual learning. They are economical and do not induce muscle fatigue. Mental practice works really well for perceptual-motor tasks like playing a stringed instrument or cutting veggies. Use visualizations to process details and continue the brain’s learning mechanisms while you aren’t physically practicing.

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