The Power of Mental Practice

The power of mental practice.


It doesn’t matter what skill you’re trying to improve; if you want to get better, you have to practice. However, there is more than one way to practice effectively. Research shows that mental practice, or going through the necessary motions in your head, can help you achieve significant progress in skills that you’re trying to get better at.

In the following article you will see why this method works, and understand how to take advantage of it in order to improve your skills.


Evidence for the benefits of mental practice

Mental practice (sometimes referred to as motor imagery), has been shown to be effective in a wide range of situations:

  • A study which examined golfers showed that those who combined physical practice together with mental practice (where they went through the motions of golf in their head), performed better than golfers who only underwent physical practice, even though both groups spent the same amount of time practicing overall.
  • A study on musicians found that mentally-practicing new musical pieces helped pianists learn which notes they need to play.
  • A study which looked at surgeons showed that mental practice before surgery helped surgeons improve their technical ability and enhance their performance.
  • A study which examined recovery after a stroke found that mental practice helped patients regain movement in limbs that they lost control of.


Why mental practice works

While going through the motions in your head isn’t the same as performing them in reality, there is a lot of cognitive similarity in terms of how your brain interprets the two forms of practice.

A lot of the evidence on this comes from studies on the neurological functions of musicians:

  • An fMRI study of music-academy students who play the piano, showed that there is significant activation in related areas in the brain during both music performance as well as during mental visualization of the performance. However, certain key areas related to motor execution were only activated during actual performance, and not during mental practice.
  • Another fMRI study, which examined amateur and professional violinists, also showed that brain activations were similar, but not identical, during actual performance of music and during mental practice.


How to utilize mental practice in your training

Odds are that you already used mental practice in various forms throughout your life. Doing it is pretty intuitive: any time you go through the motions of a necessary action in your head, you’re mentally-practicing that skill, even if you aren’t fully aware of it.

However, you can get better results from choosing to utilize mental practice in a more purposeful way. That is, instead of using it haphazardly, try to dedicate time specifically to taking advantage of this technique, just as you would dedicate time to regular practice.

Keep in mind that mental practice is intended to complement actual performance, and cannot replace it entirely. Therefore, the best thing to do is to take advantage of mental practice during times you could not otherwise practice. For example, you could:

  • Engage in mental practice when you are injured, and therefore can’t perform the physical action. Interestingly, mental practice can not only help you improve your skills in such cases, but also retain your physical abilities. This was shown by a study which found that mental visualization of physical exertion (i.e. imagining that you are lifting a heavy object), helps reduce strength loss during short-term muscle immobilization. Even more interestingly, the study also found that imagining that you are lifting a heavy object results in more muscle response than imagining that you are lifting a lighter object.
  • Conduct some mental practice right before the real performance, in order to envision the specific actions you will take. As we saw earlier for example, surgeons significantly benefited from conducting mental practice before performing a surgery.
  • Use mental practice during “dead times”, when you wouldn’t otherwise do anything productive. This refers to time spent in activities such as riding the bus or waiting in line. Instead of letting that time go to waste, you can now put it to a good use, since you don’t need anything to conduct this type of practice.
  • You can also go through mental practice as you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep. This is especially helpful if you tend to take a long time to fall asleep. However, if you see that doing this ends up making it harder for your to fall asleep, you should probably avoid it.


The effects of experience level

A review paper showed that experienced people tend to benefit more from mentally-practicing their skills, in comparison with novices, and that this effect is more notable when it comes to practicing physical tasks. The researchers suggest that this occurs because novices are often not familiar enough with the task that they want to practice in order to construct an accurate mental representation of it, an idea supported in other papers on the topic.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try using mental practice as a beginner, but it does mean that you should be wary and make sure that you’re familiar enough with the skill you’re visualizing in order to practice it effectively. Most importantly, make sure that you’re going through the correct motions in your head, in order to avoid instilling bad habits, just as you would with physical practice. 

In addition, if you’re a beginner and you find that mental practice isn’t helping you, this could be the reason why. If you suspect that this is the issue, consider waiting with mental practice for a while, and coming back to it when you’re more experienced.


Summary and conclusions

  • Mental practice, or going through the motions of a certain action in your head, can help you improve in various skills.
  • This method is currently used by professionals in a wide range of fields: from musicians, to surgeons, to sports players, and more.
  • Mental practice works because the brain treats actions that you visualize similarly to actions that you fully perform, though there of course are some neurological differences between the two.
  • You can use mental practice to complement your main training, or as a substitute when you can’t perform the full movements (for example, if you are injured).
  • In general, the more experienced you are, the more you will benefit from using this technique, as novices sometimes struggle to mentally-practice actions that they are not familiar enough with.


“The horse raced past the barn fell”: Avoid Garden Path Sentences in Your Writing

Garden path sentences


When you read a garden path sentence, you start by initially assuming a certain interpretation for the sentence. However, as you continue reading, you suddenly realize that the original interpretation isn’t possible, which causes you to get stuck. You then have to process the sentence again, before you can finally derive its correct meaning.

For example, let’s look at the sentence in the title of this post: “the horse raced past the barn fell”. When you started reading it, you probably assumed that the verb “raced” is active, rather than passive, as it usually is. However, once you got to “fell”, you realized (intuitively) that your initial interpretation doesn’t make sense for some reason (because if “raced” is active, then “fell” doesn’t have a subject). You then had to reprocess the sentence, before you were able to reach the correct interpretation, where the verb “raced” is passive. This annoying reanalysis is the result of a garden path structure, which sometimes appears in people’s writing.

The following article will show you where garden path sentences occur, why it’s important to avoid them, and how to identify and fix them in your writing.


The nature of garden path sentences

The name of this phenomenon comes from the saying “to lead someone down the garden path”, which means to mislead or deceive someone. Garden path sentences can appear in a variety of situations, as in the following examples:

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.
  • The old man the boat.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • The girl told the story cried.

All of these sentences contain an initial ambiguity, where a certain word or group of words can be interpreted in more than one way. Since readers attempt to understand the sentence as they are reading it, they will pick an initial interpretation for the sentence, which later on turns out to be incorrect. Once they realize that the initial interpretation doesn’t work, they become confused trying to make sense of what they’re reading.

Consider the following example:

  • After Bill drank the water proved to be poisoned.

Odds are that when you read the sentence, you first analyzed “the water” as the object of “drank”, meaning that Bill drank the water. However, once you reached the verb “proved”, your brain realized that the initial interpretation of the sentence doesn’t make sense (because there would be no subject for “proved”). This lead you to reanalyze the sentence, so that “after Bill drank” became an adjunct of “the water proved to be poisoned”.

Of course, all of this linguistic processing was performed mostly at a subconscious level. That is, you knew that you got stuck reading the sentence, but you didn’t really know why it happened, or how your brain eventually managed to fix the issue.

Interestingly, your brain sometimes goes further in an attempt to resolve garden-path ambiguities, and performs something called good-enough parsing. When this happens, your brain intentionally misinterprets the text, and goes with the initial, incorrect meaning for the sentence, while ignoring the material that leads to the reanalysis. This subconscious process saves you the trouble of getting stuck trying to figure out the sentence’s meaning, at the expensive cost of making you misunderstand what the sentence actually means, while still slowing down your reading.

I won’t go into the mechanisms behind the linguistic processing involved, since it’s complicated, technical, and still not fully understood by researchers. However, a discussion of these mechanisms isn’t necessary for the intuitive understanding of how such sentences occur, and how they affect you. If you want to dive into the research literature yourself, here are a few relevant papers on the topic, in addition to those linked so far in the article:


Identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing

Because these sentences are so difficult for readers to process, it’s important to ensure that they don’t occur in your writing. Otherwise, you risk confusing your audience, and ruining the flow of the text.

Since garden path sentences can occur in a variety of situations, there is no single formula which can be used to identify and fix them. However, most of these sentences share similar characteristics, so there is a simple process that you can follow in order to ensure that they don’t appear in your writing.


Identifying garden path sentences

Identifying garden path sentences is an intuitive process. Essentially, as you read through the text, try and find places where you get completely stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to “restart” the processing halfway through. Then, read carefully through it to see if it seems like the “restart” is a result of an ambiguity, as described here.

If it is, then it’s likely a garden path sentence, and the next section will show you a few simple ways to resolve the ambiguity. If it’s not, odds are you should still fix it, since this is indicative of a problem in the text. However, in the latter case, the solutions suggested below may not help, as they’re intended specifically for solving ambiguities.

(Note that it can sometimes be difficult to find problematic sentences in your writing if you’ve already spent a lot of time working on the text, since your brain might perform a sort of “autocorrect” on material that you’re already familiar with. This post contains some helpful tips on how to proofread your text in such cases.)


Fixing garden path sentences

Fixing garden path sentences is, like finding them, also fairly intuitive. Again, since there are many different variants of these sentences, there are also many different ways to fix them. However, all methods revolve around the same key concept: you need to remove the ambiguity which creates the issue in the first place. Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to do this, without having to rephrase the whole thing.

First, you can add a comma in an appropriate location. For example, instead of:

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.

You can write:

  • Without her, contributions would be impossible.

You could also add a complementizer in an appropriate location. These are words such as which, that, or who, that are used in order to introduce an embedded clause within a sentence. For example, instead of:

  • I convinced her children are noisy.


  • I convinced her that children are noisy.

And instead of:

  • Ann warned her friends were unreliable.


  • Ann warned that her friends were unreliable.

Sometimes you will also need to include further minor modifications, such as adding an auxiliary verb (e.g. was). For examples, instead of:

  • The horse raced past the barn fell.

You would write:

  • The horse which was raced past the barn fell.

As you can see, despite the grammar-related terminology used in the explanation, identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing is a pretty straightforward and intuitive process. This is also why these sentences almost never appear in speech: when we talk, we generally employ intonational cues and use more conventional structures, both of which prevent these ambiguities from occurring in the first place.


Summary and conclusions

  • A garden path sentence is a sentence which contains an ambiguity that leads the reader to initially assume an incorrect interpretation for the sentence, as they’re reading it.
  • For example, in “the horse raced past the barn fell”, the reader initially assumes that “raced” is an active verb. Once the reader reaches “fell”, they realize that “raced” must be passive, otherwise “fell” wouldn’t have a subject, and the sentence would be ungrammatical.
  • This reanalysis is cognitively-difficult to perform, and greatly interrupts the reading process.
  • Identifying these sentences in your writing is an intuitive process; try to find places where you get stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to “restart” the processing halfway through due to an initial ambiguity.
  • Fixing these sentences is also simple and intuitive; the most common methods involve inserting a necessary comma or a complementizer (e.g. that, which, who), in order to resolve the problematic ambiguity.


Practical Lessons in Stoic Philosophy from Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius Meditations in Stoicism


Marcus Aurelius was an eminent Roman emperor, and one of the most influential writers on the topic of Stoic philosophy. This philosophy revolves around the way in which you can live your life without letting yourself be ruled by negative emotions. Aurelius’ writing on Stoicism is best represented in Meditations, a book which is frequently mentioned as one of the greatest texts ever written on practical philosophy.

Below is a collection of some of the useful concepts that Aurelius shared in his writing, followed by some advice on how to implement these lessons in your life. The book itself is brief and full of other useful gems, so it is definitely worth a read if you’re interested.


The lessons

Understand that every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.

(VII, 3)


Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.

(VI, 29)


If it be a thing external that causes you grief, know that it is not that which causes it, but your own opinion concerning the thing. Of this, you may rid yourself, when you will.

(VIII, 45)


The best revenge is to not be like your enemy.

(VI, 6)


You may break your heart, but men will still go on as before.

(VIII, 4)


How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself.

(IV, 18)


Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of “Lamiae”: bugbears to frighten children.

(XI, 23)


Short-lived are both the praiser and the praised, and rememberer and the remembered: and all this in a nook of this part of the world; and not even here do all agree, no, not any one with himself: and the whole earth too is a point.

(VIII, 21)


If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.

(XII, 17)


The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.

(V, 16)


Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it, still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return.

(V, 6)


No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts.

(VIII, 51)


A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”

(VIII, 50)


Men seek retreats for themselves: houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains. You too will desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you shall choose to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.

(IV, 3)


All is ephemeral — fame and the famous as well.

(IV, 35)


Never esteem anything as an advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.

(III, 7)


A wrongdoer is often a man who has left something undone, not always one who has done something.

(IX, 5)


Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years.
(IV, 17)


Implementing these lessons in your life

You might not relate to all of these concepts. Odds are, however, that there are a few lessons here which resonated with you; things that you think can help you improve yourself and grow closer to the person that you want to be.

Out of these lessons, pick the ones that you want to work on first. You can pick as many as you feel comfortable with, but the best thing to do is to focus on just a few at first, until you’ve mastered them enough that you feel ready to move on to the next ones.

Once you’ve picked a few lessons, the next step is to simply keep them in mind. You can do this by writing them down on a piece of paper, by repeating them to yourself, or by using any other method that works for you. Remember that it’s not about memorizing them verbatim, but about remembering what they stand for.

When you have these lessons in mind, learn to recognize opportunities where they can be applied. Whenever you encounter these opportunities, act in the way that these lessons guide you to, to the best of your ability. For example, lets go back to this quote:

A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”

The next time you encounter some minor inconvenience, remember this lesson. Then, instead of complaining about whatever happened and fixating on it in your mind, simply accept that it happened, deal with it, and move on with your life.

This might be hard at first, but you will find that doing it becomes more and more instinctive as time passes. Once you are ready, look at other lessons, and start to implement them too.

A final thing to keep in mind is that some of these lessons are not the sort that you will need to implement every day. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth remembering; when the day comes that you need them, they will be there to help you cope.


Summary and conclusions

  • Marcus Aurelius was an eminent and highly-respected Roman emperor.
  • He wrote Meditations, one the most influential texts on the topic of Stoic philosophy.
  • Stoicism is widely advocated for its practical lessons on helping you live your life without succumbing to negative emotions.
  • These lessons cover a wide range of areas in life: from focusing your thoughts, to reaching inner peace, and to finding motivation.
  • To implement these lessons in your life, first pick a few that resonate with you. Then, keep them in mind, and when the opportunity comes, use them to guide your thoughts and actions.