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, which is the act of going through specific motions in your head, can help you achieve significant progress in skills that you’re trying to improve.
In the following article, you will see some evidence for the benefits of mental practice, learn why these visualization techniques work, and understand how you can use them in order to improve your performance in various skills.
Evidence for the benefits of mental practice
Mental practice (which is 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 which looked at musicians found that mentally-practicing new musical pieces helped pianists learn which notes they need to play.
- A study which examined surgeons showed that mental practice before surgery helped surgeons improve their technical ability and enhance their performance.
- A study which looked at patients recovering from a stroke found that mental practice helped these 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 thing as performing them in reality, there is a lot of cognitive similarity in terms of how your brain interprets the two forms of practice.
Essentially, even though your brain knows that you’re only visualizing the movement in your head, rather than performing it in reality, it interprets the actions in a way that is similar (but not identical) to the way it would have interpreted it if you have performed the action physically.
A lot of the evidence on this comes from studies on the neurological functions of musicians. For example:
- 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.
Overall, this indicates that there is an overlap in the areas of the brain which are activated during physical performance of certain actions and during mental visualization of those actions. As we will see in the next section, this is a phenomenon that you can take advantage of in a variety of context, in order to facilitate the learning process.
How to use 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 doing this with a conscious intent to learn.
However, you can get better results from choosing to integrate mental practice into your training 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.
For example, if you train in your favorite sport 3 times a week, you could decide to spend 10 minutes on each of your off-days visualizing the movements that you learned on the days you do your main training.
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 when 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 can also help retain your physical abilities. This was shown, for example, 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. 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, which demonstrates the powerful cognitive connection between mental practice and physical performance.
- 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. This can help you prepare before the main event, and can also help you calm your nerves and relieve your anxiety.
- 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 at the store. 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, aside from your own mind.
- 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.
Overall, you can use mental practice to enhance your training in a variety of ways. When used to supplement your regular practice, doing this can have a notable impact on your performance, and can help you be more productive, by allowing you to practice during times where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do anything meaningful.
The effects of experience level
A review paper on the topic showed that in comparison with novices, experienced people tend to benefit more from mentally-practicing their skills, and this effect is more notable when it comes to practicing physical tasks. The researchers who conducted the study 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 by other research on the topic.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try using visualization techniques as a beginner, but it does mean that you should be wary and make sure that you’re familiar enough with the skill that you want to practice in order to visualize it properly. 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 regular, 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 techniques for a while, and coming back to them when you’re a bit more experienced.
Summary and conclusions
- Mental practice, or the act of visualizing and going through the motions of a certain action in your head, can help you improve your proficiency 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 perform physically, 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 visualize actions that they are not familiar enough with.