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Imagery is often described as a valuable mental preparation tool, by musicians and athletes alike.

But in much the same way that some people can pull off some pretty awesome moves on a pogo stick,  while the rest of us can barely manage to get out of a building without walking into doors and windows  (and is it really bad karma that I couldn’t stop laughing at this?), there are a wide range of individual differences in our ability to create images in our head.

For some, visualizing sounds, images, and kinesthetic sensations comes pretty naturally. But for others, imagery can be a real challenge.

So if you’re someone who struggles with imagery, is this something that’s worth incorporating into your daily routine anyway? In other words, do you have to be good at imagery to experience a learning or performance benefit?

Trampolining

One study (Isaac, 1992) looked at 78 novice1 and experienced2 trampolinists (not the backyard trampoline you and your dog, pig, goats, and buffalo grew up with, but the kind they have in the Olympics ), and what kind of learning effects imagery training might have for good and poor imagers.

Everyone started off by taking some imagery vividness questionnaires, to find out who was a “high” imager, and who was a “low” imager.

Then, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups – an imagery group and a no-imagery (control) group – with about an equal number of high and low imagers in each.

And over the course of three 6-week training periods, everyone worked on learning or improving three different trampolining skills.

Practice sessions

On the first practice session of each training period, a world champion trampolinist would demonstrate the new skill, and participants would then have their first attempt videotaped to establish a performance baseline.

At each subsequent practice session, the participants would then practice the skill for 2 1/2 minutes, take a 5-min break, then practice again for 2 1/2 minutes.

The only difference between groups is that the imagery group was instructed to engage in mental practice during their 5-min break, while the no-imagery group was given various mental tasks (like math problems and puzzles) to work on.

Judging

At the end of each 6-week training period, the participants’ performances were videotaped again, so that a panel of five nationally qualified judges could score the execution of each skill they had worked on.

And was there any difference in improvement over the 18 weeks of training between the high and low imagers?

Was there a difference?

Well, first off, the trampolinist that did 5-min of mental practice during their practice sessions improved a lot more than the no-imagery group that did puzzles and math problems during their practice. No surprise there.

However, there was a big difference in improvement between the high and low imagers. The trampolinist who struggled with imagery did show some improvement (average performance improvement score of 4.4 for novice trampolinist and 7.4 for experienced trampolinist). But their performance improvement was not nearly as great as the participants who were good at imagery (improvement scores of 20 for novice and 45.5 for experienced).

Takeaways

So at least from this study, it would seem that yes, imagery is going to have a much greater positive impact on your learning and performance if it’s something that you can do pretty well.

But how are you supposed to get better at imagery if the whole problem is that you can’t generate or control the images in your head in the first place?

A better way?

Well, “layered stimulus response training,” or LSRT, which basically involves imaging the same thing multiple times, but adding additional details each time through, is one promising research-based approach for getting better at imagery (which we explored a while back here). But what if even that is a struggle? Is there an easier way?

In one study, dancers reported using a strategy known as “action observation.” Where they watched other dancers to improve the quality of their internal images. But does this really work? Can observing others perform a skill enhance our ability to image those skills in our heads?

Putting action observation to the test

A recent study (Williams, 2019) recruited 51 participants, and divided them into three groups.

Everyone started off with some imagery assessments to get a baseline of their imagery ability. And then over the course of four weeks, the participants either engaged in daily mental imagery of a series of finger movements (imagery group), watched video of a model performing these same finger movements (action observation group), or performed an unrelated task (control).

And at the end of the practice period, everyone retook the imagery assessments to see if their imagery ability had improved in any way.

So did action observation lead to any improvement in visualization ability?

Well, yes, but it depends

Well, yes and no. In that it depends on the particular kind of imagery skill you’re looking at.

For instance, when it came to general imagery ability, like visualizing yourself jumping, bending at the waist, etc., neither imagery practice nor action observation seemed to have much of an impact. But then again, the study did involve some rather specific finger exercises, so maybe it’s not surprising that this practice didn’t transfer or generalize to very different types of physical movements.

On the other hand, both the imagery practice and action observation groups did lead to improvements in skill, strategy, and mastery imagery. Skill imagery relating to the ability to see movements and “refine a particular skill” (which at least to me, seems like the most relevant type of imagery for the goal of this kind of practice). Strategy imagery involving seeing “alternative plans and strategies.” And mastery imagery being about “remaining confident in a difficult situation.”

So what does this all mean?

Takeaways

Well, my guess is that LSRT might be the more promising long-term approach, especially since lots of great musicians play in ways that might be mechanically sound for their bodies, but may not necessarily work for yours (and therefore not be ideal models to emulate in your action observation).

But, if your mind goes totally blank when trying to visualize, watching video of your favorite artists play a piece you’re working on might be a really helpful first step in the direction of becoming a better imager.

And actually, you might even be able to use video of yourself as a model. For instance, when my daughter was taking violin lessons, her teacher used to take lots of photos and videos during lessons, capturing my daughter’s bow hold when she got it just right. Or her left hand position. Or her posture. That way, my daughter could watch herself doing it right during the week, and get a clearer sense of what it looked and felt like when she was doing things in the most optimal way.

I thought this was a really useful strategy on its own – but in the context of this research on action observation, it seems like this could be a great way to start developing one’s imagery abilities too!


Reference

Isaac, A. R. (1992). Mental Practice — Does It Work in the Field? The Sport Psychologist, 6(2), 192–198.

Williams, S. E. (2019). Comparing movement imagery and action observation as techniques to increase imagery ability. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 

Footnotes

  1. i.e., no formal experience
  2. i.e., more than 1 year of formal coaching