Imagery and visualization can be used to build coordination and physical skills. For example, it has been shown that imagining playing piano can make you play better, imagining strength training can make you stronger, and just watching sports can activate mirror neurons responsible for performing the movements you see. The basic idea is that thinking about a physical skill will activate almost the exact same neural pathways as actually performing it, so that you can better at something purely by visualization. What an optimistic “feel good” idea!
Starting from scratch versus brushing up
There is a big difference between building a new skill from scratch and improving existing skills. Imagery is excellent for the latter task but probably close to useless for the former. In other words, imagery only works to optimize or modify existing skills, it can’t build entirely new ones.
Imagine the process of learning a new language versus brushing up on a language that you haven’t spoken for many years. In the case of brushing up, the neuronal connections representing the skill may be in storage, or rusty, or weak, but they are in there somewhere and can be brought back to full capability in a far shorter time than it took to build them in the first place. If you have a stroke that impairs movement of a certain area, regaining that movement is not like brushing up on an old skill, it’s basically relearning the skill from scratch. The neuronal connections that supported the movement are not just in storage or a little disorganized, they are destroyed. Therefore, you need to find a completely different way to move – just modifying the old ones won’t help.
Reality versus virtual reality
Although imagining a movement and performing a movement are similar neurologically, they are quite different in one important respect – the movement offers sensory feedback from the real world. The feedback tells the brain whether the movement in question achieved its intended result. This is how we learn.
Looking in the mirror
There is an interesting study by Daniel Glaser showing that your level of experience with a certain activity affects how your mirror neurons respond to watching the activity. Glaser asked some capoeira and ballet dancers to watch other ballet dancers and capoiera dancers do their thing. He found that the dancers had substantial activity in the part of the brain that controlled dancing when watching the form of dance they performed. In other words, when ballet dancers watched other ballet dancers, their mirror neurons lit up – when they watched the capoiera dancers … not so much. The opposite was true for the capoeira dancers.
To build a road map for movement from scratch, you can’t just imagine the lines, you need to actually go into the world, drive on some roads, and take some notes. Once you have some virtual maps in your head, you can improve your navigation purely through imagination. But putting the maps down in the first place requires getting on the road.
Thanks to Todd Hargrove