Mental Imagery: Can a Figment of Imagination Help Performance?

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Mental Imagery: Can a Figment of Imagination Help Performance?

Erica Carlos

"It all comes from the mind. I've seen the most incredible success stories...because a person had a dream and it was so powerful no one could touch it. He'd feel it, believe it, think about it all day and night. That would inspire him to do things necessary to get the results he wanted (2)." -Arnold Schwarzenegger

For the past few weeks, the world has been glued to their television screens, mesmerized by the breathtaking accomplishments of the 2002 Olympic athletes. As an avid watcher of ice skating events, I couldn’t help but wonder what athletes like the bronze medallist Micelle Kwan and the gold medallist Sarah Hughes were thinking prior to their final skating performances. Before the final skating event, both skaters physically practiced their performances. I noticed that in addition to physically preparing themselves by repeatedly running through their performances, Sarah and Michelle closed their eyes and listened to music before they skated. Did mental imagery help either of the athletes prepare and successfully execute their presentations? In other words, what are the effects of mental imagery on the performance of athletes such as Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes? Does it make a difference on performance if mental imagery of the desired outcome is absent or present?

What is mental imagery? In The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance, Anne Plessinger describes mental imagery as the imagining of the execution of an action without actually performing the action. Plessinger also explains that mental imagery not only includes visual senses, but also auditory, olfactory and kinesthetic senses (4). Studies have demonstrated that mental imagery prior to athletic performance leads to better results than the execution of the action alone. Plessinger describes an experiment that consisted of a control group and an imagery group who were told to complete specific golf skills. It was concluded that the imagery group performed better because they had higher goals and expectations of themselves (4). Perhaps the mental preparation helped the imagery group’s brains acquire the right skills needed. Also, other studies have shown specific physiological differences (breathing, heart rate...etc.) with the addition of mental imagery before performance (1).

Does this mean that mental imagery is linked to motor performance? Would athletes achieve the same or different results if they mentally prepare themselves or not? To answer these questions, I looked at the neurological aspect of mental imagery and motor preparation. In general, motor performance originates from the specific region of the cortex (that controls the visual, auditory...etc. senses) that is stimulated by signals or neurotransmitters traveling by neuromuscular pathways (3). These signals move towards the brain, which turns on motor activities and also effects physiological functioning (1). Thus, if mental imagery and motor performance correlate, shouldn’t the two have the same neural mechanisms (6)? In 1977, Ingvar and Philipson performed experiments demonstrating that mental imagery and motor performance have different neural mechanisms (6). They studied the effects of mental imagery versus motor performance of unilateral hand movements by measuring brain activity. Results showed that two regions of the brain, the supplementary motor area (SMA) and the rolandic region were activated by executed movements whereas only the rolandic regions were stimulated by only imagined movements (6). In 1973, Fujita carried out an experiment that tested the physical versus the mental execution of an activity (3). EMG results demonstrated that a distinction did exist between physical and mental execution because the intensity of the two, represented by their amplitudes, differed. These studies prove that mental imagery and motor performance are separate entities, but are they linked? There is no doubt that mental imagery before execution of an action leads to better results, according to the mentioned studies. Personal experience has shown me that envisioning a perfect piano performance aids in the actual achievement of that goal. In addition, various accounts show that imagery encourages better behavior and heightened confidence (1).

So what about beyond the athletic world? How does mental imagery relate to how we view the world and the universe in general? I came across a few articles that explored the concepts of mental imagery, mental representation, and consciousness. How are these three concepts related to the execution of our actions and how we perceive things (5)? In 1664, Descartes described mental imagery as representational pictures fabricated in the pineal gland of our brains and that these pictures are accessible as information (4). If Descartes idea of mental imagery equating mental representation is valid, then is what we see actually what we see? A very interesting article entitled, The Science of Consciousness by Norman Stubbs, explores this question. Stubbs talks about the idea that our brains are like internal maps that contain patterns of accessible information from the external world (7).

"The world is our brains’ fabrications that we experience rather than something at which we look. It is an internal map; a navigation room in our brains, where information provided by our sensory apparatuses is transformed into a model of our environment. Using this model, as a strategic and tactical planning tool, we are able to formulate action patterns that are sent out on motor neurons for execution and thus we are able to navigate in the environment (7)."

How does Stubbs above quote relate to the Olympics? Doe this mean imagery feeds a better internal map that in turn helps us navigate better in the external environment? Could Michelle Kwan have won the gold if her internal map was better constructed compared to Sarah Hughes’s internal map, and if so, did mental imagery play any part? My findings do lean towards the belief that there is a distinction between mental imagery and motor preparation. However, although they are both separate from each other, mental imagery can affect performance. Should all athletes follow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advice of success by taking dreams from the mind and turning them into realities? Further research could explore how different types of mental imagery can influence different types of performances. Perhaps experimenting on a greater amount of variables, for example age groups, or looking deeper into the neurological aspect of mental imagery could better our understanding.


WWW Resources
1)Guided Imagery, a good definition of imagery
2)Illegal link - Click on the logo for the ... , a good quote about the mind
3)INTRODUCTION TO IMAGERY IN PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE , a source for the neurological aspect of imagery
4)Mental Imagery , a good overall source
5)Mental Imagery, Philosophical Issues About. , another good overall source
6)THE REPRESENTING BRAIN: NEURAL CORRELATES OF MOTOR , a source for neurological aspects
7)Science of Consciousness, an interesting source for the external world and mental imagery

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