The Power of Visualization: Imagining Yourself Doing Something Helps You Achieve Your Goal

How often have you heard an athlete say they visualize the moves they are going to make before they actually do it? Visualizing something and actually acting it out are closely connected. This process involves the activation of our motor cortex located in the frontal lobe of our brains. Our motor cortex is involved in planning, controlling, and executing voluntary movements. Basically, thinking about moving a body part or side-stepping to avoid an opponent from stealing the basketball from you activates the same areas of the motor cortex responsible for initiating that movement directly. Although thinking about a movement does not increase the amount of excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP) enough to reach a threshold to actually cause firing of a neuron in the brain that generates that movement, it does still activate the same region. So in short, you can think of something that activates the same region of the brain involved in movement without actually generating movement. Visualization allows us to rehearse our anticipated movements and over time primes our brain and body to more accurately and effectively execute an action. This occurs by the way of stimulating a component of the basal ganglion, the putamen (part of the striatum), a region of the brain that is involved in the rehearsal of movement. Over the course of rehearsing movements via visualization, the brain learns routine movement, making the movement more programmed and fine-tuned.

Basically, cognitive practices can get us closer and more prepared to execute a task with more success. Studies have shown us that cognitive practices are almost as effective as physical practices, and engaging in both cognitive and physical practices is even more effective than doing either one alone. Additional benefits of mental visualization include: improved attention, planning, memory, motor control, and perception. The bottom line is that the brain is receiving additional training for actual performance during imagery rehearsal. It has also been evidenced that these practices enhance motivation, self-esteem, increase states of flow, and improve motor performance. Examples include sharpening your chess skills, practicing your surgery that is coming up this week, practicing your softball swing, your forearm pass in volleyball, or your dance move, or simply working out your muscles. 

As I am writing this blog, I keep wondering if our readers are wondering how this relates to psychological well-being. Let me explain how it works. It is great to know that an athlete can use visualization to enhance his or her performance, but how could this affect someone who is not an athlete or is not planning on executing a movement?  What these studies are really teaching us is the powerful connection between our mind, body, and behavioral execution–in other words, the powerful interaction between our thoughts and our behaviors. Brain studies have now supported that idea that our thoughts produce identical mental commands as actions. Let us reflect on that statement for a second. If studies are showing that you can increase your physical health by simply thinking about it (Harvard study: Crum & Langer, E. J.), what other domains in life can you impact by simply thinking about it in a positive way? I frequently discuss with my patients the importance of positive visualization when working towards a goal, as this visualization impacts motivation and goal attainment. Therefore, if you want something to happen in your life, first you have to think about it, set your goal to achieve it, and then visualize it happening. The difficulty that many face is that we set goals and forget to do the necessary prep work that is needed to get to that goal. Part of this necessary preparation is to visualize the goal being achieved. Essentially, Henry Ford was right: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

Dr. Narineh Hartoonian is a Clinical Health and Rehabilitation psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She has several years of interdisciplinary clinical and research experience in health and rehabilitation psychology and has served the needs of many individuals with chronic medical conditions and disability. Dr. Hartoonian received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Loma Linda University (LLU). She has taught various graduate and undergraduate courses in the physiological sciences, health and psychobiology.


REFERENCES

  1. Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.

  2. Franklin, E. N. (2013). Dance imagery for technique and performance. Human Kinetics.

  3. Gabriele, T. E., Hall, C. R., & Lee, T. D. (1989). Cognition in motor learning: Imagery effects on contextual interference. Human Movement Science, 8(3), 227-245.

  4. Jeannerod, M. (1995). Mental imagery in the motor context. Neuropsychologia, 33(11), 1419-1432.

  5. Ay, K., Halaweh, R., & Al-Taieb, M. (2013). The effect of movement imagery training on learning forearm pass in volleyball. Education, 134(2), 227-239.

  6. Lacourse, M. G., Turner, J. A., Randolph-Orr, E., Schandler, S. L., & Cohen, M. J. (2004). Cerebral and cerebellar sensorimotor plasticity following motor imagery-based mental practice of a sequential movement. Journal of rehabilitation research and development, 41(4).

  7. Mulder, T., Zijlstra, S., Zijlstra, W., & Hochstenbach, J. (2004). The role of motor imagery in learning a totally novel movement. Experimental Brain Research, 154(2), 211-217.

  8. Richardson, A. (2013). Mental imagery. Springer.

Your Personality, Music & Learning

How often have you heard that listening to music can help you learn better? There have been reports that listening to background music can increase productivity, improve learning, increase concentration and more. Extensive research has been done in this area and there have been mixed results on the impact of music on learning. One interesting relationship that has been examined is the one between the dimension of personality that deals with introversion and extroversion and how that may change the impact of music on learning. The basic question we are asking here is: Do introverts and extroverts respond differently on cognitive tasks when background music is presented? Let’s find out!

Though it is very difficult to find a straightforward answer about the effects of music on learning, many studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of listening to background music. Evidence has shown that reading comprehension (1), IQ (2), visual search task (3), and foreign vocabulary learning (4-5) are positively affected by background music. However, other studies have also shown some unfavorable effects on reading comprehension (6), verbal and visual memory (7-8), and recall of numbers (9).

When researchers looked at the effects of learning and remembering foreign vocabulary words (a form of verbal learning), the authors reported that there are more advantages in playing music in the background than not (4). Those participants who were exposed to the background music during the learning protocol were able to better recall the foreign language words a week later when compared to those who were not exposed to the music. In this study the findings suggested that there may be individual differences that mediate the relationship between background music and learning. This led scientists to ask if these difference could be the result of personality, particularly looking at the difference between how an extrovert and an introvert may respond differently to the learning tasks.

So, let’s look quickly at the essential differences between introverts and extroverts. When studying the theory of personality, we learn that extroverts require a lot more external stimulation in order to preserve optimal alertness or arousal as compared to those individuals who are introverts. Introverts on the other hand tend to naturally be at a much higher level of alertness than extroverts and increasing external stimulation can ultimately impair performance for introverts. Also, introverts are at risk of depleting energy if exposed to external stimulation.

Based on the different characteristics between introverts and extroverts, theories have suggested that exposing an introvert to music during a cognitive protocol could negatively impact learning. The opposite would be true for extroverts as these individuals need a lot more external simulation in order to preserve optimal alertness; therefore, music is thought to lead to better learning. Studies by Küssner et al. looked at these theories and found no evidence to support the idea that those introverts performed worse on verbal learning trials when background music was being played. However, they concluded that potentially other personality dimension could be playing a role in the relationship between music and verbal learning.

So, what does all of this mean? Although these studies cannot clearly say whether or not playing background music while trying to learn verbal material has any positive impact on learning, it is safe to say that learning is contextual and it is depends on the type of task, as well as individual differences.  Further research is needed in this area to address the impact of personality on learning when listening to music.

What we do know is that music makes us feel good. In fact it triggers the secretion of dopamine in the brain, which is linked with pleasurable stimuli, including sex, snorting cocaine, as well as simply listening to your favorite song. So, if you enjoy listening to music while you do work, then forget what the studies say and simply do what you love and what makes you happy! 

Dr. Narineh Hartoonian is a Clinical Health and Rehabilitation psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She has several years of interdisciplinary clinical and research experience in health and rehabilitation psychology and has served the needs of many individuals with chronic medical conditions and disability. Dr. Hartoonian received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Loma Linda University (LLU). She has taught various graduate and undergraduate courses in the physiological sciences, health and psychobiology.


REFERENCES

1. Kiger, D. M. (1989). Effects of Music Information Load on a Reading Comprehension Task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 69(2), 531-534.

2. Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive Test Performance and Background Music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85(3f), 1435-1438.

3. Crust, L., Clough, P. J., & Robertson, C. (2004). Influence Of Music and Distraction on Visual Search Performance of Participants with High and Low Affect Intensity 1. Perceptual and motor skills, 98(3), 888-896. 

4. De Groot, A. (2006). Effects of Stimulus Characteristics and Background Music on Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning and Forgetting. Language Learning, 56(3), 463-506.

5. Kang, H. J., & Williamson, V. J. (2014). Background Music can aid Second Language Learning. Psychology of Music, 42(5), 728-747.

6. Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Letnic, A. K. (2012). Fast and Loud Background Music Disrupts Reading Comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700-708.

7. Woo, E. W., & Kanachi, M. (2005). The Effects of Music Type and Volume on Short-Term Memory. Tohoku Psychologica Folia, 64, 68-76.

8. Furnham, A., & Bradley, A. (1997). Music While you Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11(5), 445-455.

9. Alley, T. R., & Greene, M. E. (2008). The Relative and Perceived Impact of Irrelevant Speech, Vocal Music and Non-Vocal Music on Working Memory. Current Psychology, 27(4), 277-289.

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