Mca blog

Mental Imagery Improves Performance & Health

The idea of imagining what we want to occur is not new. We’ve all done this at some point. Some might call it daydreaming or wishing for something to happen. But let’s face it, no-one has ever won the lottery by wishing for it.

So how is focused mental imagery different to just imagining what we want? And how do we know it works?

Ask any elite athlete if physical training is enough, and they’ll tell you that success at the elite level requires mental training as much as physical. This mental training includes visualising one’s performance and seeing in your mind’s eye how to have perfect technique. It requires a calm, positive attitude and belief in oneself, in addition to focused attention. Many studies have shown that physical training combined with mental imagery results in better outcomes than physical training alone. And this is not only for sportspeople. A 2013 study in the British Medical Journal suggested that training in mental imagery improves performance in surgeons. A 2011 randomised controlled trial published in Brain, described how mental practice with motor imagery improved health outcomes for stroke patients. And there are many more such studies in the peer-reviewed literature.

This makes perfect sense. 50% of our neural tissue (brain cells) are either directly or indirectly related to vision. And if we can’t see how to do something in our mind’s eye, it’s far more difficult to do it.

Let’s say you open your fridge and you’ve run out of milk for your morning coffee. It’s likely your brain will start to imagine ways to get milk. Perhaps you have a carton of long-life milk in the cupboard and you visualise where this is before reaching for it. Or maybe you have a kind neighbour who won’t mind if you knock on their door to borrow a cup of milk and you can see yourself going there before you actually go there. Or possibly you know you’ll need to walk or drive to the nearest shop to buy some milk, and you know where that is and the route you’ll need to take because you can see it in your mind’s eye.

But what if you’re not at your own home? What if you’re staying in a foreign city? You might try to recall where the nearest shops were on your way here (still visualising). But no memory of shops. So you ask someone for directions and as they describe the path to take, you visualise it. The image in your mind helps to lead you there.

Let’s take this a step further. You’re a teenager and have decided you want to be an actor, or a doctor, or a builder. If your desire is strong and authentic, you probably start to imagine the path you’ll need to take to achieve your dream. And so it is for any goal. To achieve a goal we must not only want it. We must also see how to get there and believe in yourself being there. 

If the goal is unrealistic in your imagination you won’t see the path clearly because you won’t believe in it. If, for example, you imagine winning the London marathon but you don’t like running, all the visualising in the world won’t help you get there because you know it’s not an authentic goal.

So how is focused mental imagery different from wishing for something to happen? The key word is ‘focused”. Practised correctly, visualisation for a goal is performed in a focused trance-like state similar to meditation or hypnosis. 

When we meditate, we clear our mind of thoughts and focus on one of our five senses, usually the sense of touch (feel the breath, feel your feet, feel the movement of your tummy as you breath, etc). When we engage in focused mental imagery, we start our meditation and focus on the mental image of our goal. This is not “manifesting” or “laws of attraction”. It is simply focused attention on the image of ourselves achieving our goal.

Conversely, if you believe you can’t do something, you won’t see success in your mind’s eye and failure is a more likely outcome no matter how hard you try to visualise success. Self-belief is key to seeing and achieving success.

Mental imagery for performance starts with self-belief. This can be enhanced by meditation. Many studies have shown that regular meditation increases blood flow to specific parts of the brain, resulting in enhanced neural integration (flow of information across the brain), increases in optimism and positive emotions, and improved capacity to focus and concentrate. All of these can be beneficial to self-concept and to the process of positive mental imagery.

Hypnosis can also help develop self-belief. Under hypnosis we become less critical, more open to possibilities. The “yes, but…” of the inner dialogue is quietened. A skilled hypnotherapist can build on your existing positive self-belief to incorporate the areas where you feel unsure of your ability to make change.

To learn more about hypnotherapy, meditation or focused mental imagery to help you achieve your personal, professional or health-related goals, contact me here.

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