Monday, May 03, 2010

Mind over Matter: Imagery Enhances Motor Training

Mental practice improves performance over motor practice alone - that's what the latest imagery research suggests. Texas A & M students learning to draw blood or surgically suture were found to improve if given guided imagery in addition to motor practice. The old saw, "See one, do one, teach one" that we learned in medical school should perhaps become "See one, do one, imagine one".

Psychologist Erica Wohldmann suggests that imagery practice may even be better than motor practice alone because it requires the cognitive generation of more abstract representations of physical movements. Makes sense.

University of Washington scientists are taking this research a step farther, looking at the effects of imagery-based biofeedback training on the learning motor tasks. As it turns out, combining a biofeedback task (moving a computer cursor) with electrical activity at a particular electrode is fairly easy for their sample subjects (graduate students?)  to master. In their study, two students were able to master the task without motor imagery in less than 10 minutes of training...after 5 and 8 min respectively, all they had to do was 'think' about moving the cursor and it moved up and down.

So what are implications for students?

Imagery-based training for motor skills  Many high performance athletes already incorporate imagery training in their routines, but perhaps imagery should be considered more often in children who have dysgraphia and / or other procedural learning difficulties like children with sensory processing difficulties or dyslexia. The idea of air writing, or rather the imagining of air writing may be a useful addition to plain writing your abc's over and over again.

Imagery for Visual Skills? Would guided imagery also be beneficial of disorders of eye movements (e.g. kids who have trouble moving their eyes smoothing across a horizontal line of text)? After all, the muscles that move the eye are voluntary muscles just like the ones in the hands and legs. We would think imagery would be especially helpful for complex tasks that require coordination between different motor groups (e.g. hand-eye coordination) and complex motor sequences.

Treatment for People Who Have Deficient Imagery? And what of children and adults who can't make imagery at? It's hard to know how many of these people there are, but we know of at least some because they tell us so when we ask them. In our clinic,  the children who report an absence of visual or kinesthetic imagery usually have severe sensory processing difficulties, very restricted working memories, and / or impaired gestalt perception. It's a step in the right direct to recognize the organic basis of imagery and its importance for learning. The next step is to help those who don't have it. It's possible that the development of an imagery-based computer feedback system could be extremely valuable for these folks.

Motor performance and imagery-based feedback
Psychology Today: Mind your body


  1. Interesting post. Does present more options to enhance motor learning in children with dyspraxia. The link for the Motor Performance and imagery based feedback does not work - any chance you can fix it? Would love to read more. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for letting me know. The stuff after the 'pdf' isn't needed. I just tried to correct it. If you click on the link, the file should be downloaded - rather than being read 'online'.

    : )

  3. Anonymous6:44 PM

    I'm less inclined towards improving motor skills via imagery if visual imagery is also impaired - and an organic problem as you acknowledged in your last paragraph.


  4. Thanks - the link now works and I was able to download the article. Love your blog and book!