Guest Article: Mental Imagery

Mental Imagery by Brad Jamieson

Mental Imagery is a tool that is commonly used by athletes for a number of reasons. It helps athletes run through scenarios that will occur during their sport without needing to actually do an event or action. It may be something like the driver of a bobsled going through the run turn by turn, reciting in their mind everything that needs to be done to safely and effectively execute their run. It may be a sprinter imagining a perfect start just before getting into the blocks. It is often seen with divers just before their dive as they close their eyes and wave their arms around.

For athletes, it is a very useful tool, as they often have very few opportunities to correctly execute their skills. Remember, a 100m final at the Olympics happens once every 4 years, and it needs to be executed with split-second perfection. Repetition of this actual situation is impossible without waiting 4 years, so athletes recreate this scenario in their mind and “experience” it with the ability to do so at a slow or fast pace, to stop and reset, and repeat as necessary with no physical side-effects (such as fatigue).

Research is being done into how this same Mental Imagery can be used in a rehabilitation situation. Promising research has shown that strength in muscles can potentially be gained by using Mental Imagery with or without actual movement (further reading 1, 2, 3), can assist with chronic pain sensation (4, 5), and potentially assist in the maintenance of range of motion of immobilised joints (6). All of these things are potentially useful for movement therapists for injured and healthy participants owing to the mechanism behind Mental Imagery when it comes to the organisation of the brain.

I risk cutting things short here and missing the good part of the theory, but I also don’t want to spend too much time here lest I bore people. If you wish to go deeper, feel free to do a little more of the further reading, or come along to a workshop that I periodically give.

During Mental Imagery, the brain performs certain processes that exactly mimic the process that occur during the performance of actual movement. The only difference between Mental Imagery and actual movement from a mental perspective, is that the final signal from brain to body is not delivered, so muscle firing does not occur and consequently, neither does movement. The brain’s role in movement is similar to the steering wheel, gear stick, accelerator and break of a car. It mediates the “needs” of the mind to move (the mind saying, “I want to lift my arm”) and the actual movement (the moving of the arm). The brain collects information about the body’s current position, creates an idea of where the arm needs to be and plans out the route between the two. It then sends messages from the brain to the muscles which then create the movement. During the movement, the body feeds back to the brain it’s position throughout the movement, and the mental process repeats, based on the new information, working out whether it is on track to execute the movement or not, and what to do to correct if its going astray.

Here, we need to differentiate between the Mind (the part of us that is not a solid-state part of our body, sometimes referred to as a ‘soul’ or the like) and the brain (which contains the solid brain matter, and memories, neurons and cells that do the job. The Mind is what differentiates us as living creatures from a cadaver. The cadaver has a brain, but has nothing to drive it. It is the Mind that was used in Mental Imagery, and the Mind then affects the functioning of the brain. Here is where we can use trickery to convince the body that it is doing something, even though it is not.

The power of Mental Imagery can be seen as one of working on how the brain organises and deals with movement. What it doesn’t do is build muscles. That must be stated here. It does not make the muscles bigger. It can, however, make the movement more efficient by cutting out extraneous activation or movements. Liken it to someone doing a Dead Bug but over-activating hip flexors, abdominals etc. and also adding global bracing of antagonist muscles (such as glutes). It need not be such a full-on exercise, but instead can and should be done with minimal effort. Mental Imagery could reorganise the habitual over-activation into a far more effortless one, which will then be delivered from the brain to the body, resulting in a more efficient and easier movement outcome. Any strength increase that may have occurred in the studies could be attributed to this better organisation. Think of it like having a driver of a car do a lap around a racing circuit, then get trained to drive properly and repeat the lap. The now better-trained driver should be able to execute a faster lap. So, a better mentally organised mover should be better at movement because their “driver” (Mind) is better at doing its job.

So, the question arises: How do we utilise Mental Imagery in our practice?

The good news is for trained Pilates Instructors, we likely already have the skills and have been forced to used them during our training. Imagery cues! Cues such as “lift your leg as though your hip joint was full of thick, sticky honey” or “Imagine your legs were helium balloons and are weightless. Allow your legs to float up to tabletop.” are examples of Mental Imagery, where the mind is being tricked into thinking about the body differently (resistance or weight). The mind then changes the way it organises movement and will create a different outcome. These are simple examples of Mental Imagery, and it can be far more complex if needs be.

In the event that we were to work with a partially or fully immobilised patient (day 1 post-spinal surgery) we could utilise the same language, but we would need to stop the patient before they moved. In order to effect a good Mental Imagery usage here, we would need the patient to imagine a secondary body inside their mind (often referred to as an astral body) which can do the final movement instead of the real body. This imagery would effectively maintain the neural linkages inside the brain that work during movement. Leaving a patient immobilised without Imagery could allow these linkages to be lost, or re-patterned to their immobilised body (i.e. make their mind believe their body can’t move.)

Creating effective imagery is largely about creating vivid, realistic and believable images to present to the Mind. Failing to do so makes imagery less effective owing to the fact that processes can’t be mapped to real-life movements. For example, asking someone to imagine their foot is being removed and attached to their shoulder is so foreign to the Mind and brain, that it couldn’t consolidate how to utilise it, and it would be ineffective. Imagining that the foot dorsiflexes by effortlessly hinging at the ankle joint could easily fool the brain, and would be more effective. Imagining that the foot that is moving is yours, has your toes, is cold/warm etc. would be even more effective as it is exactly as the brain and Mind expect the foot to be.

Finally, a little exercise based on the Dead Bug exercise, showing how this can be put into practice.

  1. Lay down in a comfortable place, in the crook lying position, as you would in order to perform the Dead Bug exercise. This way, the feedback from the body will be exactly as we want it to be, and will not need to be overcome.
  2. Close your eyes and connect to your body and surroundings. Use all of your senses to gather information. Is there any noise in the room? If so, acknowledge it. Is the room cool or warm? Can you smell or taste anything? This will use 4/5 senses (not sight), to create a realistic environment.
  3. Imagine your body as it currently sits. Where are your arms, legs, body, head, etc. Create an image in your mind, as if it were a dream, that will act as the body that moves in this exercise.
  4. From here, imagine your body is in the room that it currently is in, adding all of the details from point 2- light, heat, noise, smells etc.
  5. Now you are ready to start imaginary movement. Take one leg of your imaginary body, having it as light as smoke. Allow it to float up to tabletop, perfect and easy in its movement, then float back down to the start as easily and effortlessly as it rose up. Remember that the real body remains unmoved. Only the imaginary body moves. Also remember that the imaginary body is completely under your control, and you have ultimate control over it. Even more control than you have over your real body. Whatever you want it to do and however you want it to be done is completely possible, even if it is not possible in real life.
  6. Perform a few repetitions of this, and then you can add on real body movement, but focus on the imaginary body, and move your real leg as if it were the imaginary one- light and effortlessly. Once re-patterned, the actual exercise should be able to be done without the imagery, as the body will be convinced and habitually moving in a different way.

This exercise is great for people who over-recruit musculature to perform easy movements. It teaches them to reduce activity, without just telling them to “relax”. The idea that someone can just “relax” is proving to be ineffective, as it’s difficult to organise within the brain.

There is much more to be said about this subject but I am going to leave it here. If you want to learn more then look into things like neuro-plasticity, treatments for phantom limb syndrome, or any of the studies cited below.

Brad Jamieson, PAA Member Level 1

Original Article posted 05 June 2019.

References and Further Readings:

  1. Effects of Mental Imagery on Muscular Strength in Healthy and Patient Participants: A Systematic Review. Tod et Al. (2016)
  2. Strength Gains by Motor Imagery with Different Ratios of Physical to Mental Practice. Reiser
    et al. (2011)
  3. Strength increases from the motor program: comparison of training with maximal voluntary
    and imagined muscle contractions. Yue, G. & Cole, K.J.
  4. The Effects of Graded Motor Imagery and it’s Components on Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. K Jane Bowering, et al. (2012)
  5. The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness. Clark, BC et al. (2014)
  6. Mental Practice Maintains Range of Motion Despite Forearm Immobilization : a Pilot Study in Healthy Persons. Frenkel M.O. et al (2014)