You have been using imagery your entire life but you did not even realize it!

By Nurwina Anuar

Have you ever lost your car key? To find them, you might have thought back to the last place and time you held them in your hands, mentally retracing your steps.  Without even realizing it, you were using mental imagery. Following on from Fernanda’s post explaining why imagery is a skill for life, I will explore this theme further by giving you lots more reasons how it can benefit you.

What is imagery?

Imagery is a mental activity.  Using your mind’s eye, you can recreate experiences you have had before or picture new experiences before they even happen.  In a classic study by Harvard University’s Prof Stephen Kosslyn and his colleagues (1990), they discovered that most spontaneous images experienced in every day life are visual in nature.  However, you may also use your mind’s ear to hear imaged sounds, your mind’s noise to experience imaged smells, and so on for the other senses.  Helping to make the images even more realistic, it is also possible to experience feelings and emotions during imagery.

Although imagery is most often considered to be a technique used by top sports people, it can be applied to almost every type of profession.  For example, imagery is used by writers, dancers, actors, musicians, psychologists, entrepreneurs, and surgeons.  Because most of everyday images are spontaneously created, we probably do not realize how often we use imagery to help us through our daily lives.

By becoming more aware of imagery and optimizing your ability to image, you will be able to use this technique to benefit in many ways.  In Kosslyn et al.’s (1990) study, they found that everyday images were used to:

  1. Solve problems (e.g., decide what to eat)
  2. Rehearse future encounters (e.g., asking your boss for a raise)
  3. Jogging your memory (e.g., putting a face to remember a forgotten name)
  4. Producing descriptions (e.g., giving directions to your house)
  5. Understanding descriptions (e.g., picturing a character in a book)
  6. Emotional/motivational (e.g., imaging a calm lake to relax)

Imagery can also have no particular purpose, such as when we are day dreaming.  However, to benefit most from imagery we need to be aware of inner experiences and focus the mind on what we are creating/recreating.  Like other mental techniques, you can improve your ability to image by practicing it regularly and deliberately.

Still not convinced why you should start to use imagery more often in your life? Here are five more reasons.

1. It is free

Imagery is a tool that does not require a single penny in order to use it. You don’t need an ap or a CD – just the power of your mind.

2. It can be used any time/any place

You can use it at any point of the day (or night!), whether it is first thing in the morning, during a break in work, or just before trying to fall asleep.  You can also use it anywhere you like. For example, athletes have reported using imagery at school, at home, as well as on the training pitch.

3. There is a scientific explanation for its benefits

Dr Aymeric Guillot, a professor at the Centre of Research and Innovation in Sport at University Claude Bernard Lyon in France has explained that experiences in real and imaginary worlds produces similar responses in the central nervous system.   During a “mental workout”, your sympathetic nervous system which governs our fight-or-flight response will react with increases in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. He further said, “Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks—paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it. You can use this to your advantage in different ways.”

4 You get to preview experiences before you take the action.

You don’t just relive old experiences through imagery but also can preview new experiences before they happen.  Why is this helpful? Imaging the situation before you experience for real can give you a sense of having done it before and build your confidence that the actual situation will go well.  Also, this mental rehearsal can help you to gain information on how to handle the situation, giving you the opportunity to try out different scenarios, changing your tactics, and reviewing possible outcomes.  This kind of imaged planning may even save time and money, allowing you to consider creative solutions to problems.

5. Imagery have been used for healing and medicine.

Imagery can help you to reduce pain and promote healing from injury and illness.  Pain can be reduced by using imagery to distract yourself, relaxing your muscles, and holding less tension.  You could image the sensation of getting massage, sitting on warm beach, taking hot bath, the muscles relaxing, or imagining the pain being released from the body.  As for healing, athletes will image image the fractured bone stick back together and other types images. This gives them a sense of control over their rehabilitation and perhaps confidence that it is working. Interested to know more about using imagery for pain and healing? Check out this resource.

In sum, imagery can be used in every day life to achieve many benefits. I would love to hear how you use imagery in your life by leaving a comment below.

About the author: Nurwina Anuar is a final year PhD student at the University of Birmingham.  

Introducing the BRIO Group Blog

By Dr Jennifer Cumming CPsychol CSci AFBPsS

Welcome to the first ever BRIO group blog post! We are a group of academic staff and post graduate students from the University of Birmingham (UK) who are avid about researching what helps make imagery and observation effective for sport, exercise, dance, and rehabilitation.  We are often asked to give advice on how to put this research into practice so that it can be more easily used by coaches, fitness instructors, dance teachers, and physiotherapists.  To share these ideas more widely, we have decided to start this blog to offer practical tips, summarise recent developments by us and others, as well as to make suggestions for both research and application. We will also be welcoming your comments and feedback too.

BRIO group

To kick start our blog, we decided to each take on the challenge of writing a post about something about imagery that strikes our curiosity.  But, in this first post, I give a bit of background about imagery and explain how it is commonly used by athletes.

What is imagery?
Imagery involves using some or all of your senses to create a mental image.  It not just about what you see through your mind’s eye. You can also experience an image as a sound, smell, and taste.  In sport, one of the most common senses during imagery involves feeling sensations and emotions. England Cricketer James Anderson has revealed how imaging the feel of the ball coming out of his hand helped him to overcome problems with his swing.  Now when he bowls a good ball, he will “just try to think about everything I did during that ball, how it came out of my fingers, how it felt and just try to recreate that over and over again”.

Athletes will also combine different senses to create a vivid and realistic image.  For example, a tennis player might view themselves tossing the ball upwards and then see the downward motion of the racket when mentally rehearsing his serve.  He might also feel the racket in his hands, the force of the racket connecting with the ball, as well as the muscular effort involved in this swing. These physical sensations can also be combined with positive and helpful emotions such as feeling determined and confident that his serve will be successful.

Because imagery can and, more often than not, involve multiple sense, I prefer the term “imagery” over “visualisation”.  The latter is probably how imagery is most commonly known to athletes and coaches.  But, I think it then limits how imagery is defined and used. Three time Olympian and US Freestyle Aerialist Emily Cook agrees, “Visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses. You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Using the different senses not only helps to create more effective images, but also ensures that these images will be more meaningful and relevant to the athlete.

Where does an image come from?
Images can be based on past experiences drawn from your memory or triggered by something that you have seen, felt, read, smelt or heard.  You can get your inspiration from images from almost anything, but listening to music used to be an excellent sources for me.  As a former figure skater and professional coach in Canada, music help to develop new ideas for choreographing a skater’s routine.  I would start to image what kinds of movements and skills would work with the music and this gave me a chance to work out a plan before even stepping on the ice.

It is also possible for you to generate a completely new images by combing details from your memories with new information that you get elsewhere. Take the case of a gymnast who might preview themselves competing at an event for the first time after viewing YouTube clips of past competitions held at that location.  After watching the video, she might mentally transport herself into the scene, incorporating key details of what she saw to help create the atmosphere of the event and then recreate an image of a recent best performance.  Mentally preparing in this way gives the athlete an important boost of confidence even without any real experience at this particular venue.  When she arrives at the event, she will have an immediate sense of familiarity from having already experienced her routines many times over in her head.

How and why is imagery used by athletes?
The best athletes will apply the same principles that make their physical training effective to how they use imagery.  That is, they will approach imagery practice in a deliberate and systematic way.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for top athletes to plan what they will image and for how long.  They will also use imagery as part of their regular training programme.

By doing so, the best athletes will reap the many benefits of imagery including learning new skills, memorising game plans/strategies, motivating themselves to achieve goals, managing their emotions, as well as keeping their confidence high.  For example, professional golfer Jerry Kelly described rehearsed the course in his mind each night before going to sleep and again in the morning for the month and a half before winning his first PGA tournament at the 2002 Sony Open.

By comparison, less successful athletes use imagery more sporadically, less often, and without much thought or planning.  As a result, their imagery is probably more like day dreaming.  However, athletes of any level can be taught how to use imagery more effectively.  In this blog, the BRIO group will explore some of the techniques we and others have developed over the years to help even those athletes who don’t think they can image to benefit from this technique.

Imagery as a marker of success?

How often an athlete uses imagery is a factor that separates those who are successful from those who are not.  In his autobiography, Olympic gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins, CBE describes how imagery has been a part of his training for most of his career. He explains that “The routine for this time trial is the same one I’ve built and perfected over fifteen years; as I go through it thoughts and images flash through my mind…I always pick a power to ride at. If it’s 460, 470 watts, I’m imagining being there, at that power. In my head it’s feeling strong, flowing, everything’s working. It’s easy, I’m floating along, I’m gliding, it’s feeling great. I can sustain this feeling for up to an hour.”

In some of the first research I carried out as part of my PhD at the University of Western Ontario, I explored how much time athletes spent imaging over different years of their career. It was surprising to find that more successful athletes will start to accumulate more hours of imagery practice as early as 5 to 6 years into their career. This result has reinforced to me how important it is for athletes to develop imagery as a skill and use it as part of their long term development.  Regular and effective use of imagery will likely speed up an athlete’s journey to the top, as well as help to pave a smoother road by being better able to handle the natural bumps along the way.

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About the author: Dr Jennifer Cumming is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.