Getting to know the BRIO group: How do you use imagery?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

My dad first introduced me to imagery when I was a young ice skater to help me prepare for tests and competition.  He encouraged me to go through my routine in my head the night before, and it used to make me ready for the next day.  I could always hear my music in my mind’s ear and image performing the different moves. My images were always from a 3rd person perspective, as if watching myself  on video playback, but with a strong kinesthetic sensation.  I was later surprised to learn as an undergdraute student that imagery was “supposed” to be done from an internal (1st person) perspective. Research has since corrected this misconception and we now know a lot more about visual imagery perspective. But, at the time, my experience of using imagery was not reflected well in the text books I was reading.

I now use imagery extensively for work, fitness, and everyday life.  The most common function of my imagery is self-regulation; i.e., goal-setting and planing.  Just the other day, I was out running along a lovely path in my local park, and used imagery to plan the route I wanted to take and preview how I would achieve mini goals along the way.  When it is my turn to cook, I similarly use this kind of planning imagery to work out a new recipe and figure out the steps needed to get the meal on the table for my family.

Dr Sarah Williams

I use imagery for pretty much everything I do. I started using it primarily for sport but when I learnt more about imagery I realised I used it for many more things without knowing it. I use it to help with how to perform skills or tasks. Imagery also helps enhance my confidence and motivation, maintain my focus, and keeps me feeling positive about upcoming situations I may be apprehensive about. I guess I use imagery to prepare for, implement, and reflect on all activities in my life. I use it at work (e.g., deciding how to deliver certain content in my teaching), I use it for playing sport (e.g., imagine the positive feelings and emotions associated with playing when I am feeling unmotivated to go to training), I even use it when lying in bed before I go to sleep (e.g., reliving certain events of the day or anticipating upcoming events the next day). Essentially imagery is my cheat sheet in life.

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I use imagery in different situations and for different purposes. I use it if I want to make changes in my behavior or reach a specific emotional state. I for example use it before giving a presentation in order to affect my emotional state and direct my focus. I also use imagery in sport, for example before hitting a golf shot to direct my focus and increase my self-efficacy. I image hitting the shot, how it feels in my body and the flight of the ball.

Maria-Christina Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

I use imagery in everyday life. Whenever I want to deal with a difficult situation I visualize myself ahead of time overcoming the barrier. For example, when it comes to public speaking I get a bit nervous. Imagery helps me prepare for the situation by seeing myself in front of the audience delivering the presentation and experiencing positive feelings. I also use imagery to motivate myself do something. I usually visualize of the reward and I create positive expectations. I can picture myself getting through the PhD Viva and feeling relieved. Sometimes I use imagery to simply relax. I can picture myself in a nice setting (beach) and I feel calm and relaxed. Since my research topic is on exercise imagery, I try to apply imagery to motivate myself exercise. I usually picture myself leaner and fitter. This makes me want to be more physically active.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I’m a keen (field) hockey player so I use imagery a lot in competitive matches, mainly for motivational purposes. However, the more I think about this question the more I realize that I use imagery a lot in my day to day life! From my walk into university and planning out my tasks for the day, right up to what I’m going to have for dinner!

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RIO meeting 2015

The RIO group
The Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) Group was formed in 2006 and aims to provide a forum to meet and discuss research in imagery and observation. The purposes of the meetings are to give members a chance to present their research findings and ideas and to facilitate group discussions. The RIO group organizes one meeting a year at different locations across Europe. There is a useful range of expertise within the group and the research carried out by the members varies from applied sport science to cognitive-neuroscience (including for example research within exercise and rehabilitation). Find out more about group and the annual meetings here.

The RIO meeting 2015

Day one
Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull from our BRIO group attended the 9th Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) meeting at the University of Stirling, Scotland on the 14th-15th May 2015.

The first day started with an invited lecture from Professor Ferdinand Binkofski who talked about the implementation of action observation in neurorehabilitation. Any students would be happy to know that this research area suggests naps are beneficial to consolidate learning to remember things better, a tip for upcoming exam revision perhaps?

The theme of rehabilitation then continued into the first symposium – “Imagery and Observation in Clinical Science”. These presentations included research from the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab at Manchester University who have been investigating different gesture viewpoints during action description and the effects of visual cues on hand movements in Parkinson’s disease.

Ling Choo and colleagues based at the University of Glasgow then presented results from their systematic review on the neural correlates of bilateral upper limb training after stroke. Surprisingly there have been no imagery interventions in this area of research – an invitation for someone reading this blog?

Tadhg MacIntyre’s research group then talked about motor imagery use for injured athletes during recovery and the topic of cognitive dissonance between simulation and execution – a really interesting topic which I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in the near future. In symposium two (“Imagery and Observation in Sport and Exercise Science”), MacIntyre’s research group spoke about their upcoming research investigating depression through motor simulation and motor imagery performance and injured athletes’ imagery use in recovery using a mixed methods approach. Does this sound interesting to you? Want to hear more? Look out for our interview from the conference with Tadhg MacIntyre (coming soon on the BRIO group blog).

Tadhg MacIntyre

Adam Bruton (University of Roehampton) then presented some of his PhD work on the effect of observation interventions on collective efficacy in elite youth rugby union players. Even though the rugby team didn’t have the best season overall, watching video highlights of their matches at the start of each week helped improve their collective efficacy – it truly is the taking part that counts?

Last but by no means least, BRIO members Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull presented their PhD research. Mary discussed how who you are can influence your perception of your imagery experience, as her research shows that skill level influences how an individual interprets their imagery (i.e., as facilitative or debilitative). Whereas Fredrik discussed how exercise imagery mediates the relationship between exercise behaviour and affective outcomes, showing that enjoyment imagery can partially explain why people enjoy their exercise experience and experience positive outcomes from their exercise behaviour, like revitalization.

Fredrik Weibull
In the end of the first day we experienced a fantastic whisky tasting at the venue which included a lot of laughs. This was followed by a lovely dinner.

Day two
Stéphane Grade (University of Louvain) was the first presenter during the symposium of day 2 (“Imagery and Observation in Action Cognition”). He gave an informative talk about exploring action simulation embodied cognition using distance estimation and reachability perception judgment. This was followed by Daniel Eaves (Lancaster University) who presented research by himself and colleagues on “The effects of physical practice on automatic imitation effects in rhythmical actions”.

Bretherton presented work by himself and Watt (University of Sterling) on music, motion and emotion. We listened to a piece of music while Bretherton showed us how music affects Heart Rate (HR). Predictable parts of the music lowered HR while unpredictable parts caused an increase in HR. Bretherton also described why music could be seen as a person in motion.

This was followed by interesting talks from Ellen Poliakoff (University of Manchester) on “Exploring the effects of attention and motor imagery on the kinematics of imitated hand actions” and Clément Letesson (University of Louvain) on “Action prediction from action observation and contextual cues”. Bruce and Ietswaart also presented fascinating work with parrots and how they can learn from observing different human actions.

The conference ended with an invited lecture from Scott Glover who talked about his ideas of a unified model of imagery and about the factors influencing the timing of real and imagined actions. He gave an interesting talk in which among other things he criticized the use of the term functional equivalence. Instead he proposed to use the term functional overlap. He presented a model of the neural and behavior processes of motor imagery and how they relate to the processes of real action. He also presented research that supported some of the tenets of the model.

It was a great conference with its usual mix of researchers from cognitive, clinical and sport science backgrounds. The presentations and meetings stimulated great discussions on both theoretical and practical issues. We want to thank the organizers for a great experience. Next year we the RIO group will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Check the RIO group website for updates.

It works for you but it does not make sense to me: How to use exercise imagery in a meaningful way

By Fredrik Weibull

You are running on a muddy trail in the forest. The rain is pouring down and you are completely soaked while keeping a high tempo. You have been exhausted for the last 20 minutes and you do not really know how but you keep pushing yourself forward. Your thighs, shoulders and calves are burning and you are now running up a steep hill. With rapid and powerful arm movements you are helping your legs carry you upwards, forcing yourself up the hill using maximal effort. You have three more miles to go and you will keep this pace. There is no alternative. Keep moving forward, fight!

How do you feel when reading this scenario? One might read itand think “what an idiot, why do that to yourself?”, while another one might think “Wow, I would like to be there right now, testing myself and pushing my limits”. What is cool about imagery is that the same image can affect two people in two completely different ways.

Images affects you whatever you do, whether you image yourself successfully taking a penalty in football, giving a presentation at work, cleaning your home or completing a workout in the swimming pool. In this blog post, I am going to focus on exercise imagery.

Exercise imagery
Exercise imagery is a very common self-regulation strategy and it is used by both people who rarely exercise and people who exercise vigorously every day. Exercisers image everything from how they want to look when they are fit to feeling refreshed and proud after an aerobics class. They use it to motivate themselves to exercise, increase their belief that they can perform a difficult routine and to experience more enjoyment during exercise. Research has shown it is possible to use imagery to increase your barrier-self efficacy, improve the quality of your motivation and improve your feeling states in relation to exercise.

When you image something it will affect you in positive ways.  These changes can range from being very subtle but to very noticeable. An image can make you happy, upset or motivated. How you are affected by it depends on how well you can create the image, how you interpret the image and what meaning the image has for you. Now I will provide you with some thoughts and tips on how to make your images more meaningful.

How to make your images more meaningful
It is only you who can decide if your images are meaningful for you in a specific situation and if they have the desired effect. There are different things to consider when you are trying to make images more meaningful for you.

A good place to start is to think about what you want to gain from your imagery use. Let us say that you want to use imagery to push yourself harder during a gym session. What images comes to mind? Can you use these images and work from them. Maybe you see and feel yourself pushing yourself really heard, your are exhausted but keep fighting or you image yourself reaching one of your performance goals (e.g., run 10 kilometers in under 40 minutes or swimming 500 meters without resting).

If the image motivates you, image it again and reflect on how it makes you feel. Can you perhaps add something to it that makes you even more motivated? Perhaps image hearing a specific music track while exercising, image sweating or feeling powerful. Play around and try different alternatives.

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Think about what makes you push yourself harder during the next gym session. Maybe you can use this behavior, these cues and feelings in your images. Write them down so you do not forget them. Image it there and then so that you learn how to image it when it is fresh in your mind. Rehearse it again after the session and again when you get home.

One good rule of thumb when using imagery is to include the same details in your image that you want to experience in the specific situation. For example, when you cycle you perhaps focus on how your legs feel powerful and that you are maintaining a smooth and consistent pace. When imaging cycling try to focus on these details. However, the twist here is that it should still feel meaningful for you. Maybe this does not make it feel more meaningful. Maybe it feels more important to focus on maintaining a good cycling position and to focus on the sounds the bicycle makes in your images.

If it feels real and lifelike but perhaps annoying or useless, it is probably not the right image to use for you. Or perhaps you are not using it in the right way. Maybe you need to image it during a longer duration.

It is good to consider that some things require practice. If you learn a new golf swing you will not have good results straight away, you may need thousands of swings before it feels right and you can execute it correctly. The same goes with a new image. Maybe it is difficult to image it during your first tries, maybe you include too many or too few details and maybe it takes some time before you get used to the idea of that image. Be patient.

I suggest that you evaluate your images after your workout. Did they have the desired effect? Think about what worked, what did not work, and adjust your images the next time.

If you used an image that helped get you off the sofa and into the gym? What was that image? Write it down. Perhaps you can use it again.

Please add your comments below to let me know how you use imagery when you exercise and what do you do to create meaningful images.

Interested to know more? Here is a good book chapter. You can also join us for our upcoming imagery workshop on how to improve imagery ability and to write imagery scripts.

About the author: Fredrik Weibull is a doctoral researcher in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. He also works applied with performance psychology in both sport and business. Talk to him on Twitter: @FredrikWeibull

Imagery in exercise and physical activity: You can be whatever you make up your mind to be

By Maria-Christina Kosteli

Are you among these people who are constantly looking for excuses to avoid going to the gym? Do you want to start exercising but you find it difficult? Imagery can be the answer to your question. In this post, my goal is to explain how imagery can be a very powerful tool as well as give you some tips and suggestions on how to use it.

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Why imagery is so  powerful?

Have you heard the notion that for whatever you can imagine you can achieve? Basically, imagery can give you the confidence that you can do something and help you prepare for it. It has been extensively used by athletes and has been shown to be associated with successful performance. But athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from it.

How does imagery work and how can it be used in exercise?

Previous research has shown that when you imagine yourself exercising it is more likely that you will end up doing it. Are you wondering why? Simply put, your brain does not differentiate very much between a real event and an imagined one. It is like tricking your mind that you are exercising without really moving from your chair.  So when you imagine yourself exercising, you may experience same feelings and sensations as if you were actually doing it.

For example:

  • if you imagine yourself lifting weights you might experience tension in your muscles.
  • You could feel your heart beating faster while you imagine walking with fast pace in the treadmill.
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It is important to note that not everyone is able to imagine kinesthetically and experience the movement or the sensation associated with it. Some people can easily visualize but have a hard time experiencing a picture as a sound or smell. This is why imagery is also known as visualization. However, imagery is multifaceted and is not limited to one sensation.

When to use imagery?

When you use imagery it is important that you know what you want to achieve. If for example you have fear that you might not be able to do a certain move, it would be wise if you picture yourself completing the workout. Thus, some people use imagery to improve their skills and technique while engaging in a certain activity. This can happen by simply picturing yourself doing an exercise correctly. In this way you convince yourself that you can actually do it even if it is challenging. Thus, imagery can build your confidence and motivate you to do things you would never imagine you could do. Make sure that what you imagine is as close as possible to what you want to achieve.

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What happens with people who are totally unmotivated to initiate physical activity? 

If you are among the people who have a hard time getting out of their sofa, you can start by picturing yourself getting ready and preparing to go for a run or a walk. Think about all the things that you do prior to commencing exercise such as putting athletic attire on, getting a flask with water, or even grabbing your iPod if you enjoy listening to the music while you exercise. The more details you include in your imagery the more effective it will be. In imagery you can use all your sensations to make it as realistic and vivid as possible. Imagery can also be used as a way to overcome difficult situations. Let’s say for example that it is raining and you feel unmotivated to get ready to go to the gym. What you could do is to imagine a warm bath or a cup of tea after completing your goal. In other words, picturing the reward at the end of exercise can motivate you to actually do it.

Can everybody use imagery?

Although some people are better than others in formulating images, this does not mean that imagery is limited to certain people. Imagery is a skill and it is something that you can improve on. The same way you engage in physical training, you can also have mental training. Thus, the more you practice imagery, the better you will become. You can use imagery anywhere and at any time. For example, you can use imagery before you start exercising or during exercise, in your car, before you go to bed etc. If you are still unsure if imagery is for you, you should try it out for yourself. You might be amazed with how powerful it can be.

About the Author: Maria-Christina Kosteli is a final year PhD student in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this post are my own.