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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Getting to know the BRIO group: What led you to imagery as a research area?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

I became interested in sport psychology as a career path after spending summers as a competitive ice skater involved in an intensive summer school in Montreal, Canada.  At the time, I training 30-40 hours/week, mainly on-ice, but I also had the opportunity to take dance and sport psychology classes.  It was my first exposure to working with a sport psychologist and I really enjoyed writing down daily goals and completing the workbook that was provided (I still have it!).  I had been using imagery to preview my performances since the age of 8 or 9, but I started to refine my imagery during this training and became interested in how I could help other skaters benefit from using it.

This experience eventually led me to do a BSc in Fitness Education (now called Kinesiology) at McGill University, a programme that allowed me the flexibility to take classes from both the Psychology as well as Physical Education departments.  I still remember learning the basics of motor control and sport psychology from great professors, like the late Dr Dan Marisi, which gave me a strong grounding for do a Masters with Dr Diane Ste-Marie at the University of Ottawa and then a PhD with Dr Craig Hall at the Western Ontario. I have always been grateful to the excellent training and opportunities I received from these supervisors, which has led me to a position at the University of Birmingham and over 15 years of imagery research. I now have the pleasure of co-running the BRIO group with Dr Sarah Williams and working with an excellent group of students, both past and present.

Dr Sarah Williams

I was always really interested in sport psychology from my own participation in sport. I first learnt about imagery during my A levels although it was branded as “mental rehearsal”. I had experienced first-hand how beneficial it could be so I became really excited when I found out that it was an official “thing” that could be used and studied. When I got to university I discovered that imagery can be used for things beyond improving movements, skills, and strategies. This unlocked a new word for me in terms of not only how I could use imagery, but also the different research questions that remained unanswered. It was then I started asking myself whether imagery could do this or do that, and whether anyone had tested these ideas. I started trying to use imagery in different ways when playing sport and thought about how this may or may not have worked – some might have called me a self-experimenter.

I then completed my undergraduate dissertation and gained my first bit of “real” imagery research. This is definitely when my love affair with imagery intensified. I loved everything about the research process and at the end I had more research questions than when I had started (I’ve since come to realise that this usually happens after every study you conduct!). I then applied for a PhD to continue answering these research questions and was fortunate enough to be awarded the studentship. The rest as they say is history!

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I was fascinated by imagery and I used it in my tennis. As an undergrad at the university I focused on imagery as a research topic and since then I have been really hooked.

Maria Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

The first time I heard about imagery was during my Master’s as a mental skill for student-athletes. I got more interested in imagery when I saw athletes using it in their everyday practice. The majority of athletes shared their experience with me and persuaded me that imagery is an acquired skill that helps them overcome their fear of failing and at the same time helps them get better. I find imagery a very stimulating topic. I like the fact that imagery can be applied in every aspect of our lives. It is a good strategy and technique that can be used to help people improve in every sector of life. It can be used as a performance enhancement technique, to overcome a phobia, to recover faster from an injury, to motivate yourself do something that you are having a hard time doing and so on.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I first became interested in imagery when Jenn introduced it to me as a second year undergraduate student in our sport psychology module. This led me to choosing to study imagery in my final year dissertation. After reading more literature and conducting an imagery intervention with young futsal players, I decided that I wanted to pursue imagery research further, which led me to where I am right now – in the final year of my PhD!

Gale, 2nd year PhD student

I have been passionate about imagery since working with stroke patients as a physiotherapist. A after I have studied imagery in my MSc degree course I have came across imagery’s whole distinct concept and advantages that could be applied in rehabilitation field. Since then I have decided to do continue my PhD degree into exploring the full depth and dimensions of imagery and how beneficial it can be in my area of physiotherapy rehabilitation.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.