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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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.

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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.  

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