Stuck on the Sidelines? Keep Improving with Mental Imagery Practice

Getting to know your neurons with Hebbian learning

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Has an injury kept you out of the game? Fear not—you still can keep refining your craft with mental imagery practice. Professor Vishton describes how it works.

Man using mental imagery
Athletes can continue to practice through the use of mental imagery if they can’t physically practice due to illness or injury. Photo by Stockfour / Shutterstock

Mental Imagery Practice

In addition to studies supporting the immediate advantage of using mental imagery to prepare to perform an action, many studies have shown long-term benefits from regular mental imagery practice. Even if you aren’t on the golf course, for example, you can sit quietly, close your eyes, and practice playing golf. 

You can do the same thing for tennis or any other sport. As you work on your game on a regular basis in this way, you’ll likely see improvements.

If you find yourself suffering through an injury or physical fatigue that prevents you from practicing some activity as much as you’d like, Professor Vishton recommends mental imagery practice as a supplement for regular practice. Your muscles get tired faster than your brain. 

It’s not at all uncommon for any athlete, professional or not, to find themselves physically too fatigued to practice well. Even when the body isn’t ready for more, the brain might be. 

There’s good evidence that mental imagery practice, used three or four times per week, can result in improvements in a wide range of different sporting activities. Mental imagery practice may even help you recover from the injury itself faster. 

Rehabilitation through Imagery

An extreme case has been studied by William & Mary psychology professor Jennifer Stevens and her collaborators. They recruited patients who had suffered strokes that resulted in near paralysis of the arm on one side of the body. 

The normal rehabilitation strategy for this condition takes a very bottom-up strategy. Therapists work on flexibility and strength of the affected limb. Over time, some function is typically recovered.

Stevens and her team developed a top-down strategy in which participants engaged in mental imagery exercises. They imagined moving the limb in ways that it could no longer move—flexing, lifting, and performing simple motor tasks. 

When used in combination with standard rehabilitation techniques, the participants exhibited increased recovery of motor function. Their limbs even got stronger when imagery was used. That was a surprise to many rehabilitation researchers, but it was in line with the conclusions found by similar studies such as one evaluating the effect of mental imagery on strength training.

What changes in the brain when we use imagery, and how does imagery exert these effects? One effect of mental imagery is the relatively immediate effect of warming up the particular brain circuits that will ultimately be responsible for controlling an action. By providing some low-level activation to these brain regions, they’re able to function more efficiently when the time comes to perform for real.

Hebbian Learning

A second, slower effect of imagery practice has to do with refining patterns of neuronal connectivity. Everything you’ll ever do is controlled by networks of neurons that fire in a precise, coordinated order. 

If you’re hitting a shot in golf, you need to pull the club back in a particular way—a specific position in space with a specific posture. When that’s set, you swing down and forward; this changes to a follow-through stage. All of these steps are controlled in a precisely timed order by a sequence of neuronal circuits.

When you imagine performing a task like this, those neurons get more strongly connected to one another. Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb was famous for discovering that when two neurons become active at the same time, they tend to become more strongly connected to one another. 

Conversely, if there are two connected neurons and only one of them is active, then the connection between them tends to be weakened. This fundamental property of neurons has come to be known as Hebbian learning, and it’s been implicated in almost all experience-dependent learning that we do.

Hebb summarized the process with a very simple phrase: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” When you engage in mental imagery practice, you’re giving your neural networks extra repetitions of a behavior in which they can engage in this Hebbian learning process.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.