Pacific Movement Center

Intelligent Movement for Life


About Mental Imagery

by Donna Luder © 2007-08 All rights reserved.  

        For two and a half millennia, philosophers have discussed and debated the role-assignments of the body and mind.  Is the mind superior and the body inferior, or is the body just a way to access the mind, or is there no separation?   The debate over the relative superiority of mind or body may not be a useful construct for physical educators.  Instead, it may be more useful for teachers to recognize athletic goals can be enhanced through physical or cognitive skill development. Students of movement would be well-served to be accomplished in both skills.
Athletic coaches and physical education teachers are familiar with skill drills and other physical techniques for improving athletic ability.  Somewhat less familiar is the cognitive technique of mental imagery.  This paper seeks to review the research behind mental imagery, discuss the philosophy of mental imagery, and provide a concrete prescription for the front line of movement educators to improve motor learning and performance through mental imagery. It is advantageous to use this cognitive skill because it is potentially quick, powerful, and applicable to all people in all walks of life, from ballerinas to football players to stroke survivors.
Ernst Weber (1795-1878) founded the field of psychophysics by studying the relationship between sensory information and cognitive evaluation of that information between 1829 and 1834, according to Mook (2004). In 1860, Gustav Fechner contributed a method to correlate physical variables to mental variables over the entire range of possible variables (Mook). Fechner was sufficiently mesmerized to later pen the metaphysical text “On Life After Death”.  Early 20
th century research branched into the field of mental imagery and theorized the body would respond to mental practice alone (Washburn, 1916) but EMG did not confirm this theory until 1932 (Jacobson).  Simultaneously, the lay literature began to explore how concepts from modern science could enhance desired outcomes.  The year 1927 brought pianist Heinrich Kosnick’s Lebenssteigerung (Life-Enhancement) in which he described how his “psycho-physiological” method could increase the skills of his piano students. In 1933, Freeman showed concomitant muscle activity could be measured during mental imagery of an activity, as cited in Green (1994). By 1934, Sackett concluded that physical practice was superior to mental imagery but mental imagery did improve performance. Mabel Todd, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College, published The Thinking Body in 1937 in which she outlined her philosophy of “Structural Hygiene” that taught students mental processes to influence ease of movement and posture. In the mid- to late-20th century, multiple reviews of previous research (Richardson, 1967; Corbin 1972; Weinberg 1982; and Feltz and Landers, 1983) concluded mental practice is indeed an effective method for improving performance.
Although research supports mental practice as a viable method of physical skill development, the question remains:  how does it work? Evidence points to the theory that mental imagery is consciousness itself (Marks, 1999 and Ginsburg, 1999). Wittgenstein declared mental images are the means by which we interact with the world, they are how we know (1949/1978).   For example, when a chef following a recipe reads the ingredient “artichoke”, the chef may visualize the artichoke, smell its aroma, taste it, spatially locate it in the kitchen, kinesthetically feel its spiky roughness, or relate to it emotionally. All of these responses are represented by mental imagery.  Even the word “artichoke” on the recipe card is an image, a representation of the real thing. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) expresses this concept with the phrase, “the map is not the territory” (Bavister and Vickers, 2004).  In the same way that a map is a representation of the territory but is not the territory itself, the image of the artichoke is not the artichoke any more than the word “artichoke” is an artichoke.  Although the mental image of the artichoke as a smell, taste, visual picture, location, or sensation is not the artichoke, it is a valid and useful representation of an artichoke, and the method by which the chef is made
conscious of the ingredient for the recipe.
That which one is conscious of is one’s reality; it is a truism from which one operates.  Plato’s allegory of the cave described prisoners who have spent their entire lives in a cave, chained so that they can only see flickering shadows on the cave wall.  The prisoners think the shadows are real, substantive beings, because it is all they have ever experienced.  It is obvious to the outsider that shadows have no substance; they are not real in the sense that people are real. However, whether something is experienced as real has very little to do with its status in the physical world.  Only the subject’s perception of the object, dictates its realness (Heidegger, 1932/2002).
In order for an athlete to be considered conscious, some type of mental imagery is in use.  The batter anticipates the feel of the bat connecting to the ball, the diver mentally hears the quiet splash of a perfect dive, the dancer visualizes the flight of a swan, and the soccer player daydreams about a friend and subsequently gets thumped by an incoming ball!  A constant river of mental information flows through the mind of every conscious human and it can be influenced by consciously chosen imagery.
Purposeful manipulation of mental imagery is familiar to elite level athletes who report using imagery more often than less experienced athletes (Hall, Rodgers and Barr, 1990). This content is largely at the athlete’s discretion and therefore a potential ally in performance success.  The athlete who images crossing the finish-line and seeing the desired time on the clock is “using imagery” to succeed; Walter Mitty daydreaming of his secret life as a fighter-pilot thus escapes his normal life. Both streams of thought are purposeful and, by design, both are “real” to the thinker.  Negative imagery is just as “real” to the athlete and also powerful.  For this reason, negative imagery has been shown to produce significant performance deterioration (Hall, Schmidt, Durand, and Buckolz, 1994).
Vividness refers to how clearly an athlete sees the image. Control is the ability to direct an image and manipulate its contents. Both are important characteristics of successful imagery.  Start and Richardson as cited in Green (1994), found that athletes who had high degrees of both vividness and control performed best.  They found the next best combination was low vividness and high control, then low vividness and low control, and lastly high vividness and low control.  This surprising finding caused the authors to conclude that if an athlete can vividly image performing, but cannot control the image to direct what is wanted, the athlete might actually be practicing detrimental movement patterns.
To enhance our understanding of imagery use in athletes, Paivio (1985) developed a framework of Imagery Effects.  Paivio describes four functions of imagery that are represented by Figure 1.

Picture 4
Motivational-general imagery is used to regulate physiological and emotional levels of arousal, as in remaining calm or in turning anxiety into energy for performance.  For example, an athlete nervously waiting on the sidelines with butterflies in the stomach could image the nervousness as powerful energy impatiently waiting for the signal to be released.  Motivational-specific imagery is goal-oriented as in mentally visualizing oneself receiving a trophy, or hearing the applause of the audience. Cognitive-general imagery is used in a specific event to image strategy.  As an example, Weinberg and Gould (2007) show use of cognitive-general imagery by quoting tennis great Chris Evert-Lloyd as follows:

Before I play a match, I try to carefully rehearse what is likely to happen and how I will react in certain situations.  I visualize myself playing typical points based on my opponent’s style of play.  I see myself hitting crisp, deep shots from the baseline and coming to the net if I get a weak return.  This helps me mentally prepare for a match, and I feel like I’ve already played the match before I even walk on the court (p. 296-297).

Cognitive-specific imagery is used to image specific motor skills or to image the ability to complete specific motor skills.  An athlete who needs to lift an arm overhead might image the downward rotation of the scapula with simultaneous posterior rotation of the clavicle for free and unobstructed movement of the humerus (Franklin, 1996). Alternatively, the athlete could imagine successfully lifting the arm overhead in a free and easy manner.
In response to Paivio’s framework of imagery, some researchers began to investigate the use of the framework in various sports.  Hall et al. (1990) found that all athletes reported using imagery of some type, although it was used more in competition than in practice.  Also, Hall et al. found imagery use varied with the competitive level of the athlete.  The higher the performance level, the more the athlete used motivational rather than functional imagery. The researchers concluded that elite athletes already have the physical skills necessary for excellence and instead focus their imagery on goal achievement.  Lower level athletes are not precluded from benefiting from motivational imagery, it just happens that the skill is not as prevalent.
Cognitive specific imagery must overcome a very high hurdle:  athletes routinely resist spending time of on this type of imagery and view it as taking time away from practice.  The only way to clear this hurdle is to show gains in technique as a result of cognitive specific imagery.  This means every possible gain through imagery must be maximized.  Marks (1999) shows one factor that clearly improves the efficacy of imagery is vividness.  Vividness is a modulator on the other types of imagery (visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, kinesthetic, spatial, and/or emotional). The discipline of somatics uses
embodiment (kinesthetic mental imagery from within or a first-person perspective) to create imagery that is vivid and personal.  Thomas Hanna writes:

What physiologists see from their externalized, third-person view is always a “body”.  What the individual sees from his or her internalized, first-person view is always a “soma.”  Soma is a Greek word that, from Hesiod onward, has meant “living body.”  This living, self-sensing, internalized perception of oneself is radically different from the externalized perception of what we call a “body,” which could just as well be a human, a statue, a dummy, or a cadaver – from an objective viewpoint, all of these are “bodies”. (p. 20)

If one mentally observes someone else winning a trophy, the experience is less vivid than the mental experience of actually winning a trophy. This holds true even when that “someone else” is the self. Davidson and Schwarz showed that first-person imagery produced “greater somatic arousal and less visual activity” than third-person, or external, imagery (1977, p. 201). Mahoney and Avener (1977) found that gymnasts who qualified for the Olympic trials were more likely to use internal imagery than external imagery. The use of this first-person perspective in cognitive-skill imagery is predominant in the field of somatic education. 
Wozny describes the different methods of somatic education as sharing the following five characteristics, “using sensory feedback, slowing down and paying attention, learning through internal experience rather than imitation, applying a rhythm of doing and resting, and exploring movement rather than simply completing exercises” (p. 24).  These characteristics describe mental imagery from a first-person perspective, done with a relaxed, curious and willing manner, with a special emphasis on awareness of kinesthetic sensations generated by the image.
For instance, relaxation techniques are considered useful in somatic education as well as many different sporting applications.  In the relaxation technique named “The Empty Suit” Sweigard (1977) recommends the student use mental first-person imagery and
be an empty, wrinkled suit of clothes in order to maximize relaxation:

To straighten out this much wrinkled suit, you must visualize, in your mind’s eye, the following movements as if they were occurring in the empty suit, which is you…. Watch the upper part of the trouser leg collapsing together as its knee is supported over the cross-bar of [a] hanger.  There is a soft, tall collar inside the neck of the coat which has so many crosswise wrinkles in back that it has almost disappeared within the coat.  Imagine these wrinkles being smoothed upward until the top of the collar reaches the base of the head – a long distance….  Watch all parts of the coat slumping as far as they can toward the floor until all the front, sleeves included, have collapsed on the back of the coat.  (p. 233-235)

Sweigard is clear that the technique of embodiment is less about doing the imagery than experiencing the imagery:

The central nervous system makes no mistakes in choosing an efficient neuromuscular action in its response to visualized movement, if such movement is allowed by the design of the skeletal structure and physical laws, and when there is no interference from voluntary movement. (p. 227)

This describes a profound trust in the wisdom of the central nervous system.  Hartley describes this in terms of the physiology of the spinal cord. 

Figure 2 – Direction of Information Flow

Note.  From “Atlas of Anatomy,” by M. Schuenke, E. Schulte and U. Schumacher, 2007, Stuttgart: Thieme.  Copyright 2007 by Georg Thieme Verlag.  Reprinted with permission.

The efferent motor nerves exit the spinal cord from the ventral nerve root.  This is the direction of motor impulses, moving away from the spinal cord and toward the skeletal muscle to execute motor commands from the central nervous system (CNS).  The afferent sensory nerves enter the spinal cord at the dorsal nerve root.  This is the direction of the sensory information flow:  from the musculoskeletal system toward the CNS carrying details such as proprioception and muscle tension.
Experiencing a movement is the interpretation of this afferent sensory information.  Imagining experiencing a movement may fire the afferent nerves at a low level. Jacobson (1932) described how, when a subject imagines doing a physical movement, the brain fires off low-level efferent nerve impulses to the relevant muscular motor units. In the attempt of an unfamiliar motor skill, an athlete may not be familiar with how to perform it, what muscle patterns to activate, or what it will feel like.  Instead, somatic embodiment can guide the athlete to experiencing the results of the image.  This is like running time forward:  the athlete has the experience of the movement without actually doing the movement.  This curious phenomena was experienced in a slightly different manner by shot-putter Udo Beyer, who had a personal best put of 68 feet. His coaches created a computer-generated image of the form he would be required to increase his best record to 72 feet.  Korn writes,

In an alternate state of consciousness he watched this image and eighteen months later he was putting 72 feet.  This increase of 4 feet in one and a half years is virtually unheard of at this level of world class competition. (p. 202)

Hartley and Sweigard agree in order for embodiment imagery to work, the subject must observe the imagery itself and the results of the imagery, yet resist the temptation to do the imagery as a pantomime..
Some subjects are uncomfortable with imagery: they consider themselves unable to image or they are unfamiliar with eidetic imagery. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed young children to be very skillful with imagery but then become socialized into the adult world of verbal communication (1969).  Richardson, as cited in Green (1994) provides evidence that “the ability to use eidetic imagery in those who once possessed it begins to wither away from lack of use” (p. 48). As a result, it may be less intimidating for these subjects to use self-talk, the overt or covert conversation one has with one’s self (Green, 1994). Self-talk is mental imagery in language form, and in contrast to the other types of mental imagery, language is a skill that is refined and developed by the adult world.  Most adults are comfortable with the concept of positive self-talk and easily accept the notion that altering this internal conversation can alter their performance. 
The discussion up to this point has defined mental imagery, described its standings in research, and presented or proposed theories on why mental imagery works.  Now that the groundwork has been laid, the intent of this paper can be fulfilled:  to provide a concrete prescription to those teachers and coaches on the front-line of sport and movement education.
The Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) may be used as an initial assessment tool of the athlete’s general imagery ability as regards motivation and cognitive skills.  Originally created by Hall, Mack, Paivio, and Hausenblas (1998) to confirm Paivio’s framework of imagery, the SIQ included six questions in each of the four categories of the Paivio framework and an additional category “Motivational-General Mastery.” This new category contained questions that were quite different from the “Motivational-General Arousal” category. Examples of these questions are in Table 1.

Picture 5
Because the SIQ was developed as a diagnostic tool it is a poor skill development tool. What is needed is a step-by-step tool to develop these skills and increase awareness of imagery use at the cognitive level of consciousness. The following original worksheet presented as Figure 2 is intended to be this tool. It will guide the creation of effective imagery, first by exposing the athletes to the ideas behind imagery, progressing in sophistication, and demonstrating the positive effects of imagery.  The ultimate intention is to empower the athlete to create personal and effective imagery in the future.  This simple worksheet can be completed verbally, as in during conversation with the educator, or as homework.

Figure 3 – Worksheet to use in developing an effective mental imagery protocol; developed by Luder (2007)

Picture 6
The selection of each of the questions and the relevant theories of the effective mental imagery worksheet will now be discussed.
The first question is, “What skill is to be improved?”  Because a clear and concise image is crucial for successful imaging, the first question on the worksheet asks whether the athlete clearly understands the specific skill is to be imaged.  If the athlete is unclear, the effort is doomed to failure for if the athlete does not know what to image, it certainly will not be clear and concise.  This question creates an opportunity for clarification, if necessary. 
The second question reads, “Is [this skill] imaginable from the third-person perspective?”  Third-person perspective is a lower level of sophistication in visual imagery and has been shown to be used less by elite athletes. This question is intended to quickly identify how comfortable the athlete is with imagery of the desired skill.  If the answer to this question was “yes” then the athlete should move to question three.  The second part of question number two is, “If your answer is no, what do you think that means?”  This question will help to understand if motivational imagery might be useful and what type. The follow-up question, “Does your self-talk support this changing?” inquires into whether the athlete is already attempting to self-motivate or, importantly, not attempting to self-motivate.
The next sub-question inquires, “Can you imagine someone else performing the skill?”  The intention of this question is to check comfort with the concept of imagery and the athlete’s facility with imagery of the desired skill.  If the athlete’s answer is ‘yes’ then the coach knows that the athlete
can image the skill.  The follow-up question, “Can you imagine your face on that person’s body while that person performs the skill?” intends to check motivation and self-confidence.  If the answer is “no”, or the athlete can only imagine someone else performing the skill then the coach should discuss motivation or self-confidence. This imagery trick of seeing one’s own head on someone else’s body is intended to boost self-confidence and give one the opportunity to “see” the skill as a possibility for oneself.  However, it is preferable to graduate to the third-person perspective as soon as possible.  If the athlete is not successful with any of these eidetic imagery-development tools, then the next question is intended to develop what does work for most people:  self-talk.  If the athlete cannot even verbalize the skill with a few descriptive words, then perhaps a qualified Sports Psychologist can help to discover what is causing this block.
“Can you see it as you would through your own eyes while performing the skill?”  This question moves the athlete from third-person into first-person, while remaining a primarily visual image. The next question, “Can you imagine experiencing the skill from within?” makes the jump into somatic embodiment and inquires into what response is desired from the body.  This can be motivational or biomechanically based. “Describe what it feels like in a few words.” This intends to guide the athlete into verbalizing what is imaged.  This helps to ensure the athlete images what the athlete wants, and not that which is unwanted.
The last portion of the worksheet is a self-check, intended to confirm the athlete is maximizing the various characteristics of successful imagery. “Vividness” describes how “real” the image is, e.g. is it colorful, can the athlete hear noise from an audience, or feel nervousness.  “Control” describes whether the athlete can direct and manipulate the contents of the imagery. “Personal” describes if the image is personalized to the athlete, e.g. if the athlete contributed to the creation of the image. Allowing and encouraging the athlete to participate in personalized imagery empowers the athlete as well as ensures the image is not personal only to the coach. “Useful” describes the degree to which the athlete feels the image is linked to desired outcomes. For example, bounding up like a superball is useful to a basketball player and less useful to a bowler. “Feels right” describes if the athlete is able to tune in to the body, have a covert conversation (either kinesthetically or linguistically) with the soma and report back to the cognitive levels of consciousness. 

Imagery is a powerful force and can be easily underestimated.  The following is an anecdotal story of a nineteen-year-old Chinese pianist named Liu Shih-kum, who in 1958 placed second in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, losing first place to Van Cliburn.  Korn (1994) uses this story to illustrate the dramatic potential of imagery:

[After the Tchaikovsky Competition] he then returned home to China and by the mid 1960s, he was an established concert pianist.   Then, Mao Tse-Tung and the cultural revolution came along.  Everything Western influenced fell into disfavor and Western music was one of its victims.  Pianist Liu, for refusing to renounce the music he loved, was deemed an enemy of the people and thrown into jail.  He was locked away where no one could see him and was beaten repeatedly.  From the beating he fractured a bone in his right forearm.For six years he languished in a tiny prison cell and was given no books to read, no paper to write on, and worst of all, no piano.Then, one day, for propaganda purposes, he was released from jail and requested to perform in Beijing with the Philadelphia orchestra.  That request came from Mao, the very man responsible for his fractured arm and jail sentence. He did play with the Philadelphia orchestra and he played brilliantly, even though he had not touched a piano for six years.The fact that he survived is, in itself, remarkable; that his hands survived, as though they never stopped playing, was called astonishing.  In prison he was denied a piano and even denied paper which might have permitted him to recapture the music he lost.  Yet, Liu had something invaluable in the prison cell, something that produced notes of music and a piano keyboard.  For more than six years he practiced his music in his vivid disciplined imagination, on a piano no one could see. (p. 210 )

The relationship between body and mind is as the moon and the earth: if the earth had no moon, the earth would not be the Earth because lunar tides have shaped our planet and evolution.  The moon without Earth would not be a moon at all, it would be just a rock out in space.  In this manner, the body and mind crucially rely upon the other, each inseparable aspects of one whole.  Athletes will benefit by becoming familiar with this relationship and by building skills to develop consciousness of the soma.  These skills will enrich sport, physical education and indeed, many other aspects of life.  It is hoped that the Imagery Development Worksheet presented in this paper will provide the necessary information to begin to develop these skills.


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