Visualizing Appears to Boost Performance More Than Actual Practice

woman meditating relaxingThe old saying goes that practice makes perfect, but new research has started to show that using mental imagery to rehearse what you have to do can help as well. Past research focused on professional athletes, who often benefit from imagining the many ways a game or race could go. But new research out this week has found that everyday people can also benefit and that using visualization may actually work better at improving your performance at something than practicing that activity in the real world.

What is visualization and how is it used?

Visualization is essentially mental practice. Instead of practicing whatever it is you have to do, you sit and mentally run through it. These sessions can be guided by another person or self-guided at the person’s own pace. They may involve some movement, say of your hands or feet, but most of the work is happening in your head. The technique has been successfully used by a wide variety of people in different fields from athletes, who might rehearse kicking goals or making 3-point shots, to musicians, who can run through the finger placements for a specific song.

The research on visualization has shown that this mental rehearsal makes people better at whatever task they’re doing. Brain scans have found that visualizing an action sets off the planning part of your brain that helps to ready your muscles for the right sets of actions. Exactly how this benefits performance is still being researched, but it’s likely a combination of reassessing your performances in the past for mistakes that you can correct and allowing your brain to hone in the right sets of movements to help your muscles work together better.

What did this study do differently?

While past studies have focused on physical performance, this team of researchers wondered if they could improve performance on a mental task. In this case, they picked an activity that required attention to detail. Participants were shown a letter C that was either red or green with the gap in the C facing in a specific direction. After noting the direction, the participants looked at a number of pictures that had 12 Cs of different colors and facing in different directions. They had to quickly determine whether the C they saw earlier was present in the right color and right orientation.

To test the effect of visualization against practice, some of the participants were given time to imagine searching for the right color and orientation amongst the 12 they would eventually be shown. Another group was given time to practice before the real deal so that they could get a feel for searching for the C in real life. Some participants did both to see if visualization and practice together might be better than each individually.

What did the researchers find?

The team was surprised to find that visualization actually worked better than practice alone. On top of that, practice didn’t improve how well people found the right C if they had already done visualization beforehand, indicating that visualization could essentially take the place of running through the task in real life.

The researchers think this happens because the real life training is more distracting than visualization. In real life, the brain has to actually look through the practice set of Cs and determine which ones are distractors and which ones are real. Not only that, but sometimes it gets fooled by images that might be close, which can cause confusion about what the real C actually looked like. When you’re imagining the situation, though, your brain can focus specifically on what it’s looking for and get the color and orientation safely implanted in memory. You rehearse in your mind seeing the right color and right direction over and over such that it’s obvious which is which when you get to real life.

How does this apply to me?

Next time you have a difficult project to work on, try doing a little visualization first. Whether it’s running through your presentation slides or keeping an eye on your kid in the playground, many studies are showing that mental rehearsal can help you do most things better, both physically and mentally.