Imagination improves our performance

To improve our performance, particularly in sport, we often follow the old adage ‘practice makes perfect.’ It's known that frequently repeating the same actions can help us to become quicker and more efficient. However, according to certain scientists, mental visualization could be a better technique. For example, a goal keeper who imagines all of the different ways that the ball could arrive is more likely to respond appropriately when the time comes.

"The idea that we can train our brains to work better is all the rage across society, but our research suggests that the human brain may benefit as much, or even more, from imagining performing a task, than the brain does from practicing a task over and over," says professor of psychology and study co-author Geoffrey Woodman from Vanderbilt University.

To arrive at this conclusion, participants completed a search task on the computer which required speed and concentration. They were asked to look at a series of images composed of the letter ‘C,’ in the shape of a ring, where the orientation of each C was slightly different. For each image they had to determine as quickly as possible if a given target, either a red or a green C with a particular orientation, was present or absent. Mental visualization and practice were tested and compared: in the first group, participants were asked to imagine looking for the target, while in the second group, participants were given a practice test before the real test.

The results confirmed that imagining looking for the target was more efficient than doing the practice test. Participants who had used the visualization technique also made greater progress during the experiment than those who had had more practice.

According to the researchers, these results show that imagination is more effective than practice because it doesn’t involve so much visual interference. During the practice test, the distracting stimuli (in this case the non-target Cs) influence our memory, which then influences future performance. By contrast, visualization techniques focus on the target C, and the distractors are given less attention and consequently interfere less during the exercise.
Source: Reinhart R.M., McClenahan L. J., Woodman G.F. Visualizing Trumps Vision in Training Attention. Psychol Sci. 2015 May 11. pii: 0956797615577619. [Epub ahead of print]

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