Ever fantasized that you’re a lean, mean fighting machine, with Churchillian speech-making talents, winning charisma, and superhuman willpower? If so, then you have already tapped into the tool that can help you get there in real life. Mental imagery—the kind that involves imagining success—has long been employed by professional athletes to boost their strength, confidence, and results. (Arnold Schwarzenegger imagined his biceps to be mountain peaks as he pumped iron.) But the technique is good for more than just sports. “Everyone can use imagery to prepare for all kinds of situations, including public presentations and difficult interactions,” says Daniel Kadish, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City who guides clients in mental imagery. Research has shown that surgeons, musicians, and business executives have used it to focus and to improve their performance. It could also help you run a 5K, ace a presentation, or even pass up the morning doughnut box.
How It Works
Scientists believe that we may experience real-world and imaginary actions in similar ways, explains Aymeric Guillot, Ph.D., a professor at the Center of Research and Innovation in Sport at University Claude Bernard Lyon, in France. 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. For example, imagining yourself doing movements can help you get better at them: Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus practiced each shot in his mind before taking it.
Mental workouts also stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which governs our fight-or-flight response and causes increases in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. So simply envisioning a movement elicits nervous-system responses comparable to those recorded during physical execution of the same action, says Guillot.
Although it may sound like hocus-pocus, some research suggests that imagining could help you get results even when you don’t move a muscle. In one notable study that appeared in the North American Journal of Psychology in 2007, athletes who mentally practiced a hip-flexor exercise had strength gains that were almost as significant as those in people who actually did the exercise (five times a week for 15 minutes) on a weight machine.
If your challenge is more mental than physical—for instance, handling a difficult conversation—imagery can keep you calm and focused. “Mentally rehearsing maintaining a steady assertiveness while the other person is ignoring or distracting you can help you attain your goal,” says Kadish. Envisioning this calmness may also decrease physical symptoms of stress, like an increase in heart rate or stress hormones.
When you repeatedly imagine performing a task, you may also condition your neural pathways so that the action feels familiar when you go to perform it; it’s as if you’re carving a groove in your nervous system. Finally, on a purely psychological level, envisioning success can enhance motivation and confidence.