Appeal to your inner couch potato

16th May 2008 at 01:00
With a bit of training, people can think themselves brighter, fitter and more skilful, without ever leaving their sofa, says Susan Greenfield
With a bit of training, people can think themselves brighter, fitter and more skilful, without ever leaving their sofa, says Susan Greenfield

As we head into summer, there's a pretty good chance that our well-intentioned New Year's resolutions to visit the gym have slipped by the wayside. But, rather remarkably, neuroscience research has shown that simply imagining yourself exercising can increase the strength of your muscles - a true couch potato's dream.

Now teachers who are working with our Institute for the Future of the Mind have found that this "mental visualisation" can help pupils to learn.

For more than 40 years, psychology research has recognised the measurable effects of imagining a movement on your subsequent ability to perform it.

Improvements have been observed across a range of abilities associated with physical training, including speed and accuracy of movement, strength of muscular contraction and consistency.

Researchers at The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio demonstrated that volunteers who imagined flexing one of their biceps as hard as possible increased their bicep strength by 14 per cent. They also maintained that increase in strength for several months after finishing the experiment.

A range of sportsmen and women, artists and musicians, including Lewis Hamilton, Steve Redgrave and Tiger Woods, use mental visualisation to improve their competitive performance. As this technique has largely been bypassed in education, it suggests we may be missing a valuable tool.

Mental training was previously thought to improve performance by providing new insights into the action being performed. While this may well be a factor, recent cognitive neuroscience research suggests a more direct effect is responsible. Imaging studies have revealed that just thinking about a movement activates the same parts of the brain as physically performing it. As we activate networks of neurons in the brain by imagining the movements, we make further activations easier.

As muscles move in response to impulses from neurons, increasing the strength of the impulse can increase the efficiency of the muscle contraction.

An experiment by Pascual-Leone and colleagues at The National Institute for Health neatly demonstrates this theory. First, the group of researchers showed that practising a five-finger piano exercise increases the activation area of the brain associated with moving the fingers. This is a significant result in itself that nicely illustrates the plasticity of the brain in response to learning.

Not surprisingly, volunteers in the control group who just stared at the piano showed no changes in brain activation; however, those volunteers who imagined practising the exercise showed the same changes in brain activity as those generated by the repeated physical practice. In addition, the process of just imagining the exercise produced a marked improvement in performance.

Clearly, mental visualisation has potentially widespread implications for dance, sport, music and education. But what about other subjects? Well, it all depends how you teach them.

Advanced Skills Teachers in Gloucestershire, who have been collaborating with our Institute for the Future of the Mind, have discovered how to incorporate movement into their teaching to aid the representation of concepts and help pupils remember (The TES Magazine, February 15, 2008). Sarah Shaw, a teacher at Longlevens and Glenfall primary schools, used mental rehearsal to revisit a previous lesson she had taught on the water cycle through a one-hour dance lesson.

Three months after the original lesson, she sat the class in a relaxed environment and gave them an opportunity to mentally act out the movements and recall ideas and science associated with the dance. Teacher and pupils reported a strong learning effect.

With a bit of imagination, mental imagery could be incorporated into a wide range of classroom situations. With such strong evidence, it could form a valuable learning tool.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

REFERENCES

Ranganathan, V.K. et al, From mental power to muscle power - gaining strength by using the mind, Neuropsychologia (2004) 42:7, 944-956

Pascual-Leone, A. et al, Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills, Journal of Neurophysiology (1995) 74:3, 1037-1045

Overview of the Science of Learning project at The Institute for the Future of the Mind: www.futuremind.ox.ac.ukimpacteducation.html.

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