General Articles

Playing Mind Games Pays Off

The Medical Post, June 6,1995

SEATTLE - Don't just do it, think about it.

New research suggests mental practice of a motor skill may actually improve physical performance. While it's not as efficient by itself as physical practice, the combination of mental and physical rehearsal produces an even better result than physical practice alone.

"It appears that mental practice has some priming effect on the benefit of physical practice," said Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neurologist at the Unidad De Neurobiologia, Universidad De Valencia, in Valencia, Spain.

The effects of mental practice also appear to follow the same rules as physical rehearsal in that improvement is limited to the specific movement or skills practised.

Dr. Pascual-Leone and his colleagues have been studying the changes in cortical organization required for acquisition of new skills. In other studies, now in press, they've shown the changes induced by mentally visualizing successful completion of a skill are exactly those induced by physical practice.

Athletes and musicians have believed for a long time that visualizing successful performance can enhance execution.

"When we looked at the literature, we found a lot of anecdotal evidence and psychological reports saying mental practice enhances performance to some degree, but nobody has actually looked at why," Dr. Pascual-Leone said in an interview.

"We started to look for a physiological basis that would allow for mental practice to really improve acquisition of skills or improve performance, and how that compares to physical practice."

At the recent meeting here of the American Academy of Neurology, he presented results of two experiments. In the first, 10 people - all chosen because they not only didn't play basketball or any other game with balls, but didn't even watch basketball - practised free throws for an hour a day over five days.

They were randomly assigned to three groups. The first practised physically. The second group practised mentally simply by standing in front of the hoop, imagining a successful throw as though from an overhead camera.

The third group broke up their practice period into 15 minutes of physical and 45 minutes of mental practice.

At the start, all made about three throws out of 20. After five days, those practising mentally improved to five, those practising physically improved to eight, and those combining mental and physical practice hit nine throws of 20.

In a separate experiment, 20 subjects practised both mentally and physically throwing overhand or underhand baskets. Improvement was seen only in the skill they'd been assigned to practise.

Copyright 1995 Maclean Hunter Publishing Limited
Reprinted with permission.

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