One of our most remarkable mental skills is the capacity to simulate sensations, movements and other types of experience.
Indeed, Richard Crisp and colleagues go so far as to suggest that “the ability to envisage a world different from that which we know is one of the defining characteristics of human experience”. But what do we really know about people’s ability to imagine actions?
For over a century, researchers have investigated the construct of mental imagery or the cognitive simulation process by which we can represent perceptual information in our minds in the absence of appropriate sensory input. In recent years, a mental simulation process that has attracted increasing attention from cognitive neuroscientists is “motor imagery” (traditionally known as “mental practice’) or the cognitive rehearsal of actions without engaging in the actual physical movements involved.
Substantial empirical evidence has accumulated to show that mental practice can improve people’s skills and performance in domains such as sport, medical surgery and music. For example, former swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, revealed how he used imagery to practise mentally before a competition: “I can visualize how I want the perfect race to go. I can see the start, the strokes, the walls, the turns, the finish, the strategy, all of it”.
Although the use of mental imagery for performance enhancement may appear to be a recent phenomenon, psychological research on mental practice is as old as the discipline itself. Unfortunately, some of this early research has been neglected even though it contains insights that anticipate contemporary neuroscientific understanding of motor imagery processes. To rectify this oversight, I will provide a brief sketch of some prescient observations about motor imagery from two pioneering psychologists – William James, author of the seminal book The Principles of Psychology and Margaret Floy Washburn, author of Movement and Mental Imagery and notable as the first woman to receive a PhD degree in Psychology.
To begin with, James suggested rather counter-intuitively that by anticipating experiences imaginatively, “we learn to swim during the winter and to skate during the summer”. Later in this book, he described how a native American boy used motor imagery to copy a newspaper illustration. Specifically, the young artist “followed with care with the point of his knife the outline of a drawing … saying that this was to enable him to carve it out the better on his return home”. In speculating about the theoretical mechanisms underlying such phenomena, James popularized the “ideo-motor” principle, which proposed that all thoughts have muscular concomitants such that “an action is initiated by the anticipation of its effects”.
Influenced by James’ work, Washburn postulated a motor theory of consciousness. This theory suggested that thinking was inextricably linked with movement (e.g., she claimed that “actual movements occur when we are thinking”). It seems plausible that Washburn’s ideas influenced the contemporary approach known as “embodied cognition”. Embodied cognition theorists postulate that many of the brain circuits that are responsible for abstract thinking are inextricably linked to those that process sensory experience. Furthermore, Washburn proposed that thinking about movements may cause slight contraction of the muscles involved.
This idea of an overlap between cognitive and motor systems anticipates the “functional equivalence” hypothesis – the proposition that mental imagery shares certain representations, neural structures, and theoretical mechanisms with like-modality perception and with motor preparation and execution (see Moran et al., 2012). Evidence to support this hypothesis comes from neuroimaging studies showing that mentally simulated and executed actions rely on similar neural representations and activate many common brain areas such as the posterior parietal, premotor, and supplementary motor cortex (Burianová et al., 2013).
Clearly, Washburn was ahead of her time in speculating about an overlap between the neural substrates of cognition and those underlying motor processes. In short, she realised that thinking cannot be arbitrarily decoupled from bodily action.
And so, once again, we are reminded of the wisdom of the aphorism – if you want a new idea, read an old book.
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