Imaginative thinking can change the brain by improving performance and strengthening muscles.
we can use visualization to improve our performance of an activity. In one experiment, Pascual-Leone, a reknowned psychiatrist assembled two groups of people who had never played piano before. One group sat in front of a piano, twice a day, five days a week, and imagined playing and hearing a piano sequence. The other group actually practiced piano for the same amount of time.
People in both groups had their brains mapped before, during and after the experiment. At the end, both groups played through the piano sequence they had studied and a computer recorded the accuracy of their performance.
Astonishingly, mental practice alone had caused the same physical changes in the participants’ motor systems as those who had actually practiced, and both groups showed comparable brain maps and approximately the same skills!
How is that possible? Well, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an action and performing an action aren’t really that different.
Brain scans show that numerous areas in the brain are activated through both imagination and action. For example, the primary visual cortex of the brain is activated when people visualize the letter A with their eyes closed, as well as when they look at the letter A. In this way, visualizing is a powerful tool for improving performance.
But it goes further than that: you can use imagination to actually strengthen the muscles in your body.
In one study, doctors Guang Yue and Kelly Cole observed two groups, one that did physical exercise over four weeks – 15 finger contractions with a 20 second rest between them – and the other just imagined it, including a voice shouting “Harder! Harder! Harder!”. At the end of the four weeks, the group that actually performed the physical exercise increased their muscular strength by 30 percent. However, the group that visualized the exercise also increased their strength by 22 percent!