Visualization Research


Building and Strengthening Neural Pathways Through Mental Rehearsal

Research Proves Visualization Can Change Physiology

The mind can’t tell the difference between what is really happening and what you are imagining. The brain will therefore build and strengthen the neuropathways in the same part of the brain whether you are really performing the task or just visualizing performing the task in your imagination.


Think about that for a moment. If you focus your attention on specific imagery in your mind an become very present with a sequence of repeated thoughts and feelings, your brain and body will not know the difference between what is occurring in the outer world and what is happening in your inner world.

So, when you’re fully engaged and focused, the inner world of imagination will appear as an outer-world experience – and your biology will change accordingly.

The best way to explain the correlation of visualization and changes to your mind and body is to examine how visualization techniques can improve athletic performance.


Back in the late 1950s, the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR) discovered that by employing a technique called mental imagery, they could enhance athletic performance. Between the 1956 and 1980 Olympics, the Soviet Union gymnastics team dominated the sport worldwide. Athletes such as Larrisa Latynina, Nicholai Andrianov, and Boris Shahklin won a total of twenty-three gold metals, making them and the Soviet team the greatest of all time. Their performance was near perfect whenever they competed.

The big question being asked throughout the sports world at that time was how they were able to do it day in and day out. In the late 1980s, with the defection of many Soviet Union coaches and trainers, their secret training techniques were slowly revealed. They Soviet Union employed a virtually unknown athletic training technique that they called mental image training. Their athletes were not only well trained physical but also would mentally rehearse their routines in their heads over and over.

They would run the race in their mind or perform their event over and over mentally before they got on the track, in the pool, or on the court. In their minds, they would see the start, feel the race, and see themselves cross the finish line in first place or land the perfect dismount scoring a perfect 10 over and over. This mental training has become what we call visualization, and it is now used not only by every world-class athlete but also by performance coaches in all areas of business and life.

One of the most well-known studies on creative visualization in sports was related by Charles A. Garfield in his 1985 book about these new mental training techniques by Soviet Union and Eastern European athletes titled Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes:

“In my meetings with the Soviet researchers in Milan, they discussed government funded athletic programs that integrate sophisticated mental training and rigorous physical training. One study evaluating these intensive programs suggests their potential. Four matched groups of world-class Soviet athletes diligently trained for many hours each week. The training regimens were as follows:

  • Group one: 100% physical training
  • Group two: 75% physical training, 25% mental training
  • Group three: 50% physical training, 50% mental training
  • Group four: 25% physical training, 75% mental training

“When the four groups were compared shortly before the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, Group Four had shown significantly greater improvement than Group III, with Groups II and I following, in that order.”1

To say that again, the research found that the fourth group who spend 75% of their time devoted to mental training performed the best during the Olympics.

This has been such an important finding that the US Olympic Committee now has increased the number of full-time psychologists on staff from just one to six over the last 20 years.


Visual 1



A team of Harvard researchers took a group of volunteers who had never before played the piano and divided the group in half. One half practiced a simple five-finger piano exercise for two hours a day over a period of five days. The remaining half did the same thing, but just by imagining they were sitting at the piano – without physically moving their fingers in any way. The before-and-after brain scans showed that both groups created a dramatic number of new neural circuits and new neurological programming in the region of their brains that controls finger movements, even though one group did so through thought alone.

The subjects who only imagined playing the piano repeatedly fired and wired those brain circuits with their attention and intention, and over time they created the same neural pathways in the same parts of their brains as those subjects who had actually played piano.2

CLICK HERE To Read The Abstract


In a pioneering study at the Cleveland Clinic, ten research subjects between the ages of 20 and 35 imagined flexing one of their biceps as hard as they could in five training sessions a week for 12 weeks. Every other week, the researchers recorded the subjects’ electrical brain activity during their sessions and measured their muscle strength.

By the end of the study, the subjects had increased their biceps strength by 13.5%, even though they hadn’t been using their muscles at all. Muscle strength was gained through mental rehearsal alone. They maintained this gain for three months after training sessions stopped.3

CLICK HERE To Read The Article


A research team asked subjects to visualize contacting their elbow flexor muscles. As they did so, they were instructed to urge the muscles to flex as strong and hard as possible – adding a firm intention to their strong mental energy – for 15-minute sessions, five days a week, for 12 weeks.

One group of subjects was instructed to use what is called external or third-person imagery imagining themselves performing the exercise by observing themselves in a scene in their heads separate from the experience (like watching a movie of themselves).

A second group was instructed to use internal or first-person imagery, imagining that their bodies as they existed right then in real time when doing the exercise making it more immediate and realistic. A third group, the control, did not practice.

The group using external imagery (like watching a movie of themselves), as well as, the control group showed no significant change.

The group using internal imagery showed a 10.8% increase in strength!4

CLICK HERE To Read The Abstract


Researchers from Ohio University went so far as to wrap the wrists of 29 volunteers in surgical casts for one month, ensuring they wouldn’t be able to move their wrists even unintentionally. Half of the group practiced mental-imagery exercises for 11 minutes a day, five days a week, imagining they were flexing their immobilized wrist muscles while actually remaining completely still. The other half, the control group, did nothing.

At the end of the month, when all the casts came off, the muscles of the group that only used imagination were twice as strong as those of the control group.5

CLICK HERE To Read The Abstract


Research by exercise psychologists from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared results of those who did physical exercises to the results of those who only imagined doing the muscle exercises in their heads.

Volunteers were divided into 4 groups

  • Group one performed little finger (fifth finger abductor) exercises
  • Group two only imagined doing the little finger (fifth finger abductor) exercises
  • Group three imaged exercising their elbow flexor muscles
  • Group four was the control group and did no exercises

The mental training sessions and physical training sessions were fifteen minutes long and performed five times a week for twelve weeks.

Group one who physically performed the finger exercises increased the finger abduction strength by 53%

Group two who only imagined doing the finger exercises increased their finger abduction strength by 35%

Group three who only imagined exercising their elbow flexor muscles augmented their elbow flexion strength by 13.5%

The control group, of course, showed no significant changes in strength for either finger abduction or elbow flexion tasks.

(One reason given for the difference in strength gains between groups that imagined exercising the finger and elbow flexor muscles was that the elbow flexors are used more frequently in daily life and are already highly trained, while the fifth finger abductors are rarely used.)6

CLICK HERE To Read The Abstact


Each of these studies show how mental rehearsal not only changes the brain, but can also change the body by thought alone.

In other words, by practicing the behaviors in their mind and consciously reviewing the activity on a regular basis, the bodies of the subjects looked like they been physically performing the activity – and yet the never did the exercises. Those who added the emotional component of doing the exercise as hard as possible to the intensity of the mental imagery made the experience even more real and the results more pronounced.

In the piano-playing study, the brains of the research subjects looked as through the experience they’d imagined had already happened because they had primed their brains for that future. In a similar way, the subjects in the muscle-flexing studies changed their bodies to look as if they had previously experienced that reality – just by mentally rehearsing the activity through thought alone.

You can see why when you wake up in the morning and start thinking about the people you have to see, the places you have to go, and the things you have to do in your busy schedule (that’s mentally rehearsing), and then you add an intense emotion to it like suffering or unhappiness or frustration, just like the elbow flexor volunteers who urged their muscles to flex without moving them at all, you are conditioning your brain and body to look like that future has already happened. Since experience enriches the brain and creates an emotion that signals the body, when you continuously create an inward experience that is as real as an outer experience, over time you’re going to change your brain and body – just like any real experience would.

In fact, when you wake up and start thinking about your day, neurologically, biologically, chemically, and even genetically, it looks as though that day has already happened for you. And in fact it has. Once you actually start the day’s activities, just as in the experiments above, your body is naturally and automatically going to behave equal to your conscious or unconscious intentions.

If you’ve been doing the same thing for years on end, those circuits – as well as the rest of your biology – are more readily and easily activated. That’s because not only do you prime your biology every day with your mind, but you also re-create the same physical behaviors in order to reinforce those experiences further in your brain and body. And it actually becomes easier to go unconscious every day because you keep mentally and physically reinforcing the same habits over again – creating the habit of behaving by habit.

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1. Garfield, Charles A., Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes (California: Warner Books, 1984), 16

2. Pascual-Leone A, Nguyet D, Cohen LG, et al., Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. J Neurophysiol. 1995;74(3):1037-1045. doi:10.1152/jn.1995.74.3.1037

3. P. Cohen, “Mental Gymnastics Increase Bicep Strength,” New Scientist, vol. 172, no. 2318: p. 17 (2001),

4. Yao WX, Ranganathan VK, Allexandre D, et al., Kinesthetic imagery training of forceful muscle contractions increases brain signal and muscle strength. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:561. Published 2013 Sep 26. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.0056

5. Clark BC, Mahato NK, Nakazawa M, et al., The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness. J Neurophysiol. 2014;112(12):3219-3226. doi:10.1152/jn.00386.2014

6. Ranganathan VK, Siemionowa V, Jing Z. Liu, et al., From mental power to muscle power – gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia 42 (2004) 944-150;956.