New research published in Psychological Science shows your imagination may be more important than practice. In fact, for the study, those who imagined a target before having to actually pick out the target from a group of items were quicker at finding it. Everybody who follows sports remembers the famous free-throws that Michael Jordan took with his eyes closed. He was a person who practiced imagery, or visualization. Maybe he had it right.

Visualization is something constantly used in sports. Sports uniquely have to do with muscle memory and hand-eye coordination. But what this research shows is that it is an attribute of success for people of all stripes. This is because visualization is not meant to just improve motor performance, which might be used in an athletic endeavor, but it is also used to promote focus and visual processing.

The participants in the study were asked to look at a computer screen while their brain activity was recorded. As they sat, they were asked to look at images containing a bunch of letter Cs. The order and arrangements varied and were meant to trick. Then, the participants were asked to, as quickly and accurately as they could, determine whether a target was on the screen or not (the target being a red or green C).

“We ended up running a fairly large number of experiments because it was so surprising that imagery beat actual practice,” Geoffrey Woodman, study author and psychological scientist from Vanderbilt University, said in a press release.

The conclusion of these experiments showed that the distracting stimuli left traces in memory that interfered with performance. Thus, the performance suffered as a result. When the subject imagined the search, then performance was much better. The efficiency that the data showed was also confirmed by the EEG data, which was recording the subject’s brain activity. This study indicates that the success one gets due to visualization was due to “how well our sensory systems process inputs,” Woodman said.

This means that success begins in the brain, with all its processing and imaginings, before it actually manifests itself in performance. One can be successful by repetition and other material ways, but ultimate success (that is, success that is faster and more accurate) begins when a person imagines the act first, according to the study.

In a culture where pragmatism rules the day, this can be hard advice to heed. But the results of this experiment show that imagination is what is superior to practice because there isn’t as much visual interference.

Source: Woodman GF, Reinhart RMG, McClenahan LJ. Visualizing Trumps Vision in Training Attention. Psychological Science. 2015.

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