Studies have shown mentally rehearsing a task function in the mind as if one is actually performing a task. This finding has been widely applied to various fields including sports practice where, for example, baseball batters imagine themselves making extremely successful swings.
Neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone at the Harvard Medical School found mental rehearsal works with music practice. When people sat at a piano two hours daily for five days, but merely visualized themselves practicing instead of actually moving their fingers, the same neural structures in their brain were activated as when actually practicing. Pascual-Leone writes that mental practice “not only results in marked improvement in performance but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice.”
As an aside, the mind’s inability to distinguish the image from reality was demonstrated by the first-ever public showing of a movie. In 1895 the 50-second silent French film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) showed the entry of a steam-powered train into a French train station.
According to the story (or on some accounts the legend), the first ever movie audience was so scared by the image of a massive train coming directly at them that they screamed and ran out of the room.
This story illustrates the mind’s inability to distinguish the image from reality under certain situations, especially when not overridden by contradictory data. One such situation where the mind often has trouble distinguishing image from reality is during focused mental rehearsal of specific tasks.
Mental rehearsal has several practical implications for emotional intelligence. First, when acquiring a new emotion word into your vocabulary, you can utilize mental rehearsal by seeing yourself using the word in different situations. For example, if you were trying to acquire the word “tantalizing,” and were not used to using that word, you could see yourself in a fancy restaurant or bakery, saying or thinking to yourself “this looks tantalizing.” While actually going to a restaurant or bakery and using the new word would also be effective, deliberate mental practice can be just as effective as actual real-life experience.
Factors for Successful Imagery
Imagery is most effective when done deliberately, consistently, and with the right technique. The following five factors can enhance the use of imagery for acquiring new emotion words:
1) Clarity and Detail of the Image
The more vivid and real the image is in your mind, the better your chances are of succeeding in actually using the word in real situations after having mentally rehearsed saying or thinking the word in imaginary situations.
2) Closeness of the Imagined Image
When you close your eyes and imagine something, the closer to yourself you make the image, the more realistic and personal the image will seem. Thus, the more you practice imagining yourself using a word by seeing the image as close to yourself, the more real the images will seem, and the more likely you will be to use the word in real situations.
The more you practice seeing yourself using a new word, the more likely you will be to automatically use the word in real situations.
4) Different Situations
The greater the variety of different types of imaginary situations in which you see yourself using a new word, the more likely you will be to automatically use the word in real situations.
5) Positive Elements (humor, fun, pleasure, etc.)
The more positive elements you visualize while imagining yourself using a new word, the more likely you will be to automatically use the word in real situations since you will come to view using the word as pleasurable.
Here is an example that ties these five factors for enhancing imagery together. Let’s say you too often use the word “angry” to describe how you feel and you want to replace it with the word “stewing.” As an exercise, see yourself in a situation that would normally make you angry. For example, you are walking along a busy sidewalk and someone shoves you to one side without apologizing. See the situation vividly and close up in your mind’s eye. The more color and detail you can add to the picture the better since it will more closely resemble an actual experience. Then say, “that really stewed me!” You can imagine yourself saying it out loud forcefully for greater effect or just think it. Then imagine other situations to use the word and play those situations in your mind. They should be situations in which you could actually see yourself using the word in real life. Then play these scenarios quickly and repeat them over and over. Smile or make yourself feel good in some way while you are running these scenarios so you will want to repeat them in real life.