Friday, December 28, 2007

Visualize This

In the early 1980's, I wrote a short story for Asimov's Magazine, called "Darts." It was based upon what was cutting-edge neurological research at the time, regarding visualization, and how effective it was in helping people get things done.

How I got the idea for the story was a piece I saw -- probably in Scientific American, but I don't recall for sure -- this was in the pre-internet days, so it was certainly print on paper and not on screen.

An experiment was set up, using darts -- the kind you throw in the pub. Basically, the gist of it was this: A bunch of college kids were brought in and asked to throw darts at a board. Their scores were recorded, and the subjects were broken up into groups and sent home.

One group was the control -- they did nothing special. A second group was told to practice throwing darts at a board every day for half an hour. There were a couple-three other groups, I'm a little fuzzy on that, but they were given instructions on a couple imaginary practice. One of these involved doing the exercise in real-time -- you imagined yourself in front of a dart board, and practicing for half an hour, throwing darts, and getting big scores, but you never actually threw a real dart.

Some weeks later, everybody got rounded up and re-tested.

To nobody's surprise, the control group had pretty much the same scores.

The group that practiced half an hour a day improved something like 67 points on average, again, not altogether unexpected.

The people who imagined themselves throwing the darts for half an hour each day blew the doors off the test -- 165 point improvement on average.

The guy conducting the experiment was amazed. In this case, imaginary practice beat actual practice by a factor of two. It seems, they have learned since, that imagination works the same reality maps in pretty much the same way as doing it does.

The big difference was mindfulness. Had those practicing been given lessons in focus and intent and not just tossing the darts, chances are they would have done better; still, you have to shake your head at this the first time you hear it.

Now, if you don't have a skill at all, imagining yourself doing it won't make you better. If you can't play "Chopsticks," then you won't accomplish Bach fugues by thinking about them; however, if you do have the skill -- and darts was chosen because it was simple and easy to learn the rules and moves -- then you can improve your performance by tripping your brain.

I bring this up because it seems possible that if imaginary practice is equal to or better than real practice, it could open up a nice can of worms in our discussions of martial arts ...


Irene said...

So Professor Harold Hill was right? (ref. The Music Man)

Anonymous said...


(Love your books -- you introduced me to the karambit and I just requested a quote from Gil Hibben for a custom pair of nesting knives ala Laslo Mourn)

I train in Kenpo at a USSD school here in North Vancouver (it's the best I could come up with). Some of my fellow USSD students (all fairly low rank since the school is less than two years old) use visualization to remember techniques and forms. I agree that it does work.

However, at Shayne Simpson's Kenpo2000 school in Bellingham he has a teaching technique that I think makes physical practice better: he teaches a technique and then you go through it X times emphasizing each of X principles once. I believe the number of different "feels" you get for each technique helps set the technique in your body so that you have less to think about to remember the basic motion and can think about the specific principles and application instead.

Just my $0.02 :-).

Steve Perry said...

"Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool ... "

Steve Perry said...

agree, a dart game is a lot easier than rolling around with a couple of attackers ....

In compound physical motions, actual practice is apt to be far superior to imaginary. The neural pathways are triggered either way, but the moves have to translate into real-time, real-world manifestation, and dealing with gravity and incoming attacks develops muscles in ways that sitting in the chair won't.

I think the key in this experiment is mindfulness. A thing done strictly rote doesn't trip the same kind of learning as paying attention does. I sometimes see guys in the gym on treadmills or stationary bikes reading magazines, and I don't believe they are getting the same benefit as the guy who imagines himself walking up a mountain path or biking in the French Grand Prix.

The number for expertness in most disciplines studied by those who study such things seems to be ten thousand hours. Three hours a day for ten years, you can get to be world-class as a violinist, a tennis player, a martial artist, or a book writer; however, the caveat is, the practice has to progress.
You don't play the same song over without adding new material to your repertoire that forces you to stretch your abilities.

Doing a djuru or a kata like a robot doesn't give you the depth that doing it with focuses, paying-attention intent does, and visualization can be a productive part of such intent.