Recently I was told “Think positive. If you think you will fail, you are sure to fail.” What an interesting comment! I had doubted my ability to drive a golf ball across the river as I teed off at the first hole. I have been playing golf for at least twenty years, but never more than once per year.
I have heard that thinking about failure is tantamount to planning to fail. So, does this mean negativity in thinking will deposit this little white ball at the bottom of this scenic river?
Conversely, can positive thinking carry a ball across a body of water, past the trees and onto the fairway?
Sometime ago I began reading about evolution, human development and learning. It seemed we were more complex than I had envisioned. Not only that, but there are numerous biases, or flaws, inherent in our thought processes that shape our behaviours.
This concept was highlighted in research discussed by Jonah Lehrer in “The Decisive Moment”. “Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, studies the effects of performance anxiety on standardized-test scores”. When students were told that tests would measure their “innate intellectual ability”, white students performed significantly better than their black counterparts. This reinforced the “achievement gap” which showed minority students tend to score lower on a variety of standardised tests.
When students were told the same test was simply a preparatory drill rather than an intelligence test, the scores of the black and white students were virtually identical. These students behaved in a way that was expected of them. They lived up to expectations.
Known as the “Stereotype threat“, a negative self perception does indeed make a difference and could affect life long educational outcomes. The research presented by Lehrer is not isolated.
If such negative perceptions can have such an impact on performance, then it stands to reason that a positive view would also impact performance. So we shall focus on negative aspects no further!
The world of professional sport, would be a good starting point to seek supporting evidence. It seems to be common knowledge that elite professionals are in total control of their diet, mental fitness and physical fitness. We only have to examine the spectacular collapse in form of heros such as Tiger Woods. Woods must have hit a golf ball hundreds of thousands of times. This is not a man who suddenly found himself at the top of the leaderboard. It was a long process, starting from the age of four. When personal circumstances initiated his fall, did he suddenly forget how to play the game? Likely this sudden emotional turmoil affected his mental fitness rather than physical ability. The sensation that is Tiger Woods isn’t over yet. He is rated fifty-five and when he can regain his focus, he will no doubt regain his previous form.
The BBC series The Human Mind, presented by Robert Winston has an illustrative segment highlighting the use of visualisation for success in sport. It seems that when one visualises physical movements, the same neural pathways that control those physical movements are activated. Just imagining the act of climbing stairs can be enough to reinforce the same neural pathways that would fire when we actually climb those previously imagined stairs. Robert Winston presents the case of a gymnast, Rebecca Owen, Commonwealth Games silver medallist and Olympic hopeful, who uses visualisation to aid her practice on the uneven bars. Having executed thousands of successful maneuvers on these bars, Owen is attempting to master a particularly difficult new technique. Using visualisation the young woman sees herself executing each component of the move, succesfully and confidently. When it comes time to make an attempt, this athlete finds her muscles are already primed and her brain is retracing neural pathways that have already been established.
Research by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, has demonstrated in a scientific study how powerful visualisation can be. Participants in the study were given a simple five finger piano exercise to practice daily on a computer connected keyboard. Using TMS (transcranial-magnetic-stimulation), Pascual-Leone’s team were able to map the area of the brain that controlled those finger movements. After a week of lessons, the area of the brain dedicated to those finger movements had actually grown in size.
A second group in the study were asked to only visualise practicing the exercise, keeping their hands still. Spending the same amount of time practicing only visually, TMS showed a similar increase in the area of brain allocated to the task.
Finally a control group was used where participants had no practice and at the end of the study all three groups reproduced the five finger exercise. The computer attached to the keyboard recorded the finger movements and the tempo. Not surprisingly, those participants who performed the exercises each day on a real keyboard made the most improvement at the end of the study. What is surprising however, is that those students who performed only visual practice outperformed the control group who did no practice at all.
A recent New Scientist publication (December 2011 Reality Gets A Kick From Dream Control pg 4, News) featured a story relating to lucid dreaming – that dream state where you can take control of the dream content. “People who lucid dream feel better”, scored higher in self confidence and were more assertive. The neural networks involved in real or imagined thought are very similar, while neural networks involved in imagined tasks and in lucid dreams are also very similar. By willingly entering the lucid dreaming state, you could use this critical REM sleep state to learn and improve activities you would normally only practice whilst awake.
On a website promoting public speaking, advice was offered regarding visualisation for novice presenters. The site suggested visualising the audience leaning forward in their seats intently listening to every word. In this case, the presenter would have little ability to influence the behaviour of the audience. A more appropriate suggestion may be to imagine delivering the words using the attributes normally associated with the kind of speaker you wish to emulate. To be a powerful and influential speaker, one might have to emulate such a presenter.
It does in deed seem likely then that your mental perception of self will affect your actual performance. Therefore, visualising how you will hold a golf club and how you will swing the club should positively influence the outcome.
And of the ball? It cleared the river easily, but not the tree tops and was lost to the undergrowth.
Comments from those who know better: