How to Imagine More Effectively

We usually think of our imaginations as idea-fountains: wellsprings of creativity.

What’s interesting, though, is how often imagination is used by highly successful performers in their practice techniques. These people channel the fountain’s energy in a very particular way: they use their imagination to build a sensory template for the action they want to learn, speeding the learning process. They focus on pre-creating the feeling of a skill, projecting themselves inside an action so they can learn it faster and better.

Exhibit A: Wayne Rooney, Britain’s resident soccer genius. As this terrific article explains, Rooney spent much of his youth imagining as he practiced. He played in the dark, alone, inventing little games; imagined bricks as defenders; imagined street signs as goalposts. To this day, on the night before a game, he asks the equipment manager what color jersey his team will be wearing, so he can more vividly imagine himself going through game situations, over and over.

Rooney, famous for being a mumbly, half-literate lout, practically turns into a scientist/poet when he describes his technique: “You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game,” he says. “You work out what decision is the best, and then if you get in that position in the game, that comes back to you. It’s basically stored in your mind.”

Exhibit B: Two people, paralyzed from the neck down, who have taught themselves to use a robotic arm to reach out and grab objects. A chip is implanted in the motor area of the brain which responds to the electrical firing patterns.

So how did they learn this? Simple: the patients were instructed to stare at the robot arm while they watched researchers manipulate it, and to imagine themselves controlling it — reaching, twisting, tilting, grabbing. Like Rooney, they stared at the skill, they imagined, and then they did it. One woman, who suffered a stroke 15 years ago, was able to control the arm to a phenomenal extent: she grasped a cup of coffee and brought it to her lips (and also brought the researchers to tears; here’s the video).

These cases and others like them indicate that we carry around powerful, built-in mental machinery (perhaps mirror neurons) that assists us in skill acquisition, when we use it properly. Let’s call this technique projection, and let’s name its basic qualities:

  • 1. It’s highly specific and detailed. You are imagining a single move (a chunk) in the deepest possible detail. The color of the jersey, the smell of the grass, the feeling of grasping the cup. It’s visualizing in sensory HD.
  • 2. It has two steps. First, you stare at the target skill until you’ve built it in your mind. Then you project yourself inside that skill, focusing on what it would feel like.
  • 3. It’s solitary. This isn’t something that’s done in groups, but alone, in quiet places, where you can operate without distraction.
  • 4. It’s used in combination with intensive practice. All the vivid projecting in the world doesn’t help until it’s combined with a lot of high-quality reps.

In our busy lives it’s tempting to spend our learning time in a frenzy of activity. Maybe it would be smarter to spend more time with our eyes closed.


PS – On a completely different topic: with the new book (Little Book of Talent) arriving in August, we’re now looking for folks who might be interested to read early versions and maybe even provide a cover blurb. Any suggestions? I’m particularly interested in locating influential people in the blogosphere – mom/parenting-bloggers? teacher-bloggers? — who might find the book useful for their audience. Write suggestions below, or email me directly at Thanks.