Have you ever heard, “mind over matter” or “if you think it, you can do it?” For years, sports psychologists have used mental practice with athletes to enhance the skills in their particular sport. Mental practice is to imagine performing a specific motor task either from your own point of view or from an outsider’s point of view. Basically, it is thoughtfully practicing in your mind. With athletes, this has proven tremendously successful in boosting their performance.
New evidence has emerged within neurological rehabilitation for mental practice with stroke patients. In a normal functioning brain, there is a part called the motor cortex, which sends messages to our muscles to move for a certain task (reach for the cereal, take a step ahead). After a stroke, this area can be damaged, and it does not effectively send the message to the muscle to move. This is called hemiparesis, when one side of the body does not work as well as the other side.
Research shows that when persons with stroke are asked to visualize themselves completing a task with their affected (non-working) limb, fMRIs show that the areas of the brain that control the movement (the motor cortex) light up and are stimulated just by imagining the task. After repetition, fMRIs show that mental practice also improved the intensity of the excitation in that area, strengthening the motor area of the brain. This is amazing!
Not only does mental practice excite the motor cortex, but it can improve the use of the affected limb when combined with intensive therapy. Like mentioned before, mental practice is used with athletes to enhance precision, strength, and speed; the same is true after just six mental practice sessions with patients with hemiparesis!
While full recovery of the affected limb requires intense therapy, not just mental practice, this research points to the power of the mind and how our brains can grow and become stronger.