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My Favorite Brain Study Reveals a Startling Secret

The power of imagination is greater than you think.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

One of my favorite brain studies was carried out in 2014 by Brian C. Clark of Ohio University, an expert in the study of mental imagery, exercise, especially in the elderly, pain management, and healthy aging, so I find myself paying more and more attention to his work as I get older. The study followed healthy people who had their hands and wrists confined to a cast for a month. Now, it’s well known that having a cast on an arm or a leg leaves you typically with a much weaker appendage when the cast finally comes off. But this ground-breaking study had a startling counter-finding. The headline result was that, if you did no exercise to ameliorate the effects of the immobility, your muscular strength was reduced by 42 percent. So far so good — or, rather, bad. But if you imagined you were exercising — that is, simply thought about contracting your arm and wrist muscles without actually doing it — your muscular strength only diminished half as much.

An earlier study found that you could increase muscular strength in your finger by 35% after 12 weeks of only mental exercise, while physical exercise of the same digit increased strength by 53%. To understand that you can get more than half of the benefit of physical exercise simply using your imagination is astonishing, and it might at the very least suggest a new approach for couch potatoes everywhere. Instead of reaching for the Pringles, imagine your muscles contracting vigorously during breaks in your binge watching. (I would suggest focusing on your abs to begin with, since we all want six-pack abs.)

What is the takeaway for communications? There are many, but it shows that getting an individual or audience to imagine performing some physical exercise or movement provides a good deal of the effect of actually doing it. That’s remarkable enough, but the further implication is that we still only have a very limited understanding of the brain and what it's capable of. And we need to use our imaginations more often and in more targeted ways to begin to understand the brain’s full power.

I often write about the importance of mental imagery for speakers, much like Olympic athletes, in order to complete successful "runs" or "routines" on the stage. Now we know you are not simply forming mental pictures of your speech; if you imagine yourself moving purposefully on stage, you’re also getting in some useful toning of your muscles at the same time. But what’s really at stake is the strong connection between body and mind. When someone is deemed "charismatic" or "present," part of what we are observing is the combination of a deeply connected mental and physical presence. Charisma is fundamentally a physical taking up of space, as well as an emotional one. We embody our emotions and our intentions, and it is human intention that has kept us watching each other for millennia.

Your work to become an effective communicator is to explore how you are embodying your intention — clearly, powerfully, and consistently. Anything less muddles your efforts to inspire a team, lead an organization, or fire up a crowd. At least we understand better what’s at stake thanks to brilliant studies like these.

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