I was having a morning WhatsApp chat with my daughters the other day when No.2 mentioned that she had missed the Perseid showers the night before but had dreamt it and it was amazing, so was that the same? It was just an offhand comment but of course it mentioned dreams and the mind so that set me off. I told her certainly it's a good substitute, because when you imagine something, to some parts of your brain it is the same as if it really happened. In fact, imagining something can actually change both your mind and your body in measurable ways.
Admiring the wiring
How does this work? Well first consider what the brain is. A box inside your head, in a dark shell, that interprets signals coming in from your external senses. It combines them all together to make one unified experience of reality for you. But these are really just electrical and chemical messages, encoded to the language of neuronal and synaptic interactions and sent to the front part of your brain to validate and accept as reality. Your imagination can replicate these firing neurons to a good standard, better if you practice it, so that emotions can also be evoked and other parts of the brain take it as 'red'. It did actually happen, so they react accordingly and you get the 'experience'. The only thing that stops you believing it is the parts of your brain (most likely pre-frontal cortex, the thing that inhibits you from actually acting out some of the crazy ideas you have.. you know the ones...) which is there to help you cross-reference and interpret all those senses and say, 'Hang about, what's the provenance of all this activity in my head? Is that really a marshmallow or a pillow?'
Dreams do come true
Take dreaming, an experience that alters your brain in fascinating ways. When you dream, some parts of your brain are somewhat numbed and others start to connect with different regions to produce abstract thoughts. Connections between things arise that you would never in your conscious mind put together. It's a way the mind absorbs the events of the recent past into longer term memory and I believe a way that the subconscious ruminates and passes links and observations to the conscious mind. It's creativity unbounded and where most of your real thinking goes on.
However, although you know it's a dream, deep down inside, dreams can feel quite real when you're in them. It's the reason the brain issues a paralysis drug to your body when you sleep, so you don't move your body when you dream you run or fly, because that's really annoying to those around you and pretty dangerous. Some people are able to lucid dream on demand, so control how their dreams pan out but maintain a slither of conscious awareness of what they're imagining. A kind of twilight zone... I've managed it a couple of times and it is good fun piloting my own spaceship.
Muscles? Imagine them and they're yours
So, another fact... the body's shape can be altered by thinking. You probably know that chemical changes in the brain can occur as a result of your thoughts. If you're hurt (physically or mentally) the way you think about that pain can increase the amount of the neurotransmitter ekephalin, which has the properties of morphine. Enkephalins inhibit the pathway for pain perception, acting on the emotional as well as physical effects of pain. But there's also been a few studies that have shown that just by thought you can physically alter your body's mass.
So, imagine you can tone your muscles, make them stronger and delay atrophy without actually moving. One study showed that the imagination of an exercise did actually improve muscle strength by 22 percent compared to 30 percent for those who physically did the exercise. Also, if you focus your mind on a specific muscle during a workout, you work that muscle 22 percent harder. You should not, for best results, listen to music or an audiobook as you exercise or practice a new skill as you are diluting that brain/body connection and you won't get the full effects. It's not enough to 'Just Do It', you have to think through it too.
'Motor imagery' will take you there
So, let's consider a practical application, for example motorbike riding. Here's how you can apply your imagination and brain to skill up. The practice starts just before you leave the house and then during the ride. First, imagine the outcome you want. Imagine you riding the best ride of your life, everything flows, your body feels relaxed. Your gear changing is flawless, your awareness of road conditions and hazards has taken on a supernatural quality. Other road users are nodding in admiration of your skill and you are totally epic. That's stage one and is a sort of third person imagery because you're imagining your ability as an external witness, as someone else may see you. It's mostly concerned with priming yourself for the next stage which is where the physical changes happen via your thoughts.
Stage two then is during the ride (or whatever activity you wish to improve). It's where you employ 'motor imagery' techniques. You get on the bike and can feel yourself in the saddle, grounded and balanced. You notice your mind is clear and your senses are tuned and crisp. When you begin riding, talk to yourself about your posture, what you are observing, how relaxed your body is and where your centre of gravity is, Focus on the body's movements in and out of a bend, the weight displacement and make minor adjustments as you go along. But importantly TALK yourself through each action you take and why.
Of course, it's too much to assume that imagining yourself perfect at anything will make it so. It will, but only through heightened awareness of where you are now and where you want your body and mind to be in the future. Be acutely aware of what you could improve each time you take an action, but not critically so. The mind should notice the improvement opportunity gently, like a feather stroking a crystal glass. A soft acknowledgement that you can improve next time. The more rebuke you offer yourself, the more you introduce stress and that will then inhibit your learning for a whole load of other psychological and chemical reasons. Being angry with yourself is self-defeating in ALL situations.
Use it or lose it
By employing your brain this way your reaction times will get faster and your focused attention and observation skills will shoot up. Your mind and your body will undergo physical changes to enhance all the above. You will create new neuronal pathways, your mind will strengthen, not only for this skill but in other ways too. By learning new things and particularly a new physical skill you are replacing the natural loss of neurons in your mind due to aging. Better observational and attention skills will help the mind in the same way that mindfulness meditation does, it reduces rumination and mental stress, Those muscles you are using and thinking about will be more toned. The best athletes imagine the outcome hundreds of times before a game. That includes the smells of the circuit, the sound of a ski as it carves through the snow and taste of the grass and mud between their teeth as they touch the ball down. There's a reason they do this. It works.
Where it gets weird
Here's a strange aside. If you believe your regular activity (let's say housework) is a form of exercise your body does too and actually responds to that belief with measurable improvements in weight, blood pressure, BMI and the like. This was shown in another study where nothing had changed (these people did the same activity before and after) except the belief that they were exercising and not just doing housework. Amazing eh? I believe that keying in my blog is actually flattening my stomach as we speak.
So, from all this I have concluded that imagining and thinking about something makes it much more able to manifest itself as a true experience or change in yourself. That goes for imagining yourself a better rider, athelete, person or simply a more capable, happier person. I'm not sure about all the popular talk around wishing or willing something to happen and it magically does (but millions do), but there is evidence of prayer being helpful. If you know me, you'll know I'm not religious but I believe in the scientific method. I personally think prayer may help people to achieve their best as it's another form of utilising the imagination. It engages 'seriousness of purpose' which is a key component in engaging the brain's full potential. To focus your mind on an outcome in such a way can promote that thing to happen for real, no external deities required. Prayer or the power of the will to affect external events? I'll leave that to social media to debate. It's such a level-headed medium. (Yeah, in my dreams!)
Everything you can imagine is real. - Pablo Piccaso