Mental imagery in movement learning

How we stand and move is controlled by mental images. We have a mental image of our body that is our normal or habitual way of standing or moving. When we have to make a new movement we need a new image. There are different sorts of imagery that can be used in learning movement. One type of imagery is seeing how people move and then using that sort of a superficial image to copy what they do. This is a common strategy in learning to dance tango or any other sort of dance. People look at someone dancing and then they try to copy that. A teacher might break down the choreography into simpler elements, but ultimately the goal is to copy the dance as it appears superficially.

Any professional who specialises in movement education will immediately see the problem with this approach: what we see from the outside is merely the surface image that, while it may look cool or pretty, conceals the underlying mechanics of the movement, that is, the way in which the mover or dancer achieves that movement. Any movement is the result of the brain sending messages to the neuromuscular system to coordinate the various muscular contractions. When a person moves in a certain way his brain sends particular messages that are going to be different then when you try to copy that movement by looking or imagining his movement as it appears to you from the outside.

Now most people believe that merely trying to imitate a movement done by a performer or a teacher is a good enough strategy typically because they don’t know better and because they believe that their dancing teacher is a professional who knows what is good or bad. But the reality is that the vast majority of people attending dancing lessons never proceed to dance socially and have essentially wasted their money on useless dancing lessons.

So the majority of people are essentially clueless as to how movement is actually learned and follow the lead of those who advertise themselves as experts on the basis that they can themselves perform the movements that they purport to teach. But the ability to make certain movements no more enables one to teach them than the ability to speak a language enables one to teach that language, otherwise we’d all be professional language teachers simply by virtue of being able to speak our native language fluently.

The typical dancing teacher does little more than break down some steps into more elementary ones that a learner can perform and then put together into longer sequences. They teach dancing typically because they are competent enough dancers themselves to convince people that they can teach. Actually, most of the skill of the average dancing teacher is in their ability to market themselves as such. This gives the whole idea of teaching dancing a bad name leading some to argue that teaching dancing is really selling snake oil and that in the end you can’t teach people how to dance, ie., dancing is not really teachable. As a result, the failure of the teaching method whereby students copy the movement of people performing the movement leads to the other extreme view that no method can ever work.

Even if we agree that movement is taught through images there is still a question of what is the  right sort of image. The problem with a lot of dance teaching is that one is asked to use the wrong sort of images. Imitating the movement as it appears externally is only one sort of image that we can use in learning to dance. Yet there are two other sorts of pedagogical image that have been developed by movement professionals that are more effective.

First, there are images that have been developed specifically because they generate the desired response which can then be made habitual, ie., performed without the image. In this case, the image is a sort of a crutch. For example, when we want improve our posture, rather than imagining a person who has a good posture and trying to look like that, we can imagine being pulled up by a string attached to the top of the head. This image will move effective in getting us to lengthen the spine which is more desirable than standing straight like a soldier which is what people usually do.

Second, another type of imagery is related is the ‘somatic’ awareness of the body, that is, the awareness of the body from the inside. This usually requires us to close our eyes, or at least to not focus the eyes on anything, allowing us to use our ‘inner eye’ to scan the body and how it feels. This allows us to get a sense of when a movement feels more or less efficient. The goal of dancing and movement learning in general is to make a movement more efficient. Efficiency here means that the movement is optimal or good given the structure of our skeletal and muscular system. Movement which is efficient in this sense is usually healthier and more graceful and pleasant.

Both of these techniques have been developed and have been effectively applied by movement education professionals in fields such as sports, dance and vocal training. The reality is that we need to use images to control and coordinate all of our muscular activity. The problem is rather having the right sorts of images. Simply copying what we see another person doing is not an effective strategy and a professional teacher can provide the right sorts of images and training exercises to produce the desired results. Unfortunately few, if any, teachers of social dances like the Argentine tango are trained in using somatic awareness or mental imagery to teach the rather complex skill of dancing the tango, and so most people go through classes in which they are merely asked to imitate the movements of others.

Key point summary

  1. The brain controls movement through mental images
  2. Learning a movement effectively is a matter of having the right mental image
  3. A common strategy which is not usually effective is to copy the movement as it appears to us visually
  4. In fields like sports, dance and vocal training trainers provide the right sort of image (sometimes called a ‘cue’) to elicit the desired movement
  5. One sort of cue is a movement done with awareness whereby your attention is drawn to how the body feels and how the movement can be done efficiently given our neuromuscular structure
  6. Another sort of cue is a mental image that provides the desirable response which can then be stored in memory or made habitual

Further reading

Eric Franklin (2012) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery [link]