People are always telling you to believe in yourself. Fake it till you make it. It's a nice thought, but you've never taken it very seriously. It's not like it's some scientifically-proven performance enhancer. I mean, R. Kelly believes he can fly, but he can't actually do it.
However, there is some truth to the idea that our minds control our bodies. A small study recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that muscle strength has little to do with the actual mass of our muscles — it's based more on brain activity. In other words, if we imagine ourselves working out, we'll actually get stronger.
Researchers at Ohio University's Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute placed the non-dominant arms of 29 volunteers in elbow-to-finger casts for four weeks. Fifteen others were place in a cast-free control group. 14 of those in casts were asked to perform mental-imagery exercises, in which they imagined themselves alternatively flexing and resting their wrists for five-second intervals, five days a week.
At the end of the four weeks, the casts were removed, and the researchers found that both groups had lost strength in their arms. However, the group that had imagined exercising their arm had lost significantly less strength. They lost 25% of their strength, while those in the control group, which hadn't taken part of the mental imagery exercises, was 45% weaker than they were at the start of the study.
"There's a fair amount of evidence that you'll activate the same parts of the brain doing imagery as you do if you're actually doing the task itself," Brian Clark, the study's lead author, told the Atlantic. "The basic thought is that the imagery is allowing the brain to maintain those connections."
It's a common misconception that muscle strength is determined by the size of the muscle. But, as Clark explained, the nervous system — specifically memory — is a key factor in muscle performance. For example, the first time someone threw you a ball, you likely didn't catch it. But after years of playing catch, you got good (or at least better) at it. And if you take some time off from playing catch, you won't be your best the first time you get back to it, because you forget how to do it. Clark believes that the mental imagery exercises prevent us from forgetting.
"The muscles are a puppet to the nervous system," said Clark. The brains control the brawn. Wouldn't this study have been nice to present to the locker-stuffing bullies of your childhood?
(h/t The Atlantic)
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