What is Motor Imagery?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Motor imagery is mental imagery of physical tasks like throwing a ball or grasping a tool. The brain can develop extremely detailed scenarios without actually moving the body at all, and these appear to play an important role in developing motor skills and learning to recognize objects. Many people use this technique without thinking about it, and it can also be part of a rehabilitation program. Neurologists who study the brain and motor function may also have subjects mentally rehearse movements during medical imaging studies and other procedures to watch what the brain does during a motor imagery session.


In motor imagery, the brain imagines performing the action and various neurons fire as the experience is simulated from start to finish. People may be able to integrate and imagine very graphic details, like the texture of objects. While the body does not actually move, the mental practice appears to lay groundwork for motor pathways; engaging in motor imagery can make people better at a physical task, without practicing it physically. While physical practice is still necessary to develop strength, motor imagery can supplement it.

People like dancers may use this technique to rehearse and review routines without straining their bodies. It can also allow for “practice” in settings where people cannot move, allowing people to run through the movements while they travel on a train or lie in bed at night. The same principle can be applied to rehabilitation, where therapists can help patients relearn and strengthen skills by asking them to use motor imagery. Imagining the correct movement can help patients execute it in real life.

Athletes also engage in motor imagery to hone skills, review routines, and so forth. Creating firm patterns in the brain can give people tighter, more accurate form. This will reduce the risks of injury and also improve athletic performance. A reduction in wasted movements can correspond to more power and strength for later, and will help athletes allocate their energies more effectively. This tactic can also be useful during recovery from an injury, when people cannot work out, but may still want to keep skills fresh.

The brain also uses motor imagery for problem solving. Faced with an unfamiliar setting or challenge, the brain may practice for it before someone actually moves, with the goal of thinking out the situation and coming up with a solution. For something like solving a physical puzzle, a person may imagine the movements and try to develop a strategy before actually handling the object.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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