The article was last modified 21 october 2015
The article tells about authors experience of practicing specific mental and physical exercises. Some statements given in the article are based not on scientific facts known to author, but only on his personal experience.
There are more than 600 skeletal muscles in our bodies. We can activate them as we wish. Can apply more or less force. In addition to skeletal, we have a lot of smooth muscles and a cardiac muscle. They are controlled by the autonomic nervous system. We can not directly activate them according to our desire. We cannot directly regulate the functioning of our internal organs. Howewer, some people manage to learn controlling the activity of some smooth muscles and functioning of some internal organs. They achieve this by specific training. Here is an example. The diameter of the blood vessels is regulated by smooth muscles. They are part of a system of automatic thermoregulation of the human body. Some Indian masters of yoga are able to expand some blood vessels and thereby provide the warm tide of blood to some parts of the body, when it gets cold. I read somewhere that they dry wet towels on their bodies, and even arrange competitions who will do it quicker. How they achieve this effect? By work of imagination, the idea that the cold body becomes warm. We are not given by nature the ability to slow down the heart. However, if you imagine that the heart beats more slowly, you can learn to really slow it. Read somewhere that some people who mastered this ability died "turning off" their heart. Which only confirms the idea that there is a reason why we can't arbitrarily change the operation of key systems of the body.
Certain verbal influences can also change the functioning of automatic systems of the body. It is known that people are more susceptible to them in a relaxed state before falling asleep and after waking. Even more receptive to the words they are in a hypnotic state, which is induced by verbal influences of the hypnotist. Autogenic training uses a combination of verbal effects and images. This is a psychotherapeutic technique, which the patient performs independently. He sits down in a comfortable position, closes his eyes and begins to rehearse specific phrases, for example: "My hands are getting heavy. My legs feel heavy. My hands get warm". At the same time the practicer conjures up appropriate images of heaviness and warmth in the hands. With such a mental manipulation he reaches a relaxed state, somewhat similar to hypnotic, in which the person becomes susceptible to verbal suggestions, which he himself produces, for example, saying to himself: "I become brave. I'm not afraid of difficulties," etc.
We are able to imagine quite various images. We may imagine, for example, that our hand is slightly warm, or comfortably warm or a little hot, or very hot. We can imagine the smell, taste, tactile sensations (sense of touch), interoceptive (sensations within our body), pain. We can imagine a variety of sounds. The number of possible visualizations is limitless. The image may have several components, for example, you can imagine both warmth in the hand, and a visual image. The image can be dynamic, i.e. you can imagine some feeling changing in time, for example, that hand from warm becomes cold. You can imagine, for example, the rhythmic shifting of heat and cold with varying frequency. It would be tempting to have the possibility of using images to change in a reqiured direction the state of the body. Perhaps it would help to treat some illnesses. Perhaps it could help to solve some problems. To be able to warm oneself up as a guru of yoga with the help of imagination would be useful, too. Such a thought often crossed my mind, and I experimented with different images. I have found, however, that a similar image, repeated in a short time after the first one, did not produce the same effect. I would suggest the following explanation for this fact: Every image changes (maybe not much, maybe a little bit) the state of our body. Some smooth or skeletal muscles get strained or relaxed, some blood vessels dilate or constrict, some neurons fire or get inactive. This change depends on
The state of the body depends on many factors: is a person fresh or tired, has he eaten recently or not, whether he stands, sits or lies, etc, etc. The condition of the body changes all the time, even in the absence of human activity, because (among other reasons) many different rhythms take place in the body. Rhythmic are breathing, heart function, movement of the guts. Brain activity demonstrates several rhythms: alpha, beta, theta and others. Calling up the image, as I wrote above, changes the condition of the body. Therefore a similar image, repeated a short time after the initial one, may not produce the same effect. It is likely that for many images will be valid the fact that even to imagine a similar image you will be able only some time after you called up the image for the first time. Here is the analogy. A weightlifter after lifting a very heavy bar can not immediately lift it again. Raising the bar has changed the state of his body, and he needs time to recover."Automatic protection" of the body of the lifter will not allow him to harm himself, if he, of course, does not try to overcome it in pursuit of a medal. Read more about "automatic protection" below. If the bar is light enough the lifter can, of course, raise it several times in a row. But he can't lift the bar with arbitrary frequency - the frequency of the liftings is limited by the inertia of the bar and the possibilities of his body. In addition, each lifting of even not a heavy bar changes the state of the body of a weightlifter, and eventually he will get tired and not be able to lift the bar, until he recovers. So, depending on what you want to achieve through images, and the current state of the body, at some point one image may be optimal (most efficient), and after a few moments it will be (maybe slightly) different image. That is, the images can be adjusted to the condition of the body, for better effect. To make it clearer how to do it, let's consider in detail the process of reaching the relaxed state during autogenic training. The practicer does not just imagine something and mutter something to himself.
If the activity of the AT practicer could be divided into separate stages, it could be described like this:
The scheme described above is very simplified. It does not describe the motivation, making the person to act. Human activities not always can be divided into separate stages(as, for example, when playing chess). Man rarely makes the situation analysis and formulation of action algorithm "from scratch" after each action. The person who acts, usually has a plan, a "setting" on a sequence of actions, produced by him (based on his experience) or received from others (in the form of instructions, advice, example). The AT practicer can have, for example, have a "setting", for example, to imagine himself lying on the beach. Also in humans, depending on the situation, there is usually a "setting" on some interpretation of external and internal stimuli. People can persist in their "setting" for quite a long time (sometimes a lifetime), despite the fact that its adequacy is contradicted by experience.
The world is too complicated. We can not predict everything. The prediction given by experience is not exact. It always contains an element of speculation. But as the experience (memory) collects information about successful and unsuccessful actions in situations that differ in some aspects , but are similar in other aspects, the accuracy of the forecast increases. The quality of generated algorithms of actions improves. Then they say that the person developes a skill.
If you imagine that the hand gets warmer, it is likely to really get somewhat warmer. If you imagine that the hand gets cold - it will probably get a bit colder. To achieve slowing of the heart, one must imagine that it beats less often. One can formulate a rule of thumb: if you imagine some change in the body, a real change is possible in the direction in which you imagine. There is no guarantee, though, that such changes will occur. Let's call this rule the "principle of similarity". It can be used when you do not have enough experience to predict the effect of different images. One, however, has to distinguish between the image and the effect that it produces. If you, for example, imagine that you are lying on the beach under the warm sun, you are unlikely to reach the state you were in when you really lay there, although it is likely that you will get somewhat warmer. Here is the metaphor. There are radio stations operating only on signal transmission or, after switching, only at the reception. When we imagine, we are "transmitting". But we can't forever do it. Sooner or later we will switch to "reception" of signals from the body, and then we can evaluate the effect of the image.
Besides the images, the state of body is changed by:
It can be asserted that any activity, physical or mental, changes the condition of the body. So what? Using the actions mentioned above we can try to change the condition of the body in the direction we want. There is no guarantee that we will be successful, of course. It's not worthwhile to limit yourself to any one form of action, for example, only motion or only images. What contributes to the achievement of the goal should be used. There is a concept of a synergic effect. It occurs when the joint effect of several factors is greater than the sum of effects of these factors taken separately. The combined use of various types of physical and mental actions may produce a synergic effect. I want to note that I personally almost never use verbal influences in my practices. The words are too crude tools to describe the subtle changes in the condition of the body. However, I admit that for other people they may be useful. The effect of the image, or changing the focus the attention is very weak, of course. However, as I wrote above, various rhythms take place in the body. Besides, resonance phenomena can occur in the body due to the fact that it is physical body. By the way: we get aesthetic pleasure from works of art - music, painting, perhaps because in the process of perception external stimuli resonate with our own rhythms, and we feel the exhilaration. Procedures of physical therapy are often rhythmic for better effect. If our weak actions get in resonance with the rhythms of the body, their effect can be quite strong.
An athlete plays tennis. The ball is going in his direction. The athlete pulls the racket not to the point where the ball is at the moment, but to a point where, according to his forecast, it will be when the racket will be there. The racket should not only be just at the right time in the right place in the right position but should move at the moment of meeting with the ball with the right speed in the right direction to bounce the ball to the right place. The player needs not just to send accurate and consistent impulses to many muscles, but do it correctly in time, taking into account many factors - the speed and direction of the ball, the inertia of the athlete's body and racket, etc. The player receives information from the eyes about the movement of the ball and actions of his opponent, from receptors of the body about its position in space and on the basis of this information corrects the movement. I once read a very interesting book on this subject by N. A. Bernstein "On dexterity and its development".
For our mental actions to be successful, they also should to be performed at the right time, taking into account the current state of the body. Give an example. Let's say you are cold and want to warm up. According to the "principle of similarity" you can for achieving this goal imagine different situations in which you were warm. But the effect of different images will be different. Some images will be more effective than others. In addition, depending on the condition of the body, at one moment one image will be most effective, and at other moment a different image. We can estimate the effect of the image (as well as other mental and physical actions), receiving signals from receptors of our body. On the basis of the effect of the previous image we can try to construct the following one.
Let's return to our example with the tennis player. The ability to successfully play tennis, like other motor skills is achieved through long practice, after many successful and unsuccessful movements. When the player successfully bounces the ball, he receives positive reinforcement (a pleasant emotional response). When his action fails, he receives negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is the basis of formation of a skill that improves after long practice. Read more on this topic in the book by Karen Pryor "Don't shoot the dog. Motor skills are extremely important for people and animals, but they do not have them when they are born, so the pups have an inherent desire to play mobile games. Every time the ball flies towards the player, the situation is different. Different are the direction and the speed at which it flies, position of the athlete and his condition. In the formation of skill (to bounce the ball) he remembers not one perfect movement, but a "set of rules" how to act in similar situations, the "pattern" of movement. The same can be said about a figure skater, repeating seemingly the same movement in the same situation. Every time a skater repeats a movement, the situation is different, perhaps very slightly. The practice of the skater differs from that of a tennis player only by variability range of situations and, accordingly, movements. Gradually the player learns to predict the trajectory of the ball on the basis of what he observes on the playground. He learns to anticipate the effect of his actions. The feature of a developed motor skill is that the subject controlls the overall pattern of motion and can change it, if he wishes, but he usually does not think about the details of the movement. For example, a cyclist may turn right or left, can go faster or slower, but he does not think about how to keep the balance. If you regularly engage in purposeful activity in accordance with the above-described principles, trying different combinations of mental and physical actions, a skill will develop. You will be able to achieve your goal easier and faster. This skill will be not one perfect image or combination of physical and mental actions, but rather "a set of rules" on how to act effectively depending on the current state of the body. You will remember the general pattern of actions, will develop ability to predict what effect different actions will have on the body.
After the game the tennis player can reflect witout a hurry about which of his actions were successful and which were not, what aspects of his gaming skill need to be worked on, which techniques are worth repeating, which shoud be discarded. He may try to play in memory successful techniques for better remembering. Finally, he may think up new techniques on the basis of his experience. For those who are engaged in mental practices such analysis of their actions would also be very useful. It is useful to try to improve the "pattern" of activity, trying different images and their combinations, evaluating their effect, repeating the good and rejecting the bad. It is useful to try to remember successful combinations of actions.
Imagine a runner. If he runs with optimal speed, he feels the strain, but it is not unpleasant. It is this feeling that (and not just hypothetical health benefits) makes many people (including me) do physical exercises. The man runs faster. Heart begins to pound, there is a feeling of lack of air, although the person is breathing very intensively. The body signals with the feeling of discomfort that the speed is excessive (let us describe this condition with a metaphor "an alarm signal is switced on"). The man runs even faster. The feeling of discomfort reaches the level of intolerance. The person feels an overwhelming desire to slow down or stop - the "automatic protection" is turned on, that is the reaction of the body that will not allow the runner harm himself. the photo shows consequence of trying to forcibly overcome it. The runner will be lucky if he does not have harmful consequences after the race. However, attempts to overcome the "automatic protection" doesn't always end well ("the machine may be damaged"). When we hold our breath or touch something hot, "automatic protection" is also triggered. It is desirable that the sensations caused by your physical and mental actions, were comfortable, or at least not unpleasant. I think that the feeling of strain that often accompanies work is quite acceptable if it is not excessive and unpleasant. Why do I think so? Unpleasant sensations usually signal us about the adverse processes in the body ("the alarm signal is turned on"). If your actions cause them, it is possible that "automatic protection" will soon go into action and you either wont be able to work in this mode or you will get tired very soon. Now, before we move on to examples, let us summarize the written above.
Imagine a classroom. The teacher gives a simple task. Everyone solves it. A more difficult task is solved by 50% of students. Even more difficult is solved by only 10%. What is the difference between complex and simple tasks? Students had already solved tasks before. These tasks can be similar in some way to the given task. In the process of solving them they applied actions (e.g., transformations of formulas) that can (or should) be applied to solve the new task. Figuratively speaking, the students have certain "mental blanks" for solving a range of tasks, which can be useful for this task. Let us assume, for simplicity, that the "mental blanks" of all students do not differ. To solve a task, it is necessary to "build a model" of the solution in imagination. This can be helped by making notes and drawings, but only to a certain extent. There are objects, variables, etc. in this model. Let's call them "units of imagination". They interact with each other. If the model is simple, it can be built by most of the students. If it is necessary to imagine many "units of imagination" that interact in a complicated way, not many manage to do that. Others lack what can be called "strengh of imagination". A good metaphor - "operative memory" is lacking. By the way, when we in the process of solving the task make notes and drawings, it can be compared to a computer that writes to a hard drive necessary for calculations information for which there is not enough space in operative memory. "Mental blanks" of the student are recorded on another "hard drive" - long-term memory. Why other students lack imagination? The ability to solve complex school tasks was not perfected by evolution so well as our other abilities, for example, ability to walk, run. If one had to be smart as Einstein to survive and to leave offspring, we would be smart as he was. However, as a rule, much more modest abilities are sufficient for that. By the way, the ability to build complex "mental models", to solve complex mathematical and physical problems that is discussed in this article is only one of the types of mental abilities, not the most important for most people. More important in everyday life, for example, is to properly build relationships with other people.
The brain is always busy. No wonder it consumes a significant portion of oxygen and nutrients. It has to manage the work of the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, controll the pressure, temperature, hormone levels, etc. It has to monitor the situation to see when a tiger or a stranger from a neighboring tribe appears. And then there's the task to solve! The solution of the task uses scarce resources that are needed to monitor and control the operation of the body. Maybe building of complex mental models somehow disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. And because of that "automatic protection" is switched on. The brain that cannot solve the task says to you: " Go to hell with your task! There are more important things to do! Can't work like this!" (joke)
How to overcome the lack of imagination? In my article Studying effectively. Practical advice there is a description of a technique that I call the "perfecting the image". Its essence is trying to make more clear a "picture" in mind, that I need to imagine to solve the problem. By practicing many times complex movements perfection can be achieved in performing them. By repeatedly imagining warm hand one can achieve the ability to rush extra blood to the arm and thus cause the warming of it (which gurus of yoga can do very well). You can also achieve the ability to conjure a clear picture. You can achieve the ability to clearly imagine simple images, so as to combine complex pictures of them, just as a skater at first practices simple movements, to practice consisting of them complex program afterwards. Thats in theory. In practice I did and sometimes do it and find it very useful. I do so not in order to develop my imagination, but when I need to remember something better, or to understand something. This activity is very time consuming. There is one subtlety.
Suppose for solving a problem, you need to imagine some object, for example, a car. And what is better way to imagine: a black car on a white background or a white car on a black background? Maybe a blue car? If we think about it, we realize that it is possible to imagine countless variants of images. And the image may be dynamic, which increases the number of possible options even more. I think that the main criterion for selecting the version of the image must be
I mean not only the visual image but sensations of other modalities. It is desirable that they were comfortable, pleasant (beautiful image). I think that the feeling of strain that often accompanies work is quite acceptable if it is not excessive and unpleasant. Why do I think so? If working with images causes unpleasant sensations, it is possible that "automatic protection" will soon go into action and you either wont be able to work in this mode or you will get tired very soon. So we have huge number of possible images. Choosing among them may be regarded as highly intellectual activity if not art. It can be compared with improvisation of a musician whose instrument is his imagination.
Athletes do a warming up before performance. One can do an "intellectual" warming-up, using "preparatory" images to put himself in optimal condition. For example, you feel drowsy and don't want to solve the problem. Imagining that you have a pleasantly cool forehead (or whatever) you throw off the sleepiness.
Here is an example. I regularly train teeth and gums. I take in the mouth a wooden stick (a length of 10 centimeters and a diameter of three centimeters) and clench it with my teeth. It would seem, what's so special about it? The fact that at the same time I work with imagination: I imagine that my teeth and gums are healthy and strong. I "shoot" with the image at the very moment when clenching the wand. So by combining mental activity (imagination) with physical activity (clenching the wand) I accomplish the effect that I can't achieve neither by physical nor mental activity separately. This workout for me is not only a daily ritual. When I don't do it for a day or two, I begin to feel the need to practice. I do this exercise for many years already . And what is the result? Most of my teeth have fillings. However, as I type this I still have 32 teeth, despite my age of more than fifty years. Of course, one of the reasons that I have not yet had a tooth pulled out is that I eat very few sweets. Another reason is that when the filling falls out I immediately rush to the dentist. I think, though I am not ready to assert that despite all this, I hardly could manage without training to keep all my teeth up to that age, given that by nature I have bad teeth. The positive impact of exercise on gums certain to me. And one more thing: if you exert an effort to the wand with your hands while biting it, the fillings may fall out.
I want to warn possible followers - if you try this exercise and break your tooth, or your filling falls out, or other harmful consequences ensue, I am not responsible for this. Evaluate critically the information received from the media, especially the Internet.
An interesting example of the impact of mental activity on the teeth tells psychotherapist Viktor Levi in one of his books. His patient had a severe toothache. Levi entered him into a hypnotic state, and it was suggested to him that the aching tooth broke up, and with it went the pain. In the process of suggestion Levi actively worked with the imagination, and imagined that his own tooth broke up. After some time that tooth in the mouth of Levi fell apart.
Above I told about yogas, who warm themselves by imagination. I had to resort to this method several times in the mountains when it got very cold in my tent at night.I had to work all night with imagination, imagining that I was warm and comfortable. I called it "at-stove", from the words "autogenic training". Once I climbed a mountain in the Middle Urals. The climb was unexpectedly difficult and time consuming, so I got to the summit (1490 meters) late in the evening. I found a tiny flat space among the rocks, covered with a thin layer of moss, but did not manage to put up a tent before it got dark very quickly and a terrible downpour started. I had a piece of canvas (3 meter by 3 meter), I crawled under it, as under a blanket. The rain continued all night, and all night I, a city dweller, accustomed to a warm bed, spent under the canvas lying on the stones all wet, occasionally lifting the canvas to gulp fresh air. Then I had to enable "at-stove" at full capacity! Surprisingly, I even did not get ill.