What is Motor Imagery?

February 8, 2020


Motor imagery (MI) is an umbrella term referring to practices that facilitate imagined motor practice in the absence of voluntary physical movement.


Such practices promote brain training to effect changes in one's physical capabilities through neuroplasticity, neuromusculoskeletal re-education, and sequential reprogramming. Imagery trains the brain to send the appropriate and desired message throughout the nervous system and evokes minute muscular contractions to implement motor practice and training.


Research has found that the human brain cannot differentiate between what is being imagined and what is physically happening. With the proper image manufactured in the mind, the individual can begin to engage in physical therapies without performing any voluntary actions. When the participant allows the brain to see successful performance and when the person initiates the required cortical properties, the control-center (AKA, your brain) will produce electrical and chemical messages that activate your nerves into creating muscle twitches and contractions. These muscular contractions that result from time and sequence-specific activation, become trained and strengthened through practice... just as in physical training. The difference is the magnitude of neural and muscular involvement. Physical practice obviously producing a larger amplitude of muscular contraction than mental practice. However, in the case of rehabilitation or novel motor  skill learning, imagery focuses the training effects and the neural activity into producing only the results that are desired.



The Neuroscience:

•MI utilizes the 5 senses to re-create a realistic scenario within the mind

–Promotes the belief that what is being visualized is real & is happening, live-time

–Such widespread activation within the cortex causes whole-brain reverberation and engagement


•Stimulates more memory & action centers than physical practice alone


•Potential to incite quickened neuronal transmission

–May increase white matter (synapses)

–Potential for dendritic growth & creation (neurogenesis/ nerve regeneration)

–Likelihood of reconnecting synaptic connections



Muscular Potential:

•With MI, the brain will initiate action potentials & produce muscular contractions associated with the desired activity


•EMG studies have demonstrated that mental practice activates the same muscles, in the same sequential order, that is required during physical performance



Types of Motor Imagery:



•Graded MI (3 step process)

–Mirror Therapy

–Laterality Training

–Visualization/ Explicit MI


•Virtual Reality (yes, like on your phone)


•Scripted (Therapeutic Motor Imagery)



In short, therapeutic motor imagery is a method of training the body, activating the nervous system, and improving functional skills via mental practice. This form of therapy is gaining recognition and awareness in the medical world on account of the benefits received and physical improvements being realized.




- Dickstein R, Deutsch JE. Motor imagery in physical therapist practice. Phys Ther. 2007;87(7):942-53.

- Fansler CL, Poff CL, Shepard KF. Effects of mental practice on balance in elderly women. Phys Ther. 1985;65(9):1332-8.

- Ehrsson HH, Geyer S, Naito E. Imagery of voluntary movement of fingers, toes, and tongue activates corresponding body-part-specific motor representations. J Neurophysiol. 2003;90(5):3304-16.

- Warner L, McNeill ME. Mental imagery and its potential for physical therapy. Phys Ther. 1988;68(4):516-21.

- Tang Y, Lu Q, Fan M, Yang Y, Posner M. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(26):10570-10574. doi:10.1073/pnas.1207817109.

- Debarnot U, Sperduti M, Di Rienzo F, Guillot A. Experts bodies, experts minds: How physical and mental training shape the brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014;8:280). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00280.

- Decety J. Do imagined and executed actions share the same neural substrate? Cognitive Brain Research. 1996;3(2):87-93. doi:10.1016/0926-6410(95)00033-x.

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