Differentiating visual and kinesthetic imagery in mental practice

Differentiating visual and kinesthetic imagery in mental practice

Fery, Yves-Andre

Abstract Through two experiments, the study sought to emphasize the usefulness of the visual and kinesthetic imagery in mental practice. In Experiment 1, it was hypothesized that when the task to be learned through mental practice necessitates the reproduction of a form by drawing, the visual image, which provides a wide span of apprehension, is more suitable than the kinesthetic image. On the other hand, the kinesthetic image that supplies inputs from the muscles’ positions and movements should be more appropriate for the acquisition of the duration of the drawing. In Experiment 2, it was hypothesized that the task, transformed into a motor task necessitating minute coordination of the two hands, would benefit more from kinesthetic imagery. To have optimal control over what was actually experienced during mental practice, the participants’ imagery skills were measured. The participants also benefited from prior imagery training. The results demonstrate that when using mental practice to initially acquire a task, visual imagery is better for tasks that emphasize form while kinesthetic imagery is better for those tasks that emphasize timing or minute coordination of the two hands.

Mentally performing a motor task generally has a positive effect on learning (Driskell, Copper, & Moran, 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983; Grouios, 1992; Hinshaw, 1991; Sheikh & Korn, 1994). This is of particular interest in motor activities in which there are few opportunities for physical practice or in training for risky activities. However, the positive effects of mental practice remains a “significant but uncontrolled variable” (Vandell, Davis, & Clugston, 1943) in psychological studies. Indeed, the mental practice effect derives not only from its canonical use defined as “the symbolic rehearsal of physical activity in the absence of any gross muscular movements” (Richardson, 1967a), but also from the complementary use of disparate techniques such as psyching-up (to increase emotional arousal) and self-efficacy statements (to enhance positive affects and eliminate negative thoughts). More recent works (Annett, 1995; Driskell et al., 1994; Murphy, 1990, 1994; Richardson, 1993; Wulf, Horstmann, & Choi, 1995) have adopted an approach that focuses more on the scientific criteria. Moving away from methodologies based on equivocal manipulations, these authors have outlined the actual impact of mental practice on performance. For instance, Driskell et al. (1994), examined 35 carefully selected studies and used basic meta-analytic combinations of effect sizes and significance levels to evaluate the conditions of the effectiveness of practice. In that study, mental practice offered opportunities to code skills required for performing a task into easily remembered representations before performing it. They found that approximately 20 minutes practice and a short interval between training and testing resulted in the strongest effect. These refinements have contributed to distinguishing mental practice from other types of mental preparation (the primary purpose of which is to increase arousal or positive thinking) and to build a basis for current research.

Although the question of the representing codes used during mental practice is often studied, it remains poorly understood. Studies have often failed to indicate and to verify which representations or images are actually involved when participants mentally practice a task. Therefore, participants could have reported having changed their representations during the experiment or used several types of representations (Budney, Murphy, & Woolfolk, 1994; Woolfolk, Murphy, Gottelsfeld, & Aitken, 1985). This is an important bias in the domain of mental practice as the beneficial effect of such mental activity exerts itself when the generated image supplements the information that would otherwise be available to the performer when he/she actually performed the motor task (Hardy, 1997).

For instance, motor actions may require assessing the size and shape of the objects with which one intends to interact, for which no visuomotor program has been previously established. The visual image that can provide a representation of the visual positions and movements of the limbs and other parts during the task should be an efficient perceptual analogue in this case. Indeed, Denis and Boucher (1991), using two-dimensional patterns with different shapes as a task to be learned, demonstrated the superiority of visual representation over kinesthetic representation in the coding of the distance between the intersection points of the pattern. Johnson (1982) sought to demonstrate that, memorizing a positioning movement over a length of 30 cm and imagining it are functionally equivalent in a linear-positioning task. He predicted that if imagery for such movements is based on the visual system, then a simultaneous visual inspection task should inhibit imagery. Results showed indeed that a visual task and not a motor task inhibited imagery. The author concluded that images of positioning movement appear to require a capacity of the visual processing system but do not involve function of the motor output system.

Motor tasks may also have temporal constraints. It has been argued that their durations are linked to the unfolding of the movement itself (Jeannerod, 1994) and depend on the force-mass relations involved in the action (Gottlieb, Corcos, & Agarwal, 1989), that is, the effort required to overcome the resistances (Decety, Jeannerod, & Prablanc, 1989). The duration of motor tasks should therefore be more easily expressed in kinesthetic imagery during which one is supposed to sense inputs arising from the muscles’ positions, from movements of the limbs and other body parts during the motor task. Decety and Michel (1989) showed that actual and mental movement durations in a drawing task are the same. They also reported that the participants “… ‘felt’ themselves drawing … rather than visualizing an image” (1989, p. 96) in the mental trials. Fery and Morizot (2000) found that kinesthetic imagery is more effective than visual imagery in the learning of a closed motor task (i.e., a tennis serve) whose key characteristic is timing. Thus, the learning of a motor task in which duration or timing are the key parameters seems to be based on the perception of the body as a generator of the force to be applied in a motor task.

The distinction between visual and kinesthetic images is reinforced by the fact that these two modalities generate different patterns of cortical activation corresponding to the known differences in the cortical organization of these perceptual modalities. Indeed, Davidson and Schwartz (1977) explored modality-specific electroencephalogram (EEG) patterning during the self-generation of imagery in the kinesthetic and visual modalities. They observed different patterns of occipital and sensory motor alpha activity during kinesthetic versus visual imaging. During the visual imaging, greater relative occipital activation occurred. Marks and Isaac (1995) demonstrated that when participants performed the Vividness of Movement Imagery Questionnaire (described in the Method section) their imagining in the visual or the kinesthetic modalities generated different patterns of cortical activation corresponding to the known differences in cortical organization of these modalities.

Overview of the Present Study

If one has to represent a motor task involving the representation of the size and shape of objects to be manipulated, it is better to develop a visual image of the task to be learned. On the other hand, one should be better able to imagine the temporal constraints of a motor task using a kinesthetic image. As imagery is considered as being more effective for some tasks than for others (Highlen & Bennett, 1979), we chose to validate this hypothesis by studying the effect of mental practice on closed motor tasks that may be performed in predictable environmental settings. Indeed, these tasks are more likely than open motor tasks to produce discernible perceptions of movements (Annett, 1995), as open motor tasks necessitate taking into account variable and unpredictable external inputs.

In Experiment 1, the task consisted of the reproduction of a form (32 cm long). In the kinesthetic group, the participants’ index and middle fingers were slowly guided to follow the form. The assistant demonstrated the movement for the visual imagery group. The participants in the kinesthetic group had to mentally rehearse the task focusing on the kinesthetic information. The participants in the visual group had to imagine the demonstrated movement focusing on the visual information. Thereafter, the participants of the two groups had to draw the form as precisely as possible. In the second part of Experiment 1, the procedure was the same but the participants had to mentally practice the task in its duration requirement.

However, even if the tasks in question involved a sufficient degree of voluntary motor control to be designated as “motor” (Annett, 1995), they depended more on the retention of the representation of a spatial extent or of a duration and less on detailed motor programs. Therefore, we also investigated the role of the mental rehearsal representations in a motor task requiring greater motor control. Thus, in Experiment 2, the task was altered in order to require minute motor coordination of the two hands in controlling the displacement of a stylus in a path. In this case, it is hypothesized that proprioception should play – as in duration – a major role (Gottlieb et al., 1989; Schmidt, 1980).

Experiment 1


First, as individual differences in imagery do exist (Richardson, 1993), one has to control the ability to represent the motor task in the requested perspective (Murphy, 1994). The Vividness of Movement Imagery Questionnaire (VMIQ; Isaac, Marks, & Russell, 1986) was used for this purpose. This test was chosen because it requires the participants to separately form a visual image and a kinesthetic image of each of the 24 dynamic situations. A 5-point scale was used to assess image vividness. The imagery scores ranged from 24 to 120 (a lower score indicating greater vividness) in the kinesthetic and in the visual ratings. Moreover, Marks and Isaac (1995) demonstrated that this test has a strong construct validity. Participants whose scores were between 1 SD relative to the mean were considered as normal imagers, and recruited. Second, given that mental practice is an original technique, the participants should not be disoriented when asked to mentally imagine performing the task (Murphy, 1994). For this reason, a prior mental practice training session was included. Third, to prevent the experimenter’s expectations from influencing the participants’ responses, the assistant who carried out the experiments was unaware of the underlying hypotheses.

Participants. Twenty-five male students (mean age = 21.9 years; SD = 3.1) volunteered to participate. Only men were tested as several studies found gender differences in spatial abilities and in sensory integration (Berthoz & Viaud-Delmon, 1999). All participants were right-handed. Their handedness was determined by comparing the speed and the accuracy of the drawings of simple figures with the right hand and with the left hand. The participants had absolutely no prior experience of the tasks. Informed consent was obtained from the participants and confidentiality ensured. One participant whose right hand dominance could not be determined was excluded from the study. Three groups of eight participants were formed in such a way that the mean performance of each group in the VMIQ did not significantly differ from the others. There were a visual imagery group, a kinesthetic imagery group, and a control group.

Materials. A 36-cm long drawing (depth and width = 1 cm) carved into the surface of a 24 cm x 12 cm piece of wood was set on a table and slightly inclined towards the participant. In its form requirement, the task consisted of drawing the form previously seen as accurately as possible on a white sheet of paper (Figure 1, left). In the duration requirement, the task consisted of sliding the index and middle fingers in the carved drawing from Point A to Point B, in exactly 20 s (Figure 1, middle). The duration of each trial was recorded by the assistant.

Design and procedure. The participants completed the experiment individually in a quiet laboratory room. They were told that the aim of the experiment was to examine the relation between thinking about a task and its acquisition. The mental practice training was organized two days before the experiment.

The experiment was devised to preserve motivation as close to 20 min, the optimal duration of mental practice (Driskell et al., 1994). The experiment in the form requirement was composed of three acquisition sessions. Each acquisition session was composed of one presentation of the task and six mental practice sessions followed by another presentation and by six more mental practice sessions. An overt trial terminated the acquisition session. A participant engaged in mental practice was presented with the task six times, rehearsed it 36 times and performed three overt trials. The experiment lasted approximately 22 min. The experiment in the duration requirement was carried out two days later with the same participants and the same design.

Mental practice training. Each participant was trained individually to adopt the appropriate representations. The participants assigned to the kinesthetic imagery group were blindfolded. Then, the assistant held their right wrist and guided their index and middle fingers in a linear displacement by following a straight line (18 cm) carved in a piece of wood (not presented in Figure 1). The participants were instructed to focus “on the inputs from their hands, wrists, forearms and skin and on the structures of the task.” In addition, they were told that “these inputs would be important afterwards to reproduce the task.” They were asked not to make any movements, apart from passive right-arm and hand movements during the presentation of the model. Then, during the imagery phase they had to “imagine performing the demonstrated movement as accurately as possible focusing on the bodily information.” In addition, they were instructed not to make any overt movement during the actual act of imagery and requested to cross their arms while imaging. The participants had to give a vocal signal (“go/stop”) at the beginning and at the end of their imagery. After a self-determined pause that never exceeded 10 s, they had to imagine themselves performing the task again. During the physical performance phase, the piece of wood was removed and the individuals had “to complete the task as accurately as possible using the model built during their imagery.” Without their blindfold, they had to draw the line on a blank sheet of paper with a pencil.

The participants in the visual imagery group were submitted to the same training program. They had to watch the assistant following the carved line with his index and middle fingers while they focused “on the visual inputs from the hands, wrists, forearms and on the structures of the task.” During mental practice, the piece of wood was removed. They were asked “to imagine observing themselves performing the demonstrated movement as accurately as possible focusing on the visual information.” This training program lasted until the participants felt confident about their ability to reproduce the line accurately. All the participants but two reached these requirements after five trials. The two unsuccessful participants were replaced by two other participants who were normal imagers and who rapidly became confident in their ability to reproduce the line accurately.

Data collection. To calculate precision in the form reproduction, the total distance error (TDE, see Goss, Hall, Buckolz, & Fishburne, 1986) measured the absolute difference (in cm) between the participant’s pattern and the criterion movement pattern on the basis of the drawings produced on the blank sheets of paper. The precision of the actual and imagined duration reproduction was computed in absolute error (AE in s) relative to the criterion (20 s).


Acquisition session. During the presentation phase, the task was demonstrated once just as in the mental practice training but emphasizing the form to be reproduced. The index and middle fingers of the participants in the kinesthetic imagery group were slowly guided in the carved drawing (for approximately 30 s). The assistant demonstrated the task at the same rate for the visual imagery group. The kinesthetic imagery and the visual imagery groups had to mentally rehearse the task six times following the same instructions as in the mental practice training. The participants in the control group had to perform a distractor task designed to prevent them from forming images of the task. They had to unscramble as many words as possible during a period that corresponded to the mean time required by the mental practice groups to complete their six imagery trials (approximately 3 min). The presentation and the mental practice phases were repeated once in the same way.

Over trial. At the end of each session, the participants performed one actual trial “as accurately as possible using the model built during their imagery.” The participants in the control group had to perform the task “as accurately as possible using the model presented.” They had to reproduce the target at their own pace drawing on a large white sheet of paper and had the possibility of erasing their drawing.


As one participant of the kinesthetic imagery group could not participate in the second part of the first experiment, he was replaced by another participant who was a normal imager and who completed the same mental practice training and performed the experiment in the form requirements.

The participants performed the training once. For the presentation of the task, the assistant underwent extensive training until he completed the task in the requested duration. After six training sessions, his performances were close to the requested duration in a series of 10 trials (M = 20 s .4 s). The participants had to follow the same procedure as previously described with the assistant’s instructions emphasizing the duration to be reproduced. In addition, the duration of the mental practice that preceded each actual performance was also recorded. The chronometer was set at the participants’ “go” vocal signal and stopped at their “stop” signal.


Did the visual imagery group outperform the kinesthetic imagery group in the reproduction of the form? The TDE in the three actual trials were analyzed with a 3 x 3 (Group x Trial) analysis of variance: group (kinesthetic imagery, visual imagery, and control) as between-participants factor, and trial (1, 2, and 3) as within-participants factor. There were a main group effect and a main trial effect, F(2, 21) = 12.45, p

Did the kinesthetic imagery group outperform the visual imagery group in the reproduction of the duration? The durations in the three actual trials were analyzed with a 3 x 3 (Group x Trial) analysis of variance: group (kinesthetic imagery, visual imagery, and control) as between-participants factor, and trial (1, 2, and 3) as within-participants factor. There was a group effect, F(2, 21) = 7.36, p

Tuckey’s post-hoc analyses showed that the kinesthetic imagery group outperformed the visual imagery group in Trials 1 and 2, p = .015 and p = .045, respectively (Figure 3).

The results support the hypotheses as they show that a visual image was a more appropriate representation than a kinesthetic image in the mental practice of replicating a drawing. This is consistent with Freyd and Finke’s (1984) idea that visual imagery is very helpful in tasks requiring length discrimination. On the other hand, kinesthetic imagery seems better suited than visual imagery for the acquisition of the movement’s duration. This result, together with the spontaneous reports of the participants in the kinesthetic group, may be linked to the “chaining hypothesis” (Macar & Vitton, 1989) for time-coding in motor learning. This hypothesis stipulates that a chain of movements is sequentially ordered and timed by the respective variations in the sensations it produces. The duration of one movement will be considered correct when the sensory feedback it produces diminishes drastically. This decay triggers the next movement and so on until the ultimate decay phase of discharge regulates the onset of the final part of the movement.

Experiment 2


Participants. Twenty-four male university students at Rene Descartes University (mean age = 20.5 years; SD = 2,3) volunteered to participate. On the basis of the VMIQ scores, they were separated into the kinesthetic imagery, visual imagery and control groups.

Materials. The task consisted in guiding a stylus (diameter = 0.4 cm) between the two edges (width = 1 cm) of a pathway, which was the precise model for the carved drawing in Experiment 1, by the manipulation of two spherical knobs (see Figure 1, right). The apparatus was a 24 cm x 11 cm x 7 cm metal box set on a table and slightly inclined towards the participant. The forward and backward movements of the stylus were controlled by pushing and pulling linear movements of the left hand on the left knob. The right and left movements of the stylus were controlled by right and left linear movements of the right hand on the right knob. Guiding the stylus in the horizontal or vertical segments of the task required alternative movements of the hands; combined movements were required to guide the stylus in oblique or curvilinear segments. Each participant was seated in front of the table, looking down at the box (approximately 30 cm from the centre of the path). The apparatus was connected to an electronic device (DUFOUR PC3), which recorded the number of contacts of the stylus with the two sides of the path and also the duration of these contacts (in tenths of seconds). The participants had to perform the task avoiding contacts as much as possible. However, to avoid the reduction of the spatial constraints by very slow hand movements, the participants were always asked to complete the task in the maximum time of 70 s.

To demonstrate the target task, the assistant was submitted to intense practice consisting of six sessions of 12 trials each. In the last session, the mean number of contacts was 1.2 (SD = 0.4). To avoid a distractive effect induced by the temporal irregularity of the demonstration, a regularity criterion was also introduced. Thus, the stylus had to cover the path in 50 s. During the experiment, however, the participants did not have to follow this regulatory criterion. Each demonstration that did not fit the duration criterion (50 s, + or – 3 s) and the form criterion (one or two contacts) was systematically repeated. For this reason, two demonstrations were repeated.

For its kinesthetic presentation, a vertically protruding handle was set on each lever near the knobs. These handles enabled the assistant to guide the participant’s hands, which passively held the knobs.

Design and procedure. The imagery training program and procedure were the same as in the first experiment.


Did the visual imagery group outperform the kinesthetic imagery group in the reproduction of the form? The numbers of contacts in the three actual trials were analyzed with a 3 x 3 (Group x Trial) analysis of variance: group (kinesthetic imagery, visual imagery, and control) as between-participants factor, and trial (1, 2, and 3) as within-participants factor. There was a main group effect, F(2, 21) = 5.5, p

The same analysis of variance on the duration of errors displayed in Figure 5 showed a group effect and a trial effect, F(2, 21) = 20.9, p

Correlations between the numbers of contacts and the duration of the contacts were also computed for each trial. The number of contacts correlated significantly (p

Discussion and Conclusion

The superior performance of the participants in the kinesthetic and visual groups compared to the performance of the control groups in the learning of the three different motor tasks provides good evidence for the beneficial effect of mental practice.

More importantly, the results support the usefulness of the differentiation between visual and kinesthetic images in the learning by mental practice of motor tasks that are mainly perceptual as well as the motor tasks that require minute coordination. More specifically, for the perceptual motor tasks, the results show that a visual image is better than a kinesthetic image in the mental practice of a motor skill whose salient parameter is a form to be reproduced. On the other hand, a kinesthetic image, during which one experiences the task from within, seems to be a better representation than the visual image to acquire the duration characteristic of a movement.

For motor tasks requiring greater motor control, the kinesthetic image seems to provide better results. This result corroborates Smyth and Pendleton’s (1994) theory that stipulates that movement encoding is not processed by the visuo-spatial system of working memory but by a kinesthetic-spatial type subsystem that ensures the reproduction of complex body-centred movements.

However, the results also suggest that each image has an evanescent effectiveness because the performances of the two groups engaged in mental practice showed comparable levels at the end of the experiment. This is due, firstly, to the method used in mental practice. Indeed, to control the exact level of learning during the experiment, it is necessary that participants effectuate some actual trials. In so doing, the participants can gather some complementary information that is not available in mental practice. In other words, the participants may have benefited from cues not provided during mental practice. The usefulness of “other cues” comes from the fact that whatever is explicitly perceived to occur in the body is at the same time (explicitly or implicitly) perceived to occur in a location defined in the distal environment (Prinz, 1994). This explains why the opportunity to complete the bodily image with a visual image (and inversely) may be useful. Secondly, mental practice is essentially a learning procedure that is proposed to help the learner who wishes to effectuate the “first steps” in a new motor activity but is unable to actually practice it. Using a visual image, for example, watching a video to learn a motor skill, appears to be the optimal way to boost the acquisition of skills if their prominent characteristic is a form to be reproduced.

These preliminary results provide suggestive evidence that the visual and kinesthetic image has a heuristic value in the context of mental practice. By differentiating images one improves the readiness of the motor learning system by centring attention on the most suitable cues to be used in the first trials. The visual and kinesthetic images may thus help mental practice to become a significant but also a “controlled” variable in motor learning.

The author appreciates the help provided by Emmanuelle Van Gysel and Sebastien Laffargues during the different experiments and the data collection. The author is also very grateful to Craig R. Hall and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments during the reviewing process.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Pr Yves-Andre Fery, Laboratoire ACTES, UPRES EA 3596, University of the French West Indies and Guiana, Campus de Fouillole, 97167 BP 250 Pointe A Pitre, France.


En deux experimentations l’etude presentee tente de mieux definir le role de l’imagerie visuelle et kinesthesique dans la repetition mentale. Dans l’experience 1, il est fait l’hypothese que l’imagerie visuelle, qui permet d’avoir un large champ d’apprehension, est plus adaptee que l’imagerie kinesthesique pour l’apprentissage par repetition mentale d’une tache consistant a reproduire une forme par un dessin. L’imagerie de type kinesthesique, qui renseigne sur la position des muscles et leurs mouvements, serait quant a elle plus adaptee lorsqu’il s’agit pour le sujet de realiser la tache mais dans un temps donne. Dans l’experience 2, la tache de reproduction de forme est modifiee afin de requerir une coordination tres fine des deux mains. Il est fait l’hypothese que l’imagerie de type kinesthesique est plus adaptee en ce cas. Afin d’avoir un controle optimal de ce qui est effectivement mis en oeuvre par le sujet au cours de la pratique mentale, l’habilete des participants a l’imagerie mentale visuelle et kinesthesique a ete controlee. Les participants etaient aussi soumis a un entrainement prealable a la repetition mentale. Les resultats demontrent que lorsqu’une tache motrice a comme caracteristique principale la reproduction d’une forme, l’imagerie de type visuelle est plus adaptee a son apprentissage par repetition mentale. En revanche, l’imagerie de type kinesthesique est plus adaptee lorsque la duree du mouvement doit etre respectee en priorite ou lorsqu’une tache requiert une coordination fine des deux mains.


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