The Power of Mental Rehearsal
As partners become better able to self-regulate and resolve differences respectfully, feelings of warmth, interest, fondness, playfulness, sexual interest, and other forms of loving attention often increase spontaneously. However, this doesn’t always happen. Years of animosity and indifference often shut down the neural systems that generate such feelings. In his 30 years of studying the neural systems that create social bonds, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp identified four special operating systems in the brain, which, when active, automatically produce feelings that bring people closer together. One creates a longing for emotional closeness and contact, a second produces feelings of tenderness and the urge to care for others, a third produces the urges for spontaneous and playful social contact, and a fourth activates sexual desire. Any of these systems can go dormant when stressful life circumstances occur. But some individuals, even before experiencing the relationship distress that drove them into therapy, never had an abundance of easy access to some or all of these intimacy-generating neural systems. Is this emotional coolness a fixed state, or can it change? A number of studies in the past decade suggest that, just as our nervous systems can be groomed for better self-regulation, these neural systems can be primed to enable a natural emergence of feelings of connection. We help clients do this through specific, focused mental practices that we call emotional accessibility exercises.
Coaches and trainers have long utilized focused mental exercises to help athletes enhance performance by visualizing goals and concentrating on steps toward goals, but only recently have we discovered just how powerfully mental exercises can change the brain. In a Harvard study conducted by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, subjects who’d never played the piano before were given instructions and asked to practice a piece for five days, two hours per day, for a total of 10 hours. Before and after these practice stints, their brains were scanned. As anticipated, subjects showed brain changes in the areas of the motor cortex that corresponded to the physical movements that they’d practiced.
Another group of subjects randomly assigned to a second practice condition did the same thing as the first group, with one crucial exception: they never pressed the keys of the piano. Instead, they mentally focused on each of the practice movements. Researchers were amazed to find that these mental-rehearsal-only subjects evidenced almost the same changes in their brains as the subjects who’d practiced using their hands. In other words, mental practice produced changes in the motor cortex even though subjects hadn’t moved their fingers—they just visualized moving their fingers.
But how did the purely mental rehearsal, with its accompanying brain changes, affect the subjects’ ability to play the piece? Here, the results were stunning. Although the people in the mental-rehearsal-only group had never practiced physically, they could play the rehearsed piano piece almost as well as the group who’d practiced physically for five days. And after only one day of physical practice, they could play just as well as them.
The Harvard piano studies aren’t the only ones that show brain and performance-level changes in response to mental rehearsal. A study at the Cleveland Clinic found that subjects could increase their finger strength 53 percent through physical exercises over a 12-week period, but amazingly, a second group showed a 35 percent strength increase through mental visualization only. In a 2007 study conducted at Bishop’s University in Quebec, college athletes who engaged in hip flexor exercises increased their muscle strength 28 percent, while a mental-rehearsal-only group strengthened the same hip flexor muscles by 24 percent.
Can feelings, too, be changed through mental exercise? The answer appears to be yes. Over the past decade, dozens of studies have been published on a particular form of mental rehearsal known as compassion meditation. The exercise involves spending extended periods of time focusing on the intent and desire to develop feelings of compassion and loving-kindness for others. Just as mental rehearsal promoted changes in the motor cortex of Pascual-Leone’s piano players, brain scans have revealed that brain circuits involved in empathy, positive emotion, and emotional regulation are dramatically changed in subjects who’d extensively practiced compassion meditation.
A 2013 study from a University of Wisconsin research team, published in Psychological Science, showed that focusing daily on the intention to be loving and compassionate not only strengthened feelings of compassion and related neural underpinnings, but also increased the concrete altruistic behavior of subjects. A 2013 study from Emory University published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that compassion meditation boosted something called “empathic accuracy,” a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others. In this study, the meditators, in comparison to those in the control group, showed significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain important for empathy, and these brain changes accounted for changes in the participants’ empathic accuracy scores.
These studies suggest that simply dwelling on the intention to develop a specific feeling activates the neural circuits responsible for producing that feeling. In focusing on the intention to be compassionate, meditators primed their brains for compassion. It’s reasonable to assume that the same principle applies to other feelings. Thus, if you spend five minutes a day thinking about things you’re grateful for, you’re likely to energize and create more connection with brain circuits that produce feelings of gratitude. If you spend five minutes a day remembering vividly times when you felt happy (or playful, affectionate, sexual, and so forth), you’ll energize and strengthen brain circuits that can produce these feelings. As neuroscientists explain, anything you consistently give attention to teaches the brain to produce more of it, and this is true with negative thoughts.
At our clinic, we ask partners to spend five minutes each day doing nothing but thinking about things they like about their mates and about good moments that they’ve spent together. The primary value of this emotional accessibility exercise is that each time partners dwell on the good feelings they have toward each other, the neural circuits that generate feelings of connection—such as the middle insula, superior parietal lobule, right periaqueductal gray, left ventral tegmental area, and left rostro-dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—may be strengthened.
However, studies on mental rehearsal and compassion meditation suggest that it’s not just any kind of attention that produces these significant changes. Once again, regular, sustained work is essential. The subjects in Pascual-Leone’s piano study didn’t just wish occasionally for increased piano skills; they spent hours per day specifically imagining the piano moves necessary to develop the skills. Similarly, those involved in the compassion meditation studies didn’t just entertain fleeting thoughts about wanting to feel more compassion and loving-kindness; they regularly spent time dwelling on the desire to have more compassion—in some studies up to 40 minutes per day over the course of eight weeks. Reflecting on his experience, one of my clients said, “I can’t make a good feeling walk through the door on command, but if I keep holding the door open, sooner or later it’ll walk through.”
Many people live out their lives without holding this door open. Generally, people fail to do this because they believe it’s useless. Early in our lives, most of us are told, “Wishful thinking won’t get you anywhere! You need to get off of your butt and make things happen!” While wishful thinking alone won’t get people where they want to go, people who bolster their concrete efforts with focused, sustained intentions are likelier to make desired changes than those who use behavioral efforts alone. Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that surgeons who engage in mental and physical practice together are more skillful than those who engage in physical practice only. Similarly, stroke victims who engage in mental visualization in addition to physical therapy recover functioning faster, and athletes and musicians who combine mental and physical practice perform better.
Doing the Work
When I think back on that afternoon years ago when Robert Ornstein was first blowing my mind, I realize that since then almost everything about the way I conduct therapy has changed. I still help clients develop insight and make concrete plans for operating more effectively in their daily lives, but truthfully, this part of my work is more of a sideline. These days, my central concern is reconditioning the brain. Modern neuroscientific discoveries suggest that William James was right in 1890 when he proposed that the basic organizer of the human mind is habit, not rational thought or understanding. Thus, I believe that in the coming years, the most important developments in mental health will involve refining technologies for isolating and intervening in automatic nervous system habits.
Reconditioning the brain isn’t the stuff of brief therapy. I ask a lot of my clients, and some weeks I’m better at motivating them than others. Over the years, I’ve noticed that their willingness to do the work seems to correlate with what’s going on within me. The calmer my own nervous system is, the easier it is for me to connect with feelings of love, nonjudgment, empathy, acceptance, and excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead for my clients. When clients sense qualities in me that they’d like to develop in themselves, they’re sold. I can talk about the scientifically proven benefits of mental practice until I’m blue in the face, but unless they sense that I know what I’m talking about through their felt experience of me, they don’t buy in. Good for them. In this business, there’s no substitute for the real thing.