Brain model early 20th century.
How exactly does mental training work and what is learned? Research gets to the bottom of practicing in the mind. © David Matos/unsplash

The cameras are trained on the athletes as they prepare for the slalom. The television viewers can watch them as they mentally retrace each curve and move their bodies accordingly. The aim is to reproduce the training performance in a competition. The world of top competitive sports was early to recognise the positive effect that mental practice has on performance levels. It is also used by musicians, for instance by pianists, to practise difficult parts of a piece in the mind. And now researchers are exploring the issue: Martina Rieger and Stephan Dahm from UMIT - Private University of Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology are currently investigating the phenomenon in a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

The gift of imagination

“I think that being able to imagine something is a very exciting human ability. We can imagine things that don't exist at the time when we think about them, that existed in the past or relate to the future,” says Martina Rieger, head of the Institute of Psychology at UMIT. “While these things are not real, they can have an influence on reality. That's what's so exciting about this field of research,” adds her project partner, the postdoctoral researcher Stephan Dahm, who brings knowledge from applied sports psychology to the project.

In order to specify the broad field of mental practice, the two researchers prefer the term “motor imagery practice”. This refers to the systematic and repeated imagining of a sequence of movements without actually executing them. Rieger: “Imagination and actual execution activate similar areas of the brain. If you simulate an action in your mind, predictive mechanisms are initiated in the brain that also take place in real-life actions.” This similarity explains the impact of imagining actions. Martina Rieger and Stephan Dahm did not want to content themselves with simply assuming equivalence, but take a closer and more specific look at the interaction. Rieger: “Perhaps there are different learning mechanisms, or one learns different things.” In addition, there are certain limitations: it is difficult to learn how to ski mentally, for instance, if you have never stood on skis before. Rieger: “Expertise is important: once you perform a movement physically, the internal motor model improves.”

Testing the transfer to similar situations

The current study focuses on finding out which concrete aspects of a task are learned during motor imagery training. Dahm: “We want to learn more about the underlying mechanisms.” One way to find out is testing whether learning with one hand also has a positive effect on the performance of the other hand. This process is called intermanual transfer. “People sometimes undertake implicit motor imagery training. For instance, when we learn to drive a car and go through the interaction of the clutch and gear shift in our mind in the evening. By doing that we reinforce the cognitive representation of this sequence. An intermanual transfer occurs when you normally operate the gear shift with your right hand, but then drive a British car and have to operate the gear shift with your left,” explains the principal investigator Martina Rieger.

Three sets of research questions

The major research questions of the project are divided into three sets: 1. Does motor imagery practice result in more intermanual transfer than physical training? Does this depend on when and for how long a skill was practised? 2. Does intermanual transfer from the dominant to the non-dominant hand work better than vice versa? To what extent does this depend on the type of task being trained? 3. Does it have an impact on intermanual transfer whether one primarily pays attention to visual or kinaesthetic information during motor imagery training?

Different methods for experiments

In the experiments, people train different tasks that are performed with either the dominant or non-dominant hand. One group practices the tasks physically, another group in the mind (and there is also a control group). Dahm: “We use sequence learning, for example: participants have to press certain keys when a stimulus is presented. Without being aware of it, they learn an underlying sequence. Afterwards, they can actually perform this sequence better than other sequences, but they don’t know why.

In another experiment, we want to find out how motor imagery training works for motor tasks. We tell participants how often they should spin two small balls in one hand.” The researchers record reaction times, movement times and the number of errors. In some experiments, the participants are also told to pay attention to visual aspects or kinaesthetic sensations (how the movement feels) during the mental practice. The participants are tested two weeks after the start of training and again one month later, to find out how stable the effects are.

Flexibility required

Three experiments have already been carried out, and three more are to follow. “We originally wanted to measure muscle activity as well, but the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. We had to restructure experiments at short notice. Test subjects can now install programmes at home and participate there. That works amazingly well.” According to the researchers, initial results are promising. “Our studies show once more that physical training has a greater effect than motor imagery training. But when we look at how well a movement you practised with one hand works in the other, motor imagery practice is just as good as physical training.” The final report is due for publication in the coming winter.

Relevance for future practice

The results are designed to provide an empirical basis for practical application and offer recommendations for the design of practice sessions (duration, type of exercise, etc.). In what direction are things expected to go in the future? “Towards neuropsychological rehabilitation and using the method with older persons,” replies Martina Rieger, because motor imagery practice would have many advantages: even if patients are tired or if a body part cannot be used at the moment (because of injury, for instance), they can still train a movement. The training works regardless of location and can be performed independently. Mental practice could be used as a supplement to physiotherapy, for instance, and produce an additional benefit to therapeutic measures.

Personal details

Martina Rieger is Professor of General and Experimental Psychology. Early in her career she specialised in the field of action control and integrated the issue of motor imagery. Rieger has conducted research and taught at Philipps University Marburg, at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, at University College London and the Goethe University in Frankfurt. She currently heads the Institute of Psychology at the Department of Psychology and Sports Medicine at UMIT - Private University for Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall in Tyrol.

Stephan Dahm studied psychology at the University of Mannheim. He then specialised in the field of sports psychology. Dahm is currently working at UMIT - Private University of Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall in Tyrol. Together with the principal investigator Martina Rieger, he is investigating process models in motor imagery and the mechanisms involved in mental practice in the project “What is learned in mental practice?”, which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with EUR 270,000.


Dahm, S. F. & Rieger, M.: Errors in imagined and executed typing, in: Vision, 3(66), 1–16, 2019

Dahm, S. F. & Rieger, M.: Is imagery better than reality? Performance in imagined dart throwing, in: Human Movement Science, 66, 38–52, 2019

Rieger, M., Dahm, S. F. & Koch, I.: Inhibition in motor imagery: a novel action mode switching paradigm, in: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(2), 459–466, 2017

Dahm, S. F. & Rieger, M.: Is there symmetry in motor imagery? Exploring different versions of the mental chronometry paradigm, in: Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 78, 1794–1805, 2016

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