On Mental Rehearsal

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Self-help books, especially those with a bit of an NLP slant, tell us that mental rehearsal is a Good Thing to do. I’ve often found their exercises in visualisation quite difficult, however – possibly because the type of thinking you’re doing while reading the instructions is quite different from the kind of full-sensory fantasy the instructions tell you to engage in. So for quite some time I thought of mental rehearsal as being some strange and special thing that I didn’t quite get.

Then one day, I was preparing a lecture, and thinking through how I was going to deliver the material – where I could probably raise a laugh, where I would need to pause to let the students catch up, where the focal points to crystallise the key ideas would come. And I suddenly realised – what I was doing was mental rehearsal, and it’s not something special at all, it’s something I do all the time. Anything that takes a spot of planning or anticipation, you can live through in prospect, whether it’s working out what you’re going to say to someone in a non-routine conversation (asking someone out, quitting a job) or planning a rehearsal.

Maybe this is obvious, but it was a revelation to me at the time.

Once the penny had dropped, there was scope to have a few more thoughts about it. First, there’s that contention that one of the reasons visualisation works is that the subconscious doesn’t differentiate between fact and fiction. So if you visualise your wildest dreams they’re more likely to come true as your subconscious will believe the fantasy. Now, this is one of those positions (like the closely-related ‘perception is reality’ mantra) that makes me think, ‘well, yes – but’. There are dimensions in which it is a useful assertion, and others where it looks like an excuse for flabby mumbo-jumbo thinking.

But when you think about it, the actual internal experience of imagining yourself going to pick up the dry cleaning and cooking spaghetti for dinner isn’t qualitatively different from imagining yourself receiving a grammy. In my life, the first of these is the kind of thing that comes up as I plan my day, and the second is just a nice fantasy. So I know which I expect to come true before the day is out and which exists in a dreamy never-never of aspiration. But the actual experience of playing the movie of each inside my own head isn’t markedly different.

Moreover, there are those fantasies that are as yet fictional, but the aspiration is quite plausible, and may indeed come true, though success is not yet assured. Every time you apply for a job you have to imagine yourself into the role to write the application, for instance. And one of the things about the structure of assessment for PhDs is that for everything you write in your thesis, you have a little practice run in your head as to what you’ll say to defend it if your examiners challenge you on it. There is a strong ‘what if?’ quality to the way mental rehearsal brings the future into the present, and the capacity to try alternative futures on for size is how gain a sense of control over our destiny.

Now a corollary of this is that there is a limit to what you can rehearse mentally. There isn’t time to try out everything you’re going to do in your head, as well as do it in real life. Fortunately, quite a lot of things don’t need visualisation – most notably the things we do routinely. So, you don’t need to plan how to have your shower in the morning, and you can spend the time in the shower planning what you’re going to write in your blog post on mental rehearsal. (I have had a strangely recursive morning today.)

But still, you can’t run everything in your head in advance. And you are going to be more effective at things you have mentally rehearsed than the things you just wing as they come along, since we get better at the things we give quality attention to. This means (a) that there is a limited range of things at which any one person can be brilliant and (b) that we need to be quite choosy about what we spend our attention on. If I spend all my time trying out what I’m going to say to that person who was rude to me last Tuesday, I’ll get good at being grumpy and vengeful. If I spend my time thinking about what the quartet I’m currently arranging for will sound like singing on the International stage, I’ll be more likely to produce a chart that will help them get there.

My friend Chris Davidson shared a nice quote on this subject with me – I’ve probably mangled the wording, but the spirit is right:

Everything that you imagine has already happened to you in the future and is even now working its way back through time to meet you.

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