Visualization and Sleep: Enhance Skill Acquisition

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Dr. Matthew P. Walker, also known as the Sleep Diplomat, is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley. In a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast (Episode #1109), he discussed the importance of sleep and its effect on learning fine motor skills, solving problems and successfully performing physical tasks. In summary, sleep is an often-overlooked and invaluable tool for increasing performance in many domains. Visualization is another means of accelerating proficiency with fine motor skills and problem-solving; it is a practice that has gained increased traction due to its efficacy in enhancing the performance of athletes, businesspeople and even elite military units in the modern world. How, exactly, are these two things related?

The practice of visualization can take many forms. For the purposes of our discussion, we will refer specifically to visualization practices as they relate to acquiring and mastering new skills. Let’s say that you are a concert musician trying to master a new song on the guitar. While physically practicing is a requisite for learning, the brain is a necessary and crucial player in the equation. What would happen if you spent some time in deep thought, eyes closed, and thought about the finger movements required to perform the song successfully? Some studies have shown that this “mental rehearsal” can be up to 50 percent as effective as physically rehearsing and practicing. The implications of this are astounding: you can actually accelerate the rate at which you learn new skills by simply thinking about them in conjunction with your regular practice.

Elite members of the US military and professional athletes have been using visualization for some time with great success. Former SEAL Commander Mark Divine has written extensively about the use of visualization and breath control as a critical part of training in the SEAL teams. In high-stress situations, these soldiers can operate in a calm and rational manner because they have spent countless hours preparing for these exact combat situations; this preparation involves both physical run-throughs of mission situations and mental rehearsals of the skills and details required for mission success. In a 2014 article in the New York Times, a sports psychologist for the US Olympic Team named Nicole Detling spoke about the use of this practice with Olympic athletes as well. The goal was to make these visualizations as vivid and realistic as possible, encouraging athletes to picture specific events, sights and sounds to bolster their mental rehearsals. For this reason, the term visualization is often replaced with “imagery” to encapsulate the more complete sensory picture these athletes are encouraged to create.

So how, then, does sleep work itself into the equation? When our bodies are sore from intense exercise, it is necessary to “flush” toxins from our blood stream and muscle tissue by performing low-intensity physical activity, stretching and hydrating. This accelerates the recovery process and allows us to attack our next workout with purpose. Wakefulness is considered low-level brain damage in the same way that exercise damages our muscle tissue. In order to flush these built-up toxins out of our brain, the only mechanism that we possess for recovery is sleep. There are some startling statistics related to the adverse health effects of not getting adequate sleep each night, including increased risk of heart disease, increased cancer rates and a higher prevalence of cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Walker suggests that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night in order to restore homeostasis in the brain and prevent degenerative buildup of these damaging toxins.

In addition to the myriad long-term health benefits of maintaining adequate levels of sleep in our lifetimes, there are some interesting performance-enhancing benefits as well. Neurological studies were conducted on mice attempting to work their way through a maze containing a block of cheese at the finish. The brain activity of the mice was monitored continuously to study the cognitive processes of these animals as they reasoned their way through the puzzle. Upon entering a state of deep sleep later on, the brain activity of the mice was consistent with the activity while they were in the maze. This means that the mice were actively working their way through solutions to the maze while sleeping. While this may not be entirely surprising, the scientists were shocked to discover that the brain activity of the mice during deep sleep was up to 20 times higher than while they were awake. This means that sleep was actually enhancing the neurotransmission in the brains of the mice, allowing them to more effectively solve the maze when they next attempted it. Sleep has been shown to improve deficits in brain activity surrounding fine motor skills and various motor patterns, meaning that it might be one of the most underrated means of performance enhancement currently available to us.

Imagine that you are an athlete preparing for a critical competition or a businessperson preparing for a key presentation in your career. If you set aside time to visualize your performance and your success in these realms, trying to create as vivid an image as possible, and ensure that you follow these visualizations with adequate sleep, then the effects of these two practices can compound. By combining a solid visualization practice with good sleep habits you can noticeably and dramatically increase your performance in a number of activities. How can we develop and foster good sleep habits? For starters, Dr. Walker suggests unplugging at night and avoiding bright screens and technology. Additionally, keeping your bedroom both dark and cool has been shown to increase both quality and quantity of sleep throughout the night. A trick that can help bring your body temperature down is to take a hot shower or bath prior to getting into bed. The hot water actually draws heat out of the body, bringing your core temperature down and allowing you to fall asleep faster. Start to incorporate these techniques in conjunction with a consistent visualization practice and reap the positive benefits of this formidable duo!

Until next time.

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For those curious on Dr. Walker’s work, I highly encourage you to listen to Episode #1109 of the Joe Rogan Experience. Additionally, you can visit Dr. Walker’s website, The Sleep Diplomat, here.

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