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Can We Stretch the Body by Stretching the Mind?

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Author: Peggy LaCerra, Ph.D.

Grade Level: Middle school;  Type: Life Science/Social Science

Objective:

Discover how mental visualization helps our bodies to acheive physical feats like stretching.

Research Questions:

  • How is mental imagery used in sports psychology?
  • What is a neural network and why is it important?
  • What is a "representation"? How does it relate to a ‘neural network’?

Have you ever tried to stretch? Have you ever thought that you just couldn't stretch any further without breaking something? Is there some mental trick we can use to help you stretch? In this experiment, we'll find out.

Materials:

  • Blackboard
  • Chalk
  • Armless chair
  • Yardstick
  • Paper and pencil – all readily available in most classrooms.

Experimental Procedure:

  1. Ask your teacher’s permission to use the classroom to conduct this experiment, which will take less than one hour.
  2. Use the meter stick to draw a nine-foot horizontal line toward the bottom of the chalkboard. Draw cross hatches, four to six inches long every six inches and label them “0” to “17”
  3. Place the armless chair, with its back to the blackboard, two feet in front of the blackboard at the midpoint of the line.
  4. Draw three lines down a lined piece of paper, creating four columns; repeat this procedure with a second piece of lined paper.
  5. Label one of these papers "With Mental Imagery" and the other "Without Mental Imagery" at the top of the page. Then label the top of the columns, left to right, "Subject Number," "Trial #1," "Trial #2" and "Difference" on both papers.
  6. Divide the subjects into two groups, one "With Mental Imagery” and the other “Without Mental Imagery.”
  7. The experiment will occur in two trials. In the first, have each subject in both groups sit in the chair with his/her back to the blackboard and begin breathing deeply and elongating his/her spine “as if there is a magnet on the top of [your] head and an piece of steel on the ceiling." Advise the subject to keep both feet flat on the floor in front of them and then, while breathing deeply and elongating his/her spine, to begin to gently twist to the right, as far as they can without feeling any strain, and look at the line on the black board. Ask him/her to tell you the name of the largest number they can see. Record that number.
  8. In the second trial, first have subjects in the “Without Mental Imagery” group repeat the same task again, remembering to tell them to breathe deeply and elongate their spine before beginning to gently twist to the right. Record their second number.
  9. Now have the each of the subjects in the “With Mental Imagery” group sit in the chair. Give each one the following instruction: “Close your eyes and continue to breathe deeply. Now, without moving, simply imagine that you are elongating your spine and moving into the gentle twist. In your mind’s eye see the numbers on the blackboard and notice the largest number you saw on your first trial. Now imagine that you are effortlessly continuing to twist further until you can see a higher number, stopping as soon as you feel any strain at all.” After the subject has completed the mental imagery task, prompt them to do the exercise again, repeating the safety instructions and reminding them to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground before them. Record the highest number they say that they saw.
  10. Calculate the difference between the number each subject saw on trial one and the number s/he saw on trial two, and record this number in the “Difference” column (e.g., if the subject saw #7 in Trial 1 and #9 in Trial 2, the difference score would be “+2”).
  11. Add the difference scores for each group and divide by the number of subjects to find the average difference score.
  12. Create a bar graph representing each group. Label the graph and each bar appropriately.
  13. Write a description of your experiment with at least one paragraph for each of the following sections: 1) An introduction that explains the topic and the experiment, 2) A "Methods" section that describes the methods that you used to conduct the experiment, 3) a "Results" section that describe your results and presents your bar graph, and 4) a concluding section that describes the conclusions you are able to draw on the basis of your results.

Terms/Concepts: Mental imagery; Sports psychology; Representations; Neural networks

References:

  • The Case for Mental Imagery, by S. Kosslyn, W. Thompson, and G. Ganis ( Oxford Psychology, 2009)

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