Is imagining that tennis serve, golf swing, or swim stroke really exercising the same brain circuits as actual practice? To test this idea, Dr. Kristin Macuga (now at Oregon State) and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity while participants: 1) imagined a series of hand actions, 2) observed others produce these movements, or 3) actually executed the actions themselves.
What we discovered is intriguing. Imaging, observing and executing actions all involved significant increases in brain activity within a large network of brain areas (yellow areas in the figure below). This network is concerned with the more abstract aspects of our movements including action selection, planning, and attention. movement planning and control
Compared with simply watching another act, imaging our own movements more effectively engages a number of key movement planning areas. However, only actually practicing actions engages our motor and sensory cortex, areas critical to mastering skills.
The takeaway here is that we can exercise many of brain regions involved in skilled actions by carefully structured mental practice. Once a skill has been learned, imagination and even action observation can be great supplements to your training. However, nothing is a substitute for actual practice. So ditch the screens, unplug, and get out there!