A new study on perceptual learning has proved that thinking about something over and over again could actually be as good as doing it.
Elisa Tartaglia of the Laboratory of Psychophysics at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) said that perceptual learning-learning by repeated exposure to a stimulus-could occur by mental imagery as much as by the real thing.
"When trained, radiologists are able to detect anomalies on medical images which are extremely hard to detect for untrained people. The results of our study would predict that mental imagery training, hence, repeatedly mentally visualizing the anomalies that one wants to detect, would be sufficient to become able to detect them," said Tartaglia.
The researchers carried out a series of experiments, and asked some participants to practice identifying which line, the right or the left in a series of parallel lines, a central line was closest to and to identify it by pushing the correct button.
In follow-up, "post-training" exercises, these participants improved their baseline performance significantly.
And the same happened when another set of volunteers who, instead of practicing with all three lines in training, were instead asked to imagine the bisecting line's proximity based on an audio tone.
This group also improved their performance significantly in further testing, meaning that "imagery training" was sufficient for perceptual learning.
Some experts question the relevance of mental imagery in this kind of learning, which is generally assumed to be driven by stimulus processing-synapses firing in response to a physical cue.
Here, the researchers show that perceptual learning can also occur by mental imagery, i.e., in the absence of physical stimulation.
The results help shine a light on what has been an ongoing puzzle in the field and suggest an overlap in how-and possibly where-mental imagery affects perceptual learning.
The study has been published in Current Biology.