Mental Imagery, Study Reveals, Behind Embarrassing Mistakes People Make

If you’ve ever wondered why you left the milk on the kitchen counter and walked away after setting your keys in the refrigerator, or answered “yes” when asked if you’d like chicken or steak for dinner, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has the answer, reports Science Daily.

While usually passed off as “unintentional” accidents, a new study reveals that people make these errors because it is mental imagery that controls our actions. When people inadvertently conjure up the wrong mental image, the study shows, unexpected actions can follow. In short, your mental image shows you leaving your keys in the fridge, so it does not strike you as strange when you act accordingly.

University of Plymouth Ph.D. student James Colton led the research study, demonstrating how an involuntary movement can be brought out in people simply by giving them a strong enough mental image of that movement. Colton worked with 32 undergraduates who took part in the experiment for the research, as described in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“Participants mentally rehearsed a movement sequence and were unexpectedly presented with salient visual cues that were either compatible or incompatible with their currently imagined action. As predicted by ideomotor theories, the combined activation through imagery and perception was sufficient to trigger involuntary actions, even when participants were forewarned and asked to withhold them.”

Colton explained that the research findings are a “step for understanding how humans control their actions.”

“They do not necessarily represent a form ‘mind-control,’ but show that our actions typically follow whatever we imagine. This means that simply bringing up the correct mental image will make us act in the way we want. However, it also means though that when we accidentally picture other actions, such as during multitasking, it may cause us to act in a way we do not intend, and this may feel involuntary.”

According to Science Daily, the findings also explain the link between what is known as voluntary control of action and popular use of the Ouija board, the board game believed by many to channel the spirits of the loved ones from beyond the grave. The trick, the study reports, is not supernatural, and the messages spelled out on the board are not coming from our dearly departed. Instead, the trick is one of the mind in which participants channel their own thoughts as they imagine what their departed loved one may say when asked the questions presented.