The Power of Imagination

Just a few months before I was born in 1958, the first International Tchaikovsky Competition was hosted, as it has been every four years since, in Moscow.  That inaugural year, the winner was a 23-year-old phenom named Van Cliburn. While Cliburn, as first-place champion, would soar to international acclaim, the young man who finished second would be little-remembered. Liu Shih-kun returned to his native China and was forgotten by the western world. He toiled as a celebrated concert pianist in his own country, but trouble was brewing in that communist-ravaged land. By the mid-60s Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution was in full, hideous flower.  Mao’s “revolt” was against all things western: movies, capitalism, food, dress, architecture and… music. Liu refused to renounce the music he had loved for his entire life, and for this “crime” he was imprisoned. He was routinely beaten in that horrible place, on one occasion even breaking his arm. For six years he languished in that dark dungeon with nothing to read (save the teachings of Mao), nothing to write upon, and no piano. He might have lived the remainder of his life there if not for Richard Nixon’s efforts to build a bridge across the Pacific to that insular society. For propaganda purposes, Liu was released from prison to accompany the Philadelphia Harmonic Orchestra during their 1973 visit to Beijing (then called Peking).  Astonishingly, Liu Shih-kun played brilliantly! How was he able to maintain his ability to play, though denied a piano for half-a-dozen years?  Here’s how: every day, Liu played the piano for hours… in his imagination! The human brain, as it turns out, is programmable.  Unlike a computer, however, the programmer and the computer are one and the same. Whenever we vividly imagine a physical activity – shooting free throws, kicking an extra point, serving a tennis ball, playing the trombone, painting a portrait, giving a speech  – we are thus programming our brains to recognize and remember a pattern, one that the body can later replicate – much as a computer carries out the actions prescribed by installed software. Mary Lou Retton, five-time gold medalist gymnast in the 1984 Olympics, made it her practice to close her eyes before every performance and imagine herself running her entire routine perfectly – every step, jump, turn and gesture. Greg Louganis, the American athlete who swept all the gold medals in diving during consecutive Olympics (1984 and 1988), did the same before every dive, sitting alone in a quiet room listening to soft music as he envisioned himself perfectly executing every detail of each upcoming plunge.  Sometimes in my magic act I perform a very complicated routine in which I make playing cards appear at my fingertips. Before that act, I make it my practice to rehearse every sleight-of-hand movement (dozens of them, all in sequence) in my mind before walking out onto stage (now that you know that, I have to kill you!). If you want to become truly excellent at something, nothing will replace practice, but the act of imagining yourself practicing is almost as effective. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If, before a speech or performance or test, you imagine yourself failing miserably, you run the risk of programming your internal computer to carry out that very thing. During the 1958 World Series the New York Yankees, down 2 games to 3, were attempting to come from behind in the ninth inning to keep the series alive and force a decisive game seven against the Milwaukee Braves.  Future Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn was on the mound for the Braves with one out already in the books when star catcher Elston Howard (the first African-American player – and future Hall of Famer, himself – ever to play for the Yankees) came to the plate. Just two more outs and the celebration would begin in Milwaukee. At that point, Braves manager Fred Haney called time out, walked to the mound, and told Spahn, “Whatever you do, don’t throw it high and outside. If you do, he’ll hit it for sure.” Spahn wound up for the pitch, repeating silently to himself, “Don’t throw it high and outside. Don’t throw it high and outside.” As he released the ball the last words that passed through his “computer” were “high and outside” and that is precisely where the ball went! With a sharp crack of the bat the tying run was on base. The Yankee’s would score two runs that inning, win the game, force a game seven in New York, and go on to win the World Series. After the game, Warren Spahn was heard to say, “I’m not saying it was Haney’s fault, but if only he had phrased it another way. If only he had said ‘Keep it low and inside.’ If only he had told me what I should do instead of what I shouldn’t do, it might have been different.”  Our bodies tend to go in the direction that our minds focus on. What are you expecting to happen today? Tomorrow? Over the next five years? Whatever runs through your mind will eventually also run out of your feet, your hands and your mouth. So guard your thoughts.

Written by billyriggs