How Mental Imagery Can Accelerate Learning?

Monday, October 15, 2018 - 09:49

The power of visualization must be never underestimated because based body of evidence, mental imagery can accelerate learning and improve performance of all sorts of skills.

For most of us, visual imagery is essential for memory, daydreaming and imagination. But some people apparently lack a mind’s eye altogether, and find it impossible to conjure up such visual images – and their inability to do so may affect their ability to learn and their educational performance.

We’ve known that some people cannot visualize things in their mind’s eye since the 1880s, when the controversial psychologist Francis Galton – one of the pioneers of eugenics – published a paper called Statistics of Mental Imagery. Galton set out to “define the different degrees of vividness with which different persons have the faculty of recalling familiar scenes under the form of mental pictures”.

He asked his scientific colleagues to think of their breakfast table and describe to him the vividness of their impressions, and found this ability varied markedly – some individuals could draw up a mental image just as brilliant as the scene itself, whereas others could only conjure up an extremely dim image, or none at all.

Today, neurologists refer to this inability to form mental images as “congenital aphantasia” – from the Greek words a, meaning “without”, and phantasia, meaning “a capacity to form mental images” – and they believe it affects approximately 2% of the population, or one in 50 people. Remarkably, though, aphantasics do experience visual imagery in their dreams, so it seems that only voluntary visualization is affected.

Dual-coding theory, put forward by Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario in 1971, distinguishes between verbal and non-verbal thought processes, and places mental imagery as the primary form of non-verbal representation. Thus, information is stored in two different ways – verbally and visually – and although these two codes are independent of one another, and can each be used alone, they can also interact to enhance learning and recall.

More recently, other studies have shown that mental imagery can help students grasp abstract concepts, and that encouraging students to use imagery can improve their understanding of such concepts.

One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualization techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.

“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”

Thus, it may be possible to objectively measure individual differences or variations in the vividness of people’s mental images, and to identify students who have aphantasia. If it becomes clear that the condition does in fact impinge on children’s ability to learn, it may then be possible to devise alternative learning strategies for them.


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