Cognitive Psychology and Education

Using Imagery

Visual imagery often entertains us—in a wonderful daydream, for example, or in an exciting dream at night. But imagery is also useful in many settings. For example, the textbook chapter discusses the fact that imagery is a powerful aid to memory: We see this in the role of imagery in mnemonic strategies (see Demonstration 10.2), and also in the fact that materials that are easily visualized tend to be easier to remember.

However, we offer one point of caution about image-based strategies for memorizing. As the chapter makes clear, mental imagery does an excellent job of representing what something looks like, so imagery mnemonics can help you a lot if you want to remember appearances—how a visualized scene looked, and what it included. These simple points, though, have powerful implications. Let’s say that you are using the mnemonic described in Demonstration 10.2, and let’s say that you’re working on the tenth item on the to-be-remembered list (that was the word “plate”) and therefore using the tenth peg word, “hen.” To remember this word, you might form a mental picture of a dinner plate underneath a delicious-looking roast chicken, with a helping of mashed potatoes alongside it. Later, when you’re trying to recall the list, you’d recite the peg-word rhyme, and so you’d be led to the peg, “Ten is a hen.” This might call the mental picture to mind, but now what happens? Thinking about this picture, you might confidently announce, “I remember—the tenth word was ''dish'' or ''was potatoes.'' Both responses are consistent with the picture—but they don’t provide the word you’re trying to remember. In this way, the “mental pictures” formed in a mnemonic might not be specific enough to provide the information you need!

Likewise, in forming a mnemonic picture, you’re likely to think about what the to-be-remembered items look like, and this may distract you from thinking about what these items mean. Imagine, for example, that you want to remember that a hypothesis was offered by the important psychologist Henry Roediger. To remember this name, you might playfully convert it to “rod-digger” and form a mental picture of someone digging into the earth with a fishing rod. This will help you remember the name, but it will encourage no insights into what Roediger’s hypothesis was, or how it relates to other aspects of his theorizing, or to other things you know. Images, in other words, are excellent for remembering some things, but often what you need (or want) to remember goes beyond this.

These points are certainly not meant to warn you against using image-based mnemonics. In fact, we’ve emphasized how effective these mnemonics are. However, it’s important to understand why these mnemonics work as they do, because with that knowledge you can avoid using the mnemonics in circumstances in which they might actually work against you.

In the same fashion, imagery can be a powerful aid to problem solving. Demonstration 10.1 is designed to underline this point, by making it clear how new discoveries can flow from mental pictures. But, again, there are limits on image-based problem solving: Mental images are understood within a certain framework—a framework that indicates the imager’s understanding of the image’s figure/ground organization, its orientation in space, and so on. This framework helps the imager interpret the depicted form but can also limit what the imager will discover from a given mental picture. (This is, for example, why imagers routinely fail to find a “duck” in a “rabbit image” and vice versa, as described in the chapter.).

There is, however, a way to escape these limits. People can often make new discoveries about a form by drawing a picture, based on their own mental image. The picture depicts the same form as the mental image; but because the picture is not linked to a particular reference frame, it will often support new discoveries that the original image would not. We can demonstrate this in the laboratory (e.g., in people discovering the duck in their own drawing of the duck/rabbit form, even though they failed to make the discovery from their image). We can also demonstrate this point in real-world settings (e.g., in architects who cannot reconceptualize a building plan by scrutinizing their own mental image of the plan, but who can then make striking new discoveries once they draw out the plan on paper).

The message should be clear for anyone seeking to use an image as an aid to problem solving: No matter how clear the image before the mind’s eye, it is sometimes useful to pick up a pencil and draw the image out on paper or on a blackboard; this will often facilitate new discoveries.

Again, therefore, we see the benefits of understanding the limits of your own strategies. Once you understand those limits, you can find ways to make full use of these strategies in order to maximize your problem-solving skills, your memory, and your comprehension of new materials—but without falling into traps created by the strategies’ limits.

Critical Questions

1. Some mnemonics that incorporate visual imagery are more effective than others. What features make for an effective imagery-based mnemonic?
2. Why does drawing a picture of a mental image sometimes lead to an insight regarding a problem you are trying to solve?
3. Think of a set of material you are trying to learn for one of your classes. Create an imagery-based mnemonic to help you organize and remember this material.

Submit to Gradebook:

First Name:
Last Name:
Your Email Address:
Your Professor's Email Address: