Thanks to the Drs. Eide for a post on imagery studies and how they play a role in memory and learning. If you reflect on instances when there is some physical activity or complex calculation or cognitive exercise you need to do, can you remember a time when you tried to 'see' yourself doing it ahead of time? It may seem to be an instinctive process or action, but I certainly have imagined doing a tough calculation prior to a math test, or have caught myself imagining myself playing a tough trumpet lick on a bus as we drove to a music contest. Professional musicians and athletes often refer to this mental practice since they are on the road so often, without the ability to physically practice like they are used to doing. Read a good article on this topic here.
Mental imagery is something that can help build memory for particular actions or cognitive activities, largely because neuroimaging experiments show as much as 90% of the neurons that are used in the actual, physical activity are firing in mental imagery exercises. To the brain, imagery is not so different from the real thing. Imagery can help us with the following:
- not only visualizing what the activity is, but also gaining spatial, auditory and kinesthetic information and practice and memory for that activity;
- helps with activities with high levels of organization, multi-steps, and decision making;
- positive imagery has a positive effect on real performance results: for example, golfers do 30% better on putting when positively imagining sinking putts, and 20% worse when imagining missing putts;
For readers, 60% of 5th graders report naturally using some imagery during 'think aloud' breaks in reading stories. It appears to be a natural reaction, even for children, to try and 'see' the scenes that words are trying to convey in order to develop memories of a story that we, ourselves, are not part of in reality. Humans are more visual creatures, as I like to tell my own students, and it is important to remind and also teach students how to visualize physical events and experiences. In fact, in problem solving in physics, I try and teach as an essential part of every single problem to draw a picture and mentally 'see' what is happening in the problem. We use a technique that requires making pictures and labeling all forces on the picture, and then use the picture to actually set up the math (for F = ma problems). So science and imagery are naturally connected, just as reading, writing and imagery are connected. Memory improves when visualization and imagery are used for stories or for how physical events play out in reality. The experimental finding that a good majority of the brain used for the physical activity is used in imagery, too, begins to explain why this process works.
Imagery is used extensively in elementary grades, and the combination of mental imagery with drawing pictures and other hands-on, physical activities makes for a powerful way of building memory and learning. We tend to actually decrease the use of imagery techniques as students progress into higher grades. Perhaps imagery is used most extensively in science classes by the time students get to high school, but it seems as if the use of imagery and hands on activities decreases significantly in literature and history/social studies classes, at least via anecdotal evidence and through conversations with students. Perhaps this is something educators need to consider more in practice.