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The Key to Improved Attention and Memory for Optimal Learning

Did you know that visualization can be the key to unlocking memory abilities, attentional skills and enjoyment for learning? Surprisingly, the use of mental imagery for learning is not a new

Use of Visualization Throughout History:
In fact, an appreciation and recognition of visualization is sprinkled throughout history. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle in 348 B.C.  He wrote, “recollection is a searching of an image.” Again, in the 5th and 6th century, Greek and Roman intellectuals used mental images to
enhance memory (Ashcraft, 1989; Sadoski and Paivio, 2001). At that time, visualization was a common strategy used for public speaking.  Scholars used this skill, which is now known as method of loci, to organize and recall a speech by imagining and associating topics with everyday objects (Douville, Pugalee, Wallace, & Lock, 2002). Yet again, in the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas spoke of visualization, indicating that we acquire knowledge by forming “phantasms” or mental images (Magill, 1963).  Finally, in the 19th and 20th centuries, a resurgence of interest in mental imagery took place in the fields of experimental psychology and cognitive psychology (Thomas, 2013). Piaget, with a focus on cognitive constructions and “mindfulness,” offered a renewed interest in the role visualization played in cognition and learning. (Douville, Pugalee, Wallace, & Lock, 2002).  Einstein was also a proponent of visualization and, to this day, is often quoted as saying, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” 

What's the Scientific Proof?
Most recently, scientific methodologies have been utilized to assess the validity and utility of visualization. In the past 50 years, researchers have looked at the impact of mental imagery on academic achievement. There is a host of research on this topic, and this blog focuses on some of the key studies that investigate the impact of mental imagery on learning.  

Research on the Impact of Visualization on Reading:
Research has investigated the effect of visualization on reading abilities. Studies have shown that there is a direct link between poor comprehension skills and the inability to visualize text (Gambrell, 1982; Gambrell and Bales, 1986; Gambrell and Jawitz, 1993; Steingart and Glock, 1979).  In contrast, research substantiates that students who picture what they are reading, thus painting the setting, characters and plot on the canvas of their mind’s eye, have better comprehension scores and find greater joy in the reading process (Bell, 1991; Gambrell, 1982; Gambrell and Bales, 1986; Gambrell and Jawitz, 1993; Long, Winograd and Bridge, 1989; Sadoski, 1985; Sadosi, Goetz and Kangiser, 1988; Sadoski and Quast, 1990; Steingart and Glock, 1979). Algozzine and Douville (2004) also assert that training in mental imagery aids students in generating their own mental images when reading. In addition, students who visualize while reading are better at making inferences and accurate predictions (Gambrell, 1982; Steingart and Glock, 1979). Moreover, research on the efficacy of using visual imagery has also been shown to improve deep connections that aid in memory recall and reading comprehension (Craik and Lockhart, 1972). Clearly, visualization is a necessary cognitive skill that helps readers attend to and encode literature, but mental imagery also helps learners develop their expressive language abilities.  

Research on the Impact of Visualization on Writing:
Employing visualization has also been demonstrated to enhance writing skills in students (Jampole, Konopak, Readence, & Moser, 1991). In particular, gifted students who received mental imagery instruction outperform those who did not on originality and the use of sensory descriptors (Jampole, Konopak, Readence, & Moser, 1991).  Additionally, Algozzine and Douville (2004), claimed that training in visualization helped students generate their own mental images when writing. Furthermore, Kwan-Lui, Liao, Frazier, Hauser, and Kostis (2012) reported that visualizing events described in writing, “is crucial for constructing a rich and coherent visuospatial mental representations of the text.” Finally, when Jurand (2012) researched the efficacy of visualization for a summer writing program, he reported that art projects were a successful method that helped students to visualize their ideas during the writing process, and they also served to develop the students’ imagination. Yet, reading and writing are not the only areas of academic achievement that benefit from mental images.

Research on the Impact of Visualization on Math:
Visualization hones mathematical abilities too. Dougville, Pugalee, Wallace and Lock (2002) suggested that using mental imagery can help learners to, “concretize abstract mathematical concepts in ways that facilitate more effective problem-solving.” They also noted that more advanced math imaging can be achieved through storyboarding activities where the steps of a math problem are drawn in a pictorial sequence. Dougville, Pugalee, Wallace and Lock (2002) claimed the words of their participants offered compelling evidence. Participants suggested that using mental imagery was like, “having a video camera in my brain” and like “going to a movie in my head” and that, “reading and learning was more fun” for the participant students.  Clearly, the mathematics community embraces the benefits of visualization but do the hard sciences concur?

Research on the Impact of Visualization on Science:
Even the scientific community is beginning to consider how visualization can make research more understandable and manageable to the public (Kwan-Liu, Liao, Frazier, Hauser, Kostis, 2012). When
students visualize graphic progressions and cycles, as well as webs, diagrams, and lab experiences, they can improve their understanding and memory of the content.  Although the research on visualization in the sciences is sparse, it appears clear that all areas of instruction are enhanced by learning to use one's mind's eye. 

Qualitative Evidence Supporting Visualization: 
Qualitative anecdotes further support the power of visualization in learning. Many of my students who love to read and also have excellent reading comprehension, claim that words, “create movies in
their heads,” which allows them to take a mind trip into the fantasy realm created by the author. Similarly, the actor, Tom Cruise noted, “I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.” Some talented few have reported that they can even relive historical events, past science experiments, and classroom lectures!  Likewise, visualization is reported to help with the writing process.  Great writers, like Mark Twain, claimed to have used personal visualizations to help him write a scene by picturing the moment and then painting it with words. Twain remarked, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Likewise, the writer, Holly Lisle professed, “We have to see – really see – the people and places around us as if our bodies were full-sensory cameras and our minds were film.” Even scientists report that they use visualizations to help them grasp concepts. Albert Einstein was credited with saying, “a picture says a thousand words.” He also offered advice on how to visualize in the 4th dimension: “Take a point, stretch it into a line, curl it into a circle, twist it into a sphere, and punch through the sphere.” Even if a student can visualize and use their imagination, they
may or may not be using this talent when reading, writing or listening.  Because reading, writing and listening all require attention, researchers suggest that some students find that they do not have the cognitive space to visualize when learning (Gambrell, 1982; Gambrell, & Jawitz,

Overall, mental imagery appears to impact all areas of academics. Douville and Algozzine (2004) unite the prior outcomes, and propose that visualization can be used across the curriculum.

How Can I Teach This Needed Skill?
I have found that the best way to teach visualization is through games and mindful discussions.  To help with this process, I wrote a book entitled Mindful Visualization for Education.  In fact, this blog includes an excerpt from the book, and all the full citations are available in the full document.  This 132 page downloadable document (PDF) provides a review of the research, assessment tools, over twenty game-like activities and lesson suggestions in all the subject areas as well as for vocabulary development and listening.  In addition, I offer two PowerPoint downloads that review the 10 core skills that need to be developed to optimize visualization abilities.

If you have any thoughts on the use of visualization for learning, please post a comment! Also, if you have had some success with visualization in the classroom, please share your experiences.
Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning and Dyslexia Materials.  She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Go Dyslexia, in Ossining, NY.  To learn more about her products and services, you can go to &  
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