Monday, March 10, 2008

Visual Thinking, Imagery, and the Brain

Although "Visual Thinkers" seem to comprise a large group of learners, people often mean very different things by this term. For some, it means to taken in information visually, that is by watching or observing. For others, it means to process information visually, by translating words or events into personal visual images.

In this in press article, Marcel Just introduces more complexity into the field of visual thinking, by discussing the different brain processes associated with the understanding of processing complex meaning, images, and representations.

Among individuals with high functioning autism (HFA), there are various studies that suggest that autistics process more types of information (e.g. language) through visual and spatial areas vs. language alone.

When scientists looked at the brain differences seen among control vs. HFA subjects reading high imagery sentences, they were surprised to see how little the differences were among the autistic group. It turns out that the HFA group was using embodied representations even for the low imagery sentences.

Temple Grandin's description of the importance of window imagery in Thinking in Pictures comes to mind: "The door jammed while I was washing the inside panes, and I was imprisoned between the two windows. In order to get out without shattering the door, I had to ease it back very carefully. It struck me that relationships operate the same way. They also shatter easily and have to be approached carefully. I then made a further association about how the careful opening of doors was related to establishing relationships in the first place. While I was trapped between the windows, it was almost impossible to communicate through the glass. Being autistic is like being trapped like this. The windows symbolized my feelings of disconnection from other people and helped me cope with the isolation. Throughout my life, door and window symbols have enabled me to make progress and connections that are unheard of for some people with autism." Dr. Grandin's physical experience between the windows created such a strong perceptual memory, she could use it to understand concepts, events, and words that she had never understood before. If a student doesn't get a word or concept, do we ever think that boosting a perceptual experience might be what's needed?

The truth is that imagery is rarely mentioned in the analysis of individual learning differences. Though two students sitting side-by-side in the same class may hear the same lecture, read the same book, and even master the same facts, the ways the do this - through visual, auditory, or perceptual imagery, may dramatically different from each other. The importance is not trivial; imagery-related differences may account for many learning inefficiencies, errors and misunderstandings. Since imagery is so personal and we don't talk about it, we may be shocked how differently we process information from one another.

One of our favorite questions we like to ask students is: "When you read or listen, do you get pictures of what you see?". Not surprisingly, some of the most avid readers get vivid images when they read; but it's equally important to know those who don't or those who may have an easier time getting images by listening than by reading.

With more information about the science of individual imagery processing, hopefully more customized approaches to education will not be too far behind...

M Just: Language representation and embodied meaning pdf

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