Neurolearning Epiphany

Several years ago, we experienced an epiphany while meeting with an obviously intelligent blind woman with a thirty-year history of diabetes. "There's probably nothing you can do," she started off saying, "but I still need to ask you if there's anything I can do about my memory. It's gotten so bad now that I'll forget what my daughter's telling me even before she's finished talking." Uh-oh, we thought, sounds bad. We had seen her brain scan before, and it had clearly shown diffuse damage from poorly controlled diabetes. Maybe there was nothing we could do.

We asked her to try to remember a list of numbers, and found to our dismay that she struggled to remember even 2 in a row. When asked to reverse them, she couldn't even keep the second number in mind. It looked pretty hopeless. Words of reassurance seemed empty.

But then we thought of something. We had recently seen an fMRI study which had shown that 'visual imagination' (visually imagining reversing a checkerboard) had a very diffuse distribution in the brain - and thought maybe enough of it could be preserved in this woman so that visual imagery could be used bypass her memory impairments. To our surprise and to hers, when prompted to visually imagine the numbers we read to her, she could now remember 7 digits (the normal limit)! - a feat doubly impressive because she was completely blind and had no light perception in either eye. For this woman, she merely needed to be made aware that she should translate 'heard' information into visual images - to go from being totally incapacitated memory-wise to 'normal'.

How often could this happen? More often than you think. Education and neuropsychology are not oriented to problem-solving learning difficulties in a way that tells a person's how to make the most of their unique biology, memory and problem-solving style, and capacity for imagery. All of those things may have profound consequences for school or career success, and personal fulfillment. The brain has vast resources, but we should realize we're barely scratching the surface.

We'll talk more in the future about optimizing learning and memory, and the role of imagery and symbolization in idea manipulation and creative synthesis.

Visual Imagination and fMRI


  1. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Thank-you for a wonderfully informative blog! I am the mother of a gifted-learning disabled son and have found much food for thought on your wonderful site. I now check it daily!
    Thanks Again

  2. Thank-you for your kind comments!

    Fernette and Brock