The Effects of Imagery on Learning
BY N. RAZBAN '23
"How do you learn best?" You stare at your screen, cursor blinking back at you as you try your best to come up with an answer for your teacher's getting-to-know-you survey. That question is a lot to ask; it encapsulates so many different questions in one from "how do you memorize" to "how do you understand ideas?". These are just a few of the things we need to know about ourselves before being able to answer.
I wanted to start a conversation around the deeper implications behind why we learn, and what better place to start than our own hallways and commons? I interviewed a few AB students to put this inquiry into focus. To do so, my questions revolved around internal imagery and how it affects our learning styles. This is by no means a research paper; rather, it’s a conversation starter so we can all better our understanding of what it means to be a learner. This article focuses on two aspects of one's imagery: motor imagery, which allows us to perform movements onto an object in our heads and non-motor imagery, or simply imagining a still picture. I took inspiration from the Movement Imagery Questionnaire (MIQ) as well as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) for some of my questions, both of which acknowledge that imagery exists on a scale. This means that people don't fall squarely into the extremes of imagery—instead, they lay somewhere in between. One of these extremes is called the complete lack of internal imagery, known as aphantasia, and on the other is internal imagery so vivid it matches real life, which is known as hyperphantasia. I would highly encourage all of you to go out and take some of these tests; although they aren't perfect, they can help you better understand where your strengths lie in terms of visual thinking.
I began my interviews by asking people to describe someone in their life that they see often, such as a parent or a teacher, in detail. Everyone provided defining characteristics such as "he is bald" and "her hair is curly." They provided these descriptions with ease because I am asked them to recall a memory - not create a whole new image in their heads. This type of exercise allows people to recall in whatever way is easiest to them: visually, conceptually or a mix of both.
When I asked one student to explain how they were able to provide these details about their person, they responded that they didn't necessarily see the person, but they “just know how [they look]” in concept. A concept is not a concrete image, but it isn't a wholly non-visual, auditory idea either. Rather, it is something in the middle, and the experience of thinking of a concept is very different person to person. These more “conceptual” people were also the ones who, when asked about how they memorize, explained that they don't recall an image when an assessment calls for memorization.
This leads us into the first correlation between imagery and learning: memory. One such more “conceptual” student described their process for memorizing: creating connections between what they have to memorize and something they already know, such as a song or a moment in their life. This allows them to use the pathways already created in their brains and simply add to them, rather than creating separate connections for each new piece of material they learn.
On the other end of strategies for memorization are the extremely visual students I spoke with. For them, recalling not only general features, but also specific details of the people came easily. I then asked them to take that image of their person and place them in a new setting, forcing them to interact with the image they had. This forces them to use their motor imagery as they change the position of the person they are thinking of, by having them sit across the table for instance, or walking towards them. Unsurprisingly, these more visual people’s memories are also more picture-based. As one student put it, they “remember what their notes look like on a piece of paper” during a test. Another remembers a short movie-like clip of themself learning the material and re-play that to provide the information needed.
However, memorization is not the only form of learning needed, so I also had people speak on what it means to understand something. I asked them how they conceptualize more abstract ideas like math. Certain students reflected that they had to fully understand the ins-and-outs of why a certain set of steps lead to an answer, and then they manipulate said steps on a test. To them, “understanding” means being able to take something out of the context it was originally taught in and still be able to use it. However, other students still go the route of memorization, even for conceptual ideas. One such person described how they “see the full steps written out in [their] head” and then use that on a test.
With all that being said, it seems like there isn't a simple answer to “how do you learn best?” One form of imagery isn't better or worse than another, at the end of the day it's about discovering how you learn and using that information to your advantage. Next time you are studying, ask people around you how they think about the material, and you just might be surprised at how different, or how similar, somebody else’s learning style is to yours. As one student astutely pointed out, “you can’t force yourself to learn like anybody else.”