Picture It! Thinking in pictures can help process and retain information.

By Jess Corinne
April 11, 2021

Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Have you ever read a book, then watched the movie after much anticipation, only to face disappointment with the movie itself? Our brain is a picturing machine. The reason why we struggle to love the movie versions of our favorite books is because we are creating colorful images in our minds as we read and the movies cannot compare to our visual interpretation. Oftentimes, our learners rely heavily on memorization and short-term recall to trudge through each school year.  Once this act of visualization is brought to a cognizant level, they are better able to tap into their imagery as a resource for processing and retaining verbal and nonverbal information. The moment that learners realize that they, too, can ignite learning and inspire brain power through imagery is priceless and can place them on a positive slope towards reaching their full potential. Let’s dive a little deeper through the lens of two change makers in this field, Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Allan Paivio.

Thinking in Pictures

Dr. Temple Grandin’s life mission is to increase awareness about how learners on the Autism Spectrum see the world and think by way of imagery. She has written two books on the matter- one for adults and the other for children- in order to fully reinforce the importance of picturing as a tool to reach a level of mental clarity about the communicative world.  Grandin quotes, “I am a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.” There is strength and beauty behind visualization as a strategy for processing information. Seeing in pictures (symbols and meaning) provides a secure base for learners to stand upon throughout their daily lives. Most individuals think in pictures, but are not aware of their ability to do so and cannot, thus, apply their underlying strengths to learning opportunities. Grandin, along with many others, advocates that we need to use mental representations as a method to store and recall information, then pair verbal expression to these images to solidify one’s communication skills.

Dual Code Theory

Dr. Allan Paivio is another huge proponent for utilizing pictures to guide one’s thinking. In 1986, he proposed the dual coding theory which attempts to give equal weight to verbal and non-verbal processing. Paivio states: “Human cognition is unique in that it has become specialized for dealing simultaneously with language and with nonverbal objects and events. Moreover, the language system is peculiar in that it deals directly with linguistic input and output (in the form of speech or writing) while at the same time serving a symbolic function with respect to nonverbal objects, events, and behaviors. Any representational theory must accommodate this dual functionality.”

Dual Code Theory claims that we process information in two simultaneous ways- statically and dynamically. Whether we take information in visually or auditorily, our brains then translate said input by creating two different types of representational units- “imagens” for mental images and “logogens” for verbal entities. The blackboard in our brain, thus, generates images to correspond with either the symbols (static, logogens) or the vivid imagery (dynamic, imagens) that support activation of prior knowledge, information retrieval, language processing and critical thinking skills thereof. The static images connect directly to words, patterns and numbers while the dynamic images connect to vocabulary, comprehension, processing abilities and higher order thinking skills. Our experiences shape the way that we imagine specific concepts and word patterns, but we all have the capability to picture information and, therefore, utilize the imagery to learn, regardless of the differences that lie between us.

The great Albert Einstein once claimed, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Conjuring images and pairing pictures to language is not new. We have seen quite a high level of success when learners generalize this underlying, sometimes inherent, skill to strengthen pathways in their brain. The imagery-language connection is a proven, systematic approach to processing information that can be developed from the ground level with the right methodologies. Sprinkling in sensory-based language in everyday conversations and establishing the association between words and pictures can have a long lasting impact on one’s cognition well beyond the classroom. So, picture it!