Learning with Dual Coding and Mental Imagery

It’s been a while since I wrote about the use of imagination for learning. Today I decided to iterate, once more, on the use of mental imagery and how that helps us to better understand and memorize things.

One of my favourite techniques is Dual Coding, of which I wrote some technical in-depth to explain how we can learn new words, or new languages, and get those glued to our mind. Dual Coding is just one of the mnemonics we can use for this goal, and it is one of the few that requires an active use of mental imagery. I say “active” on purpose. In fact, we keep using mental imagery every day to recall information. There is a difference between images and mental imagery.

The first is the result of our visual perception of the world. When we observe a person, a picture, a cat running across the street or the words in the book we read: that is the “image” of the world.

The second is, instead, the visual mental representation that we have of things. When we try to picture something in our mind, things are not as neat and sharp as they were when we saw them the first time. Yet we are able to “see” them, with our mind’s eye.

Imagine Actively

Sartre said something about the fact that the images in our mind, by deriving from real images, should not be surprising for us. That’s partially true, because we can create new imagery out of existing images: we can combine them, so that they assume new meanings or purposes. If mental imagery is incidental of our perception of reality, creativity and imagination will allow us to develop something new. Think of all inventions, that never existed before – so they could not be seen it but were in the mind of their creators.

The same Sartre, however, acknowledges that the images in our memory are not the same as the one we see in the present.

Certain details, somewhat curtailed, live in my memory. But I don’t see anything anymore: I can search the past in vain, I can only find these scraps of images and I am not sure what they represent, whether they are memory or just fiction.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

For us, that’s where dual coding comes in. With dual coding we take words and transform them into images. A best practice that works excellently is to make dynamic, absurd imagery in my head, and perhaps make it interact. This will solve some of the problems we often experience while trying to learn something new:

  • Weird things are better remembered by our mind, while BAU is soon forgotten. We also remember gruesome and disgusting details, or fantastic and flashy scenes of a movie because of this.
  • We acquire a different, more stimulating view of boring or seemingly useless information, so our attention does not wander. Namely, if we focus on create imagery, is because we are focusing on learning.

Before, I said that dual coding consists in actively create imagery. That means that we need to do that while we are learning, as a consistent part of our learning experience. If we want to understand and store the information for good, we need to engage our brain more than passively reading a paragraph of a textbook. So here you have few examples.

Encoding Words

Supposing you are learning a new language and you want to test your fluency out there you will find out that words will not come automatically. At the most amateur level, we will actually look for a translate app in our brain. That’s a huge mental effort and does not help to produce articulate sentences soon. The first problem is that we will soon forget the new words if we do not create a strong association of meaning. The second is that, in the long-term, we’d like to have words coming out on their own, without thinking of them and what do they mean.

Let’s take the French word “poireau” that stays for “leek” in English. We know very well how the leek looks like. Then if you know that Belgium is a French-speaking country, and you like detective stories, perhaps the name of the detective Poirot is the first that will come to your mind while creating imagery. This is an optimum case, because the two words have actually the same pronunciation.

Now that we created the association, we need to make sure the image will stick and will not be forgotten. So, what about the poor Hercule Poirot, quite bothered because of the leeks growing out of his ears?

You can actually enrich your imagery as much as you want. The trick is to create your personalized imagery and never, ever use the one of somebody else. It will most likely do not work. And supposedly you need to know that word only, so you are not focused on learning French language, you can add some detail that will remind you of its origin. So, let’s add few baguettes on the hat of Poirot, as they are a stereotype of French culture.

You may have noticed that we started with dual coding but we moved further. What we have done indeed, was to add a kinaesthetic detail (the leeks are growing out of the hears) and emotional ones (Poirot is annoyed by it). Feel free to add sounds, movements and a location if that is comfortable for you.

One more piece of advice: while adding details to your imagery, make sure not to overdo. Imagery is a tool to learn, so it is important to encode the information in it and make sure that sticks. So, when the time comes, you will not need to figure out the imagine first, it will come naturally. It can also happen that you will need to replace the imagery, or you will not even remember it in the future, but you will have learned the word anyways.

Encoding Sentences (try at home)

Words are only a part of a sentence. Photograms are, as well, parts of a cinematic film. What I am trying to say is that we can connect our imagery in form of a story to create new imagery. The purpose is to be able to use multiple words in a sentence: so that, when we study, we are able to recall and repeat parts of a speech, which is a great practice to improve pronunciation and fluency, other than being able to translate.

We have encoded the word “poireau”, maybe because we’d like to order a soup at the restaurant without sounding bad. The sentence we are eager to use may be as simple as:

“Pour moi, une soupe aux poireaux s’il vous plaît.”

I invite you to try this exercise on your own, keeping in mind the following principles:

  • The key words are the one who require mental images
  • Connectors can be simulated as well, associating sounds to images or to mouth movements
  • The images should be running in sequence and interact

In conclusion (maybe)

I am eager to further explore the topic in the future. Those are techniques that work better when we use them regularly, as a form of habit. Also, this isn’t just a technique to learn languages, and serves very well for mathematical formulas, numbers and abstract concepts.

Another point I’d love to expand is how to store information in form of images as well. In my case, I use memory palaces, with every location have one or multiple images. That’s how I learn Slovak, indeed. When I try to compose new sentences, I create stories with my imagery, sometimes deeply altering them for the sake of the result.

This way I was also able to compose a small poem for my partner with little knowledge of the language, and being able to perform it without looking on paper. The only place I had to briefly look was my mind.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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