How do I improve my ability to form mental images?
December 25, 2006 5:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I improve my ability to form mental images?

I've always had difficulty reading fiction. When I read novels, all I get at the end is an impression of what happened.

I've always also had difficulty reading screenplays and "seeing" what's going on.

My belief is that I don't form clear enough mental visions of things. If someone said "two young people are walking down the street" all that appears in my head are two vertical poles vibrating across a sidewalk. I don't see the girl's nice hair, nor the guy's solid physique. Nor do I see the weather, the clouds, the lamp posts, the windows, the whites of anybody's eyes.

When I wake up in the morning sometimes, I get some strange lucid moments where I can really see settings. So I believe the potential is in my brain somewhere.

Some exercises I've tried recently include the following:

- Playing Brain Age, specifically the following training exercises: Time Lapse, Triangle Division, Syllable Count, Low to High, and Head Count. The idea is that by improving my mental scratch, short-term memory, I can hold more things in my head simultaneously

- Listening to Audiobooks. With audiobooks I can close my eyes and let the details unfold. Also, I feel that when reading books, I get stuck only seeing words.

- Representational Drawing. I'm great at abstract drawing, but to have an idea for something then represent it is something I'm working on.

- "Feature-generating" cognitive exercises. I sit down and present myself with something to visualize, like "two young people are walking down the street" and I start dictating things for me to see, "okay, show me the clouds, show me their eye colors" etc.. and eventually I find the picture slowly comes into focus.

Is there any good places to look for help with this?
posted by philosophistry to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Try taking an art class that involves copying things that you see in front of you -- the more you pay attention to how things look, the easier it will be to imagine them in detail.
posted by lsemel at 6:42 PM on December 25, 2006

Styles of visualization vary drastically from person to person.
And visualization is more than 'seeing in your head'--there are important other modes, like the invisible forces that link a chess piece to the squares to which it can move...

The book "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field" by Jacques Hadamard (apparently also called "The Mathematician's Mind") offers wonderful insights into this, from the perspective of some great mathematicians. It should be in any good library. If it isn't, burn that one down and try another :) Or at least read the amazonian reviews.
posted by hexatron at 6:46 PM on December 25, 2006

it's really difficult to create entirely from imagination. don't be too hard on yourself. that's why painters use models, playwrights base characters on their friends, and actors do impressions. remember that amazing character that johnny depp "created" in "pirates of the carribbean"? that was just keith richards with a little more eyeliner.

so, don't try to create a mental image from scratch.
instead, find an actual image and modify it.

when you start a new piece, pull a few relevant photos out of magazines (settings similar to those in the piece, people of similar age, race, etc). stick them near to where you read.

look at the faces and locations in the photos and mentally edit them to make them "right": "the girl in this story looks like the girl from that perfume ad, except my girl is a brunette." "the farm from this screenplay is kind of like that meadow in that photo, but it also has sheep, and horseflies."

when reading screenplays, it's hard to "hear" scripts unless you cast them and actually hear them aloud. again, work with a quick general sketch of each character: "woman, quirky, 25, quiet" (often the writer has provided these details for you). then hold an informal reading, even if you just do a few key scenes. get a few friends (they don't need to be pro actors) and have them read it aloud. you'll soon realize how the characters in the piece are different from your friends, and the details will fill themselves in.

good luck!
by the way, can you picture me? i'm a kind of like a chubby human version of a border collie,
and i have a turtleneck pulled over my head right now.
(see how it gets easier?)
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:58 PM on December 25, 2006

Practice, practice, practice.

One of the really great ways is by playing a version of Memory. Cover a tray or part of your table or whatnot with many small objects. Look at it for 30 seconds, then cover with a cloth. First try to list all the items (might work better if someone else selects them for you). Graduate to drawing them if possible.

Then move on to just picturing the whole thing in your head and listing.

Also, try superimposing mental visuals over what you see every day. Each day when you go out, pick a simple shape--triangles, say. And tryo to see them everywhere you go that day. Next day, squares. And so on. Move up to more and more complex shapes.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:59 PM on December 25, 2006

I do the same thing. I guess I've never been too bothered by it, because I've always figured that I'm able to see what the book is really about - and to draw lessons from it - better this way.

But maybe that's just my own arrogant self-justificaion.
posted by wandering steve at 8:02 PM on December 25, 2006

It's not always about the visuals - often, the books I feel I've gotten the most out of, I can't reconstruct the scenes visually in my mind afterwards, and I'm otherwise a very visual-spatial person. Could be you're just focusing on other parts of the book.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:33 PM on December 25, 2006

I suggest listening to guided meditations and guided visualisations (CDs, live in classes or 1 on 1) to practice. While many people can do this effortlessly, I think this is an acquired skill like riding a bike.

Since visualisations & meditations should focus and calm your mind, I think it might work better to help you concentrate and develop the mental creativity more so than just listening to audio books, which might not allow your brain to be as free form as it can to be.
posted by goshling at 11:21 PM on December 25, 2006

I know what you mean about screenplays-- I read a lot of them for work and even though I'll so often see "Agent X SMASHES THROUGH the police barrier and RIPS OFF Big Baddy's arm while DRINKING hot coffee" such hyperbolic stylings leave me fatigued.
So I try to pretend I'm reading a comic book with the lights off.
I make little storyboards up in my mind, focussing purely on the physical action.
Then I find everything else falls into place.
Also, I suggest you download some "Old Time Radio" programs like "The Shadow" or the original "Dragnet"-- the writing is vivid and the little movies you can make with your mind are very satisfying!
posted by Dizzy at 2:02 AM on December 26, 2006

Here is something I wrote about having this condition. I don't have any tips for "overcoming" it, though, sad to say.
posted by dfan at 6:51 AM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: These are all very interesting perspectives. Thank you!
posted by philosophistry at 9:36 AM on December 26, 2006

try connecting everything you see to a strong emotion or personal memory
posted by srs at 9:48 AM on December 26, 2006

Best answer: It's pretty common for people to think that their mental images are full-fledged "pictures in the head", but there's a lot of good psychological data that suggests that isn't the case. Response-time experiments suggest that people tend to encode information explicitly represented in the novel, and then confabulate responses when asked about it. If someone says they have good mental imagery, either they are:

1) very good at (implicitly) asking themselves questions about a scenario ("what color is the woman's hair?") and confabulating and representing a response ("it's blonde!). Artists and movie directors would be very good at this, I'd think: they'd always be internally asking themselves how to best paint the scene or set up the shot.

2) good at confabulating responses when asked questions about a scenario, but then tend not to ask themselves those questions. If we don't ask ourselves something about a scene and receive the answer "I don't know", then we don't notice that anything is missing (in the same way that we don't notice we're missing a big chunk of our visual field in our retinal blind spots - we simply don't ask ourselves what's there). Because of this, we tend to think that we've represented a whole bunch of visual information about a scene even if we haven't.

The phenomenon in (2) is really common, even among people who are self-avowedly strong at mental imagery. Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid, with the top row containing the letters CAT, the next row DOG, and the final row EAR. What word reads diagonally from top-right to bottom-left? If we really thought in pictures, we'd be able to read the word off our inner representation as quickly as we could read it off a blackboard when visually presented with it. But we're much, much slower. This suggests that the information isn't immediately available; we're forced to figure it out only after the question is asked, even though we say (and think!) that the information is available in picture form.

So, the trick to improving your mental imagery is to get better at asking yourself questions about the scene and figuring out an answer. Then you can encode and store the information right away. You can improve at the tic-tac-toe word task through practice. But here's the important bit: learning to read words off of tic-tac-toe boards isn't going to help you to "get better at mental imagery." It'll just get better at visualizing tic-tac-toe boards filled with letters. There's no *generalized* way to get better at mental imagery -- you can only get better at answering certain sorts of questions about incoming information, and better at constantly asking yourselves these questions.

Expert chess players are very good at seeing patterns in a chess board, and can visualize complicated chess positions with startling ease, but that ability doesn't help them be better hockey players or movie actors or novel readers (all of which demand their own types of excellence at mental imagery). A lot of the exercises you list and suggestions that others have made are not going to be of much help. Playing Head Count or trying to see triangles everywhere you go will help make you an expert at quick mental addition and triangle-noticing, but not much else. Mental imagery isn't a single dimension that you either get better or worse at.

How do you become an expert novel reader? Well, what sorts of information do you care about? When a film maker reads a screen play, she might be good at representing the color of storefronts in the background and the types of extras that populate a scene or seeing certain actors in the role, but maybe you don't care about that (it's hardly a loss if you don't). Maybe you want to get better at representing the characters' emotional states and internal thoughts, or the gait of their walk, or the weather and its symbolism. There are many ways to go about this. Whatever training you decide to do, make sure that it makes you a better *novel* reader, and isn't some sort of mental imagery cure-all.
posted by painquale at 2:08 PM on December 26, 2006 [7 favorites]

Just a comment to second painquale. I love my images when I read novels, but I have to work a lot harder when I read a play- which ends up being not that often because of the hard work. Geometry works good, but remembering driving directions is tricky. So it really all depends what activities you specifically want to enjoy, there's too many variations for any kind of cure-all to work.

On the other hand, it seems that our culture has really offloaded a lot of imagery generation work from our brains, and a lot of people might actually be suffering from visualization deficiency disorder. (VDD!) So a good general step might be to avoid things like TV and first person shooters.

I think the real clue to your question was that audio books work but novels don't. The only real difference being the voice. Screenplays have even less voice than novels. Maybe reading novels with a voice in mind might give you the flow you need to see the imagery. And if a novel doesn't speak to you and give you pictures, maybe you just don't like it or it sucks. Try another. Maybe you're actually a really excellent novel reader who has just had a string of extraordinarily bad luck at the book store.
posted by Area Control at 2:31 PM on December 26, 2006

Try this Visual Thinking School with Squidoo. Although not exactly related to your question, it undoubtedly intends to improve the same part of the brain you're interested in.
posted by mwang1028 at 5:34 PM on December 26, 2006

This topic, and several solutions, are covered in Conceptual Blockbusting, which is over 10 years old, and probably out of print, but I'd bet you could find a copy...
posted by baylink at 9:16 PM on December 26, 2006

I have a similar condition - if you read dfan's link above, it describes me almost perfectly. Anytime someone says "picture yourself on a beautiful island" or "picture yourself doing x" my mind boggles. I can remember those situations, give you a list of experiences they contain in detail, or answer questions about them, but I don't "picture" anything in my head.

I have no trouble enjoying novels, but I don't "picture" them as they happen - it's more a list of situations that I understand in abstract. If some asks me "how do you picture character X in this book?" I have no answer, but I could give you a detailed plot synopsis and a list of characters.

I can manage a few fuzzy pictures in my head - my wife's face, the house I live in - but not much else. (I'm also not very good at recognizing faces, for what that's worth.)

Curiously, I don't imagine hearing the dialogue when I read novels either, but I can "hear" music in my head, or imagine someone's voice.

Anyway, for the past two years I've been learning to draw, usually realistic drawings based on photos. This forces me to look very carefully at an object's details, and after working on a drawing for a few days I can easily picture that object in my head.

I've also noticed, since I started drawing, that I'll have occasional flashes of pictures in my head based on my train of thought - the sort of thing that I imagine happens quite often for most people. It's unremarkable and routine for them, but for me it's like I'm having a seizure or hallucinating - "whoa! there's a PICTURE in my HEAD!"

So, it would appear this can be learned, but not easily, and I think you're on the right track with the drawing thing.
posted by mmoncur at 5:18 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

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