Creating Effective Visual Imagery

In order to create effective visual imagery you need to be able to:

  1. Form mental images
  2. Make associations between images.

These two tasks are described in detail on this page.

Forming images

Concrete nouns are the easiest information to visualize. A concrete noun is a noun that identifies a specific object such as a ball or tree. These items are easy to visualize because you just have to picture the actual object.

The task of visualizing becomes more difficult with more abstract information. For example, how do you visualize numbers and formulas? Just picturing a number as it is written on the page probably won't help you with remembering it.

Generating images for abstract material

Techniques exist for converting abstract information to images. These techniques include:

  • Associating a visual symbol that has a similar meaning or that can cue the idea we are trying to remember. For example, the word 'learn' can be associated with an image of a student in school.
  • Substituting a word or words that are similar in sound or meaning which are easier to visualize. For example the word 'fulcrum' could be represented by the images of a glass 'full' of 'crumbs'.
  • Techniques to form visual images for numbers are a bit more sophisticated. Such techniques are described in detail for the peg system as well as the phonetic mnemonic system.

Using your own images can be better than using images suggested by another. This is because you likely have your own unique image that is associated with abstract ideas which are more appropriate for you than images suggested by someone else.

Making associations between images

When making a visual association between images think of the two images interacting in a way that uses some or all of the following tips. Clearly visualize the images in your mind with as much detail as possible including. Images can be further enhanced by adding other sensory detail such as sound, touch or texture, even taste or smell.

Interaction — The two items you are picturing should be actively interacting in some way not just pictured beside each other. Sometimes you can even substitute one object for another. For example, if you are associating the images of a mouse and pen, imagine writing with a mouse as though it were a pen, or picture a pen running in an exercise wheel.

Vividness — images should be clear, distinct, and strong. It is also useful to add motion so that the interaction is like a movie instead of a static image. The more you can see the imagery the better. Don't just think of the words and actions — actually visualize the activity. Also, including many details in the imagery will make it more effective.

Bizarreness — Images should be bizarre as opposed to plausible — unusual, weird, implausible, incongruous, or ludicrous. This is not always necessary but bizarre imagery is generally remembered better. By adding bizarre elements you also make the imagery unique which can help distinguish it from similar imagery. Making images bizarre can also add an emotional factor (see next point).

One way to create bizarre images is to exaggerate attributes of the items or the actions they are performing.

Emotion — Images that evoke an emotion — especially a positive or humorous emotion — can be beneficial. It is important to avoid negative emotions as they have been shown to interfere with memory.