Columns, Imagine That

Can You Picture This?

Bill is a giant of a man whose laughter is thunderous and frequent. He owns land in the Calapooya Mountains, on the southern tip of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. There he grows Christmas trees, tending his groves year-round in preparation for the holidays.

Bill lives in a simple, one-story log cabin, which he built himself 30 years ago. His rustic yet cozy abode looks like a picture postcard, nestled the way it is within a cluster of alder trees that are bordered on the eastern edge by a babbling brook.

On sunny days, Bill enjoys breakfast on his black slate patio, listening to the water dance over the rocks, and inhaling the scent of pine that permeates the air. Sometimes, one can catch a glimpse of the pair of golden eagles that nest nearby as they circle overhead in search of their morning meal.

Can you picture this? Well, the above story is no more than a story. Bill and his cabin don’t really exist. I made them up to illustrate a point: Anyone can spend a few minutes inventing and writing down a scenario, and even if the description isn’t as intricate as Bill’s cabin, most people who read it can picture the scene in their minds with only marginal effort.

Narratives that generate images are easy to read and remember. Words that generate images in our minds have been the object of fascination since humans began to use spoken language.

Creating mental images is unlike anything we experience in the world; this was a topic of great interest to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. We can close our eyes and see the images, and our brains treat them nearly as if they existed. Our minds are so dexterous that we can even conjure up the “image” of a smell.

Because of the importance in ancient oral cultures of preserving information in the memory, humans are well-equipped with the cognitive tools necessary to associate words with images, the more striking the better. Myths and legends from many cultures feature stunning and fantastic images and memorable characters that made the stories easy to remember and entertaining to hear. The more exotic, surprising, or strange the image, the easier it is for our brain to hang onto it.

We can often recall images from stories told to us in our earliest years. These images are wired into our memories much more than pictures in books or on a screen, which is why we are often disappointed when favorite books are made into movies that just don’t match the picture in our heads.

Harnessing this powerful cognitive tool for our own children means allowing the children to form their own pictures in their heads. Try reading to your child from a storybook that doesn’t have pictures; traditional fairy tale collections are great for this purpose. Ask your children what they see in their heads when they picture the characters or scenes in the story. Young children may like drawing pictures of the characters and settings of a favorite tale. Elementary and middle-school kids might enjoy a slightly more grown-up version of this story-time format: During vacation trips, our family would unwind every evening by reading aloud from classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Albert Einstein’s great breakthroughs came from experiments performed in his head rather than in a lab. Einstein called them “thought experiments.” At age 16, he tried to imagine what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light — if one reached the speed of light, would the light waves appear stationary? Applying mathematics to the powerful cognitive tool of imagery set Einstein on his way to developing his most famous theory. As parents, we can also harness the power of the mind’s eye to teach our children, and help them develop this valuable learning tool. Imagine that!

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