Columns, Imagine That

What color is seven?

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Do you think in words or in pictures? When someone speaks to you, does your brain immediately translate the words into images?

Many people are verbal thinkers; others are visual thinkers. Visual thinking is a skill most often thought of in terms of the arts. People who are good at painting and drawing often seem to have an innate ability to translate an image from real life onto a canvas; writers tend to do the opposite, translating a picture into words. But did you know that visual thinking and imagery are just as important in mathematics? Concepts involving numbers often stick better when the numbers are associated with pictures in a child’s mind. In the August column, we mentioned Einstein’s “thought experiments,” where he visualized his experiments in his head; this is a prime example of how imagery is vital to the understanding of math.

Laura Mann

Numbers can also be associated with smells and tastes; asking your preschooler how the number six might taste may yield surprising answers.

“For the people who ‘get’ math, the language of numbers turns into imagery,” write author-educators Nanci Bell and Kimberly Tuley. “The ability to create mental representations for mathematical concepts is directly related to success in mathematical reasoning and computation.” Bell goes on to explain that often, children who do not have the ability to utilize imagery in mathematics are often mislabeled as being simply “not good at math.”

On the flip side of this coin, autistic children tend to be off the charts in relation to their imaging skills, often at the expense of verbal communication. Colorado State professor and scientist Dr. Temple Grandin is a high-functioning autistic adult who explains that visual imagery is one of her strongest suits. “I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head,” writes Grandin. “Every design problem I’ve ever solved started with my ability to visualize and see the world in pictures.” This strong tendency toward imagery has contributed to the Rain Man stereotype of autistic people who are able to create images of how numbers work in their heads, and can thus effortlessly solve difficult computations.

Seeing and tasting your way through a problem

Bell and Tuley explain that visualization and imagery can help young children learn to approach math creatively, rather than as a dry, unappealing subject composed entirely of incomprehensible facts and numbers. Parents can help spur this process when a child is first learning how to count. Ask your very young child what colors they associate with certain numbers; a three-year-old might not think it’s ridiculous to be asked, “What color is seven?”

Numbers can also be associated with smells and tastes; asking your preschooler how the number six might taste may yield surprising answers. Many very young children have favorite numbers, just like favorite colors — ask your child what her favorite number is, then point out that number when you see it in everyday life.

School-age children can be taught simple math skills with visualization while parents are helping with homework. Use visual aids to teach multiplication and division; piles of food items or toy pieces, with certain numbers of items in each pile, can be multiplied and divided while keeping the visual sector of the brain engaged.

Imagery and visualization are very important in the teaching of math to children. When a child learns to associate images with numbers, they are better able to picture how numbers function in the world around them, and can more accurately predict how those numbers are going to behave when presented in a math problem. Creative thinking is a valuable asset in every discipline, which children will carry with them throughout their lives.

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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