Visual Imagery

 Pictures or visual imagery and verbal narratives speak differently and have different potentials for building our knowledge and comprehension. Many of us tend to believe that a picture tells a story of thousand words and therefore visual imagery is better for communication than the verbal narratives. However a study by Hirsch et al. (2011) suggests that the people suffering from anxiety disorders have a preference of favoring verbal thinking over imagery and therefore they follow text more than visual images. The research studies on visual and verbal communication advocate that pictures are not that effective than the verbal statement, particularly in the context of presenting propositional statements.  Image texts, comprising interwoven pictures and text like the concept of ‘photo stories’ introduced by Mitchell, could provide a better tool for communication over the only textual or only pictorial form of communication.  Allan Paivio (1971, 1978) proposed the theory of cognition called the Dual-coding theory. He suggested that a person could expand on learned material in two ways either with the aid of verbal associations or utilizing the visual imagery. The theory postulates the use of both visual as well as verbal information to represent information. The processing of the visual and verbal information takes place along distinct channels in mind and distinct representations for the processed information are created using different mental codes. Both visual and verbal codes organize incoming information and they are retrieved for subsequent use when recalling information. Let us put it as when a person stores the stimulus concept, “bird” it is stored as both the ‘word  bird’ and also as the ‘mental image of a bird’ and when the same stimulus is recalled, the person retrieves the word or the image either individually or simultaneously. The ability to store the information as the code related to that stimulus in two different ways enhances the chance of remembering that item as compared to the manner if the same is done using only one way coding. Similarly when it comes to understanding a subject the text is processed in linear fashion within mind while the pictures are processed non-linearly. An adapted framework of Paivio’s dual coding theory has been outlined by Mayer (1996) for interpreting the cognitive processing of information.    A study by Langan-Fox et al. (2000) highlights the advantages of graphics in the process of knowledge acquisition beyond the explanations provided in terms of memory effect only. There has been an attempt to build theories which can explain the functions of verbal and visual information that assists the construction of mental models in learners of the subject matter portrayed in the verbal and visual material. The cognitive value of visual representations and visually-oriented processing has been aptly captured by Carpo et al. (2000), when they describe the advantages of visual argument. The visual argument has advantages of application allowing quick scanning of information as well as discovering patterns besides utilizing the strengths of learners like pattern recognition; recognition of geometric shapes and the processing by the right brain. It is thus established that different cues including verbal and visual imagery both are important in deciphering information and the relative importance depends upon the kind of information presented.



Crapo, A. W., Waisel, L. B., Wallace, W. A., & Willemain, T. R. (2000, August). Visualization and the process of modeling: a cognitive-theoretic view. In Proceedings of the sixth ACM SIGKDD international conference on Knowledge discovery and data mining (pp. 218-226). ACM.

Hirsch, C. R., Hayes, S., Mathews, A., Perman, G., & Borkovec, T. (2011, August 15). The Extent and Nature of Imagery during Worry and Positive Thinking in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Langan-Fox, J., Waycott, J. L., & Albert, K. (2000). Linear and graphic advance organizers: Properties and processing. International Journal of Cognitive Ergonomics, 4(1), 19-34.

Mayer, R. E. (1996). Learners as information processors: Legacies and limitations of educational psychology’s second.. Educational psychologist, 31(3-4), 151-161.

Paivio, A. (1971), Imagery and Verbal Processes (New York: Holt. Rinehart & Winston).

Paivio, A. (1978), “A Dual Coding Approach to Perception and Cognition,” in H. I. Pick and E. Saltzman, (eds.) Modes of Perceiving and Processing Information (Hillsdale. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).