Mental imagery or mental representation is defined as our ability to see, hear, feel, smell or taste something in our “mind’s eye”. It resembles a perceptual experience that occurs without the external stimulus actually being present (Boerma, Mol, & Jolles, 2016).
We use mental imagery all the time, like when we are thinking about whether we can fit our cars in a parking space, or when we are imagining how a room would look if we rearranged the furniture or decorated the walls. These mental representations are recalled from memory and lead us to re-experience a version of the original stimulus or some novel combination of the thing that we are imagining.
Studies have shown that this ability to form mental images plays a fundamental role in cognitive processes such as visual perception and memory performance, and can facilitate improved performance on a range of problem solving and reasoning tasks, and in our day-to-day activities.
For example, in one study that looked at children’s ability to use mental imagery to solve a spatial problem, it was found that when 3 – year – olds are asked to predict the path of a ball rolling through a maze, their accuracy improved significantly when they were reminded to imagine/ visualise the balls path (Joh, Jaswal, & Keen, 2011). Similarly, further research has shown that using mental imagery improves children’s reasoning performance on tasks involving incongruent syllogisms such as, “All sheep ride bicycles, Bill is a sheep, does Bill walk or ride a bicycle?” (Beck, McColgan, Robinson, & Rowley, 2011). This indicates that encouraging young children to use visual imagery can help them to solve or reason with a problem.
Mental imagery has also been shown to significantly improve story comprehension. In a study which examined the role of primary school aged children’s mental imagery skills in their ability to understand a story that required an integration of words and pictures, it was found that children that scored higher in terms of mental imagery tended to understand the story much better than those who had not engaged in mental imagery (Boerma, Mol, & Jolles, 2016).
This suggests that the generation of mental images during story time can help children to better understand the story, recall and remember details, and draw conclusions from the things that they encountered while reading or listening to the story.
With that in mind, it is important that we provide children with plenty of opportunities to engage with mental imagery, and actively encourage them to explore their own imaginations as they learn.
Beck, S. R., McColgan, K. L., Robinson, E. J., & Rowley, M. G. (2011). Imagining what might be: Why children underestimate uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 110(4), 603-610.
Boerma, I. E., Mol, S. E., & Jolles, J. (2016). Reading pictures for story comprehension requires mental imagery skills. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1630.
Guarnera, M., Magnano, P., Pellerone, M., Cascio, M. I., Squatrito, V., and Buccheri, S. L. (2018). Facial expressions and the ability to recognize emotions from the eyes or mouth. A comparison among old adults, young adults, and children. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 179, 297–310. doi: 10.1080/00221325.2018.1509200
Joh, A. S., Jaswal, V. K., & Keen, R. (2011). Imagining a way out of the gravity bias: Preschoolers can visualize the solution to a spatial problem. Child Development, 82(3), 744-750.
Wimmer, M. C., Maras, K. L., Robinson, E. J., Doherty, M. J., & Pugeault, N. (2015). How visuo-spatial mental imagery develops: Image generation and maintenance. Plos One, 10(11), e0142566.