• Question: Do we have any active research in the UK in the use of mental imagery in learning - spelling, reading, maths, comprehension etc? I have been in contact with Georgetown University that is the only centre of excellence I have found.

    Asked by olivehickmott to Paul, Masud, Mark, Lucy, Katie, Kathy, Kathryn, Duncan, Andy on 9 May 2015.
    • Photo: Duncan Astle

      Duncan Astle answered on 9 May 2015:

      We have done a whole load of stuff showing really strong relationships between spatial and visual short-term memory and longitudinal growth in maths (but not reading or spelling).

      Also worth checking out this – they do a whole bunch of research on the relationship between spatial processing and Dyscalculia: http://www.psychol.cam.ac.uk/directory/ds377@cam.ac.uk

      I know that this is not strictly mental imagery per se – but we have shown else where that visual mental imagery and visual / spatial short-term memory are very closely related concepts… so I think that it is really relevant! http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3635023/

      Hope that helps. In the end it is really difficult to quantify ‘mental imagery’ meaning that it is difficult to explore directly the relationship between mental imagery abilities and classroom learning. But I think that spatial / visual short-term or working memory is a very closely related concept, and there is a lot of great work on the relationship between these abilities and learning.

    • Photo: Lucy Cragg

      Lucy Cragg answered on 12 May 2015:

      Like Duncan, I immediately thought of visual short-term/working memory when I saw your question – the ability to hold/manipulate visual information in mind. Our research (www.sumproject.org.uk) has also found that people with good visual working memory tend to be better at maths. Verbal working memory (see below) also seems to be related to maths performance.

      For reading and comprehension I guess it depends what you count as mental imagery. While visual short-term/working memory doesn’t seem to be as important, verbal short-term/working memory (holding/manipulating verbal information, i.e. words, in mind) is. A lot of the evidence for this comes from studying children who are poor at either decoding or reading comprehension and who also tend to have worse verbal working memory.

    • Photo: Mark Mon-Williams

      Mark Mon-Williams answered on 14 May 2015:


      I think Duncan and Lucy have answered your question really well – the only thing I’d add to their comments is to flag the work of my colleagues – Richard Allen and Amanda Waterman at the University of Leeds – who have explored some of the working memory issues highlighted by Duncan and Lucy.

      I would, however, like to flag that learning involves much more than spelling, reading and maths! My own interests include motor development and I would argue that motor learning underpins a lot of the cognitive skills that children acquire in school (particularly in the primary school years). There is a reasonable amount of work on imagery in motor learning and there is some evidence that mental imagery can enhance learning and/or performance.

      There are several reasons why motor imagery may be useful in motor control – my own hunch is that it’s particularly useful in complex tasks where mental rehearsal can help an individual remember the sub-tasks (and their order) that support the achievement of a complex task, But there are many other explanations for the observed benefits of motor imagery – more work is required!

      I hope that’s helpful