Dr Temple Grandin has designed one-third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States. She has autism with incredible skills to visualise the best environment for animals, so they remain calm, by putting herself into their world through her vivid imagination.
We tend to think everyone sees things in the same way we do. But wait, have you ever had the experience of going to a movie with a friend and discussing it afterwards? It can seem like you have seen two entirely different movies! “People throughout the world are on a continuum of visualisation skills ranging from next to none, to seeing vague, generalised pictures, to seeing semi-specific pictures, to seeing, as in my case, in very specific pictures,” said Temple Grandin. Sometimes images can be very clear; at other times, you just “know” what something looks like, maybe the images stem from your conscious awareness. Ask yourself, “What are your mental images like?”
Ask students to describe something or someone they are familiar with. They will naturally start describing their images whether or not they are consciously aware of them. Be careful to avoid picture envy, if other peoples’ pictures are better than yours. You will learn much with just a few simple questions, such as asking students to explain their favourite activities or places. With practice, they will be more consciously aware of their images, and you may be able to improve yours too.
Here are some examples of what is possible:
On YouTube there is a remarkable video of Stephen Wiltshire, the “Human Camera,”[i] reproducing all the buildings of Rome in great detail after just one trip over the city in a plane.
Elite sportsmen and women have been using visualisation skills for decades to hone their performance skills.
Boris was a pole vaulter. Pole vaulting is a very complex skill that employs excellent visualisation skills. For example, you need to be able to accurately space your run-up, carry the pole, place the end correctly in the cup, know precisely how to ‘climb’ the pole, launch yourself over the cross-bar and land safely. Athletes will practice this many, many times in their head during training and competition.
One of the most astounding applications for mental imagery is in recovery from a physical injury like a broken leg or operation, and anyone can do this.
When you are lying in a hospital bed in pain, getting up and moving around seem to be tough tasks. Ben had to have lots of help from the nurses or physio each time he wanted to move or get out of bed. I sat down next to his bed and asked him to visualise getting up and walking across the room. He repeated it several times until he could do it without any discomfort, as a mental exercise in his mind. A few minutes later, while taking the necessary safety precautions, he got out of bed and walked across the ward unaided!
Architects and designers can slice and dice buildings easily in their imaginations, seeing them from different angles, even converting 2D to 3D in seconds and designing new products. In short, they are picturing what others cannot see.
As another example, this time from Bridges to Success, seeing what others do not see. Glen, a very senior Director in an electronics company, could look at a printed circuit board and point out any mistakes in seconds. Again, it was like watching Superman peer over the top of his glasses and run a laser across all the circuits. The only problem was it all happened so fast he had no idea how he came to the decision. His staff wanted more information, but it was gone and he seemed unable to slow down the processing to offer any useful advice. He also realised that all his working instructions were destroyed instantly, he simply said, “Well, it would be too much information to hold in my head, so I just get rid of them.” Once he explained this to his team, they could call on his skills and accept his comments.
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The Elephants in the Classroom: using every student’s natural power of mental Imagery to enhance learning: Neurodiversity through the lens of mental Imagery and
Bridges to Success – How to transform Learning Difficulties
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[i] Stephen Wiltshire videos on YouTube. Start with The Human Camera