MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Concept Imagery and Cognition – No More IT

Meet Joe. “I can remember reading aloud in class and then not being able to answer the questions. Reading the words was no problem. (Shy smile.) But, then when I couldn’t answer the questions, the kids would laugh at me. (Looking down.) The worst was that I had a teacher in high school that continually called me stupid…maybe I am. (Long pause, brown eyes looking at me.) Am I?”

To this day my chest tightens remembering how Joe looked when he told that story. He was embarrassed and sensitive, and his problem with literacy wasn’t that he couldn’t decode the words, it was that he couldn’t comprehend the concepts. He could not get it, and telling him to “pay attention” or “think when you read” didn’t help him. It hurt him.

As Joe read or listened to language, he processed “parts”-the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other syndrome. He could sometimes remember a few details, but he couldn’t get the big picture. He had always had the problem, and it wasn’t just when he read. It was also when he tried to follow directions and could not remember all of them, and then got in trouble for not paying attention. It was when he tried to express himself, verbally or in writing, and it came out disjointed and out of sequence. It was when he listened to language, conversation or classroom presentations, and it went by him before he could get it. It was when he tried to participate in conversation and could not make salient points because he spoke to the “parts” he processed. It was when he tried to think critically or problem solve, a constant frustration for him. Though Joe could read and spell words, he had a language processing problem, and IT permeated the quality of his life and eroded his self-esteem.

Joe’s symptoms could be traced to his difficulty in getting the gestalt, the whole-necessary for processing language and thinking. Most importantly, his difficulty in getting the gestalt could be traced to his weakness in the sensory-cognitive function of concept imagery-the ability to visualize the whole.

Numerous years ago, while researching the relationship of imagery to comprehension and trying various steps to develop imagery, I discovered an interesting phenomena. It wasn’t that individuals couldn’t image, it was that they couldn’t image the gestalt. They could not connect the parts to form an imaged whole. Instead, they got “parts”-bits and pieces-and thus could not get the main idea, draw a conclusion, make an inference or evaluate.

This processing of parts instead of the gestalt contributes to a range of symptoms, most of which Joe had experienced:

· Weak reading comprehension

· Weak oral language comprehension

· Weak oral language expression

· Weak written language expression

· Difficulty following directions

· Difficulty with critical thinking

· Difficulty with problem solving

· Weak sense of humor

Unfortunately, weakness in concept imagery can be a hidden problem in the field of reading. It is often misdiagnosed, and it interferes with processing both oral and written language. Those of us who do not have the problem cannot know how painful it is. Individuals have told me that it means that you feel foggy, like when you go to sleep in a movie and then cannot put it altogether. They tell me that they have hidden the problem behind good social skills, noting when to smile appropriately in conversation or when to laugh at jokes they really didn’t get. They tell me that they go to tremendous lengths to cover this problem because most people just think they aren’t as bright or aren’t good listeners or communicators. A graduate from MIT told me that when he was in class trying to grasp a lecture, it was as if someone was going along with an eraser and erasing the language before he could get it.

The critical role of this function to cognition and the quality of life provokes some questions. One frequently asked me is whether or not this function can be developed and applied to higher order thinking skills? The answer is yes. Just as phonemic awareness can be developed and decoding and spelling established, an individual’s sensory system can be stimulated to image and process the gestalt-enabling the higher order thinking skills of main idea, conclusion, inference, prediction to be improved. Reasoning, logical thinking, problem solving, and perhaps even creativity can be developed.

Another question often asked me is whether or not weakness in concept imagery is increasing? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. Scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show continuing deficiencies in higher order reasoning skills. The NAEP found, as have other recent assessments, that problems in reading and expressing ideas in writing stem mainly from difficulty with verbal reasoning.

What might be contributing to this apparent decline? One answer is television, not because of the content television brings, but because of the process television denies. Since individuals do not have to image when watching television, imagery is not being stimulated, at least not like it was when story-telling, old radio shows, and reading for pleasure were our recreation.

As we process information through our sensory system, concept imagery brings the sensory information together enabling us to create the gestalt. And, the gestalt is a necessary piece for cognition. Furthermore, there is little question that imagery is directly related to cognition. Aristotle said, long before phonemic awareness was thought about, “It is impossible to think without a mental picture.”

Lastly, as I speak nationally and internationally to professionals about the role of sensory-cognitive functions in language processing, I am heartened by their enthusiastic response and improved awareness about reading. I have hope that we are entering the era of gestalt thinking in the field of reading, and consequently may be entering a time where we institute solutions-solutions that might eradicate learning problems for all individuals. No more Joes. No more IT.

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