The great Yogi Berra once said “you can learn a lot just by watching”. True enough. But how do we decide what we learn, and what is discarded? How do we filter the good from the bad, the insignificant from the necessary, and the important from the irrelevant? Where is the decision made and how do we make it?
Visual Memory, commonly referred to as “the mind’s eye”, is the process of collecting and storing images as neurological data, with the intention of retrieving said data on que. One common exercise for introducing Visual Memory techniques is asking a patient to close their eyes, and recall images of their mother’s face, their bedroom, or even their favorite vacation destination. The idea is to locate familiar pictures they have stored innately and expand on that skill set and storage space, utilizing different techniques. But what becomes of the less significant images – the trip to the mall during the holidays or the dinner we ate two Thursdays ago – where are those pictures?
To demonstrate my thought, try this exercise: Picture your surroundings at 9am on the morning of September 11, 2001. Can you recall what you were doing and even picture your environment when the news broke? Can you visualize yourself once again in that time and space? Chances are, based on the significance of the date, most people can. Those images were somehow classified as significant and retained for later recall. Now repeat the exercise, but this time use January 11, 2013 at 9am. Can you recall what you were doing and even picture your surroundings for that morning? Unless January 11 holds some significance in your life, probably not. So why is it that we can remember images from 12 1/2 years ago while images from 6 months ago seem to be all but lost? Where in our filtering process do we decide what images are worthy of storage and which can be discarded? It is certainly in the subconscious as no one consciously decided to remember images from September 11, and yet most of us have. Because the imprint of that day was so broad and so bold, these images are somehow designated a higher neurological significance and therefore readily available for recall.
The human eyeball collects millions upon millions bits of information daily. Pictures for neurological consideration. Some significant, and some not. With this massive amount of information coming in, we need our filtering system to work, and work well. Our ability to filter really is a magnificent mechanism. Through my experience, I have learned that one of the greatest challenges for people on the spectrum is poor filtering, leaving all information to be considered, and they are left trying to compensate through cognitive processing. But for those of us who filter well, the question remains: How do we know which images to retain and which to discard?
In his workshop video, Beyond F.A.T. City, Rick LaVoie suggests that Visual Memory reaches far beyond academics, like spelling and sight words, and into simple tasks such as cleaning the kitchen or even a child cleaning their room. Paraphrasing, his suggestion is that we have a mental image of what a “clean space” looks like, then we “do things to the dirty space until it matches our picture”. An interesting thought, as most kids entering Vision Therapy who have trouble spelling and reading, also have issues organizing their room and even their backpack.
So is Visual Memory more about knowing how to accurately take the picture and knowing where to store it, or is it more about assessing an image’s significance and qualifying its place on the totem pole? Considering the symbiotic relationship, it would seem the answer is both. Enhancing Visual Memory ability is not only about teaching someone how to take the picture, but also how to make those images meaningful.