Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Increasing Memory Recall Using the Mind's Eye

One of the "totally cool" things about unschooling is that it goes on. It happens on weekdays. And weekends. Morning. Evening. And in the case of the recent lunar eclipse, even at 3 o'clock in the morning. And so it happens also during the Holy Days.

On Friday evening, I got out of the bath and headed for the kitchen to get the finishing touches on the Shabbat dinner. (Yes, it did feel like overkill just a bit--given that we had been doing ritual for two full days straight. Evening to morning to evening. But Shabbat comes every week, Holy Days or not). Anyway, I called out for N., intending to have him feed the dogs. But there was no answer. I called again and Bruce responded: "He's busy right now, don't talk to him."

I came out of the hallway into the dining room and found N. seated on the couch--yes, the couch--it's a living room refugee, having taken up temporary residence in the dining room while the living room gets a wooden floor. He was holding the Reader's Digest Guide to North American Wildlife in his lap, and he had his hands in the air and his eyes tightly shut. I half expected him to launch into a sermon of some kind. I was thinking that perhaps we had overdone the holy days just a teensy little bit. Then he suddenly opened his eyes, and taking up a pencil and chart paper he had nearby, he began drawing.

Later, over Challah, he explained what he was doing. He was using his mind's eye to practice imagining and sketching wildlife. It is a journaling exercise for Kamana II. He told us that first you choose a picture of an animal or plant you want to sketch into your journal. Then you study it carefully for a very short time--no more than about 15 seconds. But for that time, you focus on it and discern important details. Then you close your eyes and hold the picture in your mind for 15 seconds or so more. You then look at the picture in the book again, and ask yourself questions about the animal or plant. What does it feel like? smell like? How does it sound? And so forth, recalling detail as you question yourself. You repeat this process several times, then look at the picture again, studying it once more before you close the book and then sketch the picture from your mind's eye.

Although the Kamana Book does not say this explicitly, what this exercise accomplishes is a training of the visual sketchpad (short term visual memory) and a connection to the mind's associative powers in order to put what you have learned from an observation into your long term memory. The point of the exercise is not to draw every hair on the animal's head, but to get the important details sorted and into memory quickly, so that they can be called upon in the future. As time goes on, I told N., if he practices this a bit every day, he will soon do this without even thinking about it, and be able to store his observations and call upon them without a great deal of effort. This frees his mind to do more complex processing of the information.

There is a similar journaling exercise in Kamana for learning from text. The process is to get the details into memory for association and use effortlessly. But of course, the exercising require effort at first.

What is interesting is that the primary sensory pathway for both of the exercises is visual. Even though the text is words, the mind's eye exercise with text is using the visual sketchpad and visual memory. And the processing that is happening is associative rather than linear. Memory is strengthened by the process of attaching emotion and imagination to the mind's eye images.

This is very interesting because these are N.'s strong suites-- visual memory and associative thinking. When they say a picture is worth a thousand words, what they really mean is that you can remember and call up the whole in a picture instantly. It is right before you. And associative thinking allows you to attach new information to previously stored memory in a non-linear fashion. New associations can be formed every time the information is recalled in visual form, allowing a random access that is difficult for the auditory-sequential learner to imagine. It is like using random access encyclopedias on the internet rather than an alphabetized book that can only be accessed linearly. It is orders of magnitude faster!

And that can be a problem for some extremely visual-associative learners. They do not choose to use the auditory-sequential channel because it is so slow. However, it is important for correctly processing verbal information and for ordering and executing sequential tasks. When we test working memory in intelligence and other functional tests, we are really testing auditory working memory. Even reading, which may seem to be visual, is actually auditory-sequential in nature. You are translating sounds into visual symbols and then speaking them in your mind. You read in a linear fashion, and the story is sequenced to have a beginning, middle, and end.

N., like many brilliant visual-associative thinkers, has very poor auditory working memory. He had difficulty sequencing and cannot follow a complex set of spoken directions. Last year, he began working on sequencing by watching Titanic and then taking pictures of the sinking of the toy Titanic in the snow. From there he went on to make a power point, into which we introduced more and more complex written story line about what the different characters were doing. He found the way to learn something he needed to know about sequencing, building on his strengths in order to develop skills in weak areas. He needed some guidance from me to bridge the gap, but although I suggested and guided, I did not make it my project.

Watching N. work with his visual sketchpad, I am thinking that we need to find a bridge to strengthen his auditory working memory and linear processing of auditory input. I am going to read through Kamana a bit to see if there are exercises that lend themselves to this, or if it something that may need some guidance from me. Since the majority of the population is auditory-sequential, it is likely that the exercises in Kamana are meant to guide them toward the ability to choose visual-associative thinking processing in their observations of nature. Visual-associative is the better mode for observation of an ever-chaning natural landscape. For N., who almost always uses the visual-associative mode, it is important to have the auditory-sequential option available. Although most research scientists, engineers, and naturalists are visual-associative, they also must learn to apply the auditory-sequential skills in order to communicate with the rest of the world.

There is a problem here, though. N. and people like him have very dim views of the whole "normal" auditory-sequential world. They have learned that in that world, they appear to be slow, dumb and awkward, to say the least. They are associative to the max, and they have a lot of bad associations stored in their minds. I must guide, not dictate. That means that he has to find us the pathway and be willing to venture down it far enough to see that he can successful. He must be able to start with his strengths as a scaffold and improve rapidly.

These things must be done delicately!


No Apology said...

What a beautiful and informative lesson, Elishiva!

No Apology said...

Sorry - I got the spelling of your name mixed up with Hindu mythology...

Marmee said...

I am absolutely fascinated with your blog!! I have been reading for a while, but thought I would venture a comment. I am a gentile that is fascinated with the jewish culture and I am also an unschooling mom of 8, 5 still schooling with special needs. I connected to your post and really appreciate your blog!
Thank you

christinemm said...

I really enjoyed this blog post. I think you son is lucky that you are homeschooling him and that he is learning in such a gentle way that is tailored to his needs and desires.

momof3feistykids said...

What a fascinating post! You touched on many things I've been pondering, but (with your rich professional and educational background) framed it a little differently.

Are there resources about visual-associative learners (with or without autism spectrum issues) you would particularly recommend?