Visual Imagery in Problem Solving

When I was in elementary school, I got to skip math class. At the time, that was all I knew – every day, when the rest of my class went to math, 5 other kids and I went into a separate room down the hall for ELO. I later found out that ELO (which stands for Extended Learning Opportunities) was a special class for kids who already met our grades’ math standards, meant to help us develop additional learning skills instead of making us repeat simple arithmetic at which we had already proven ourselves sufficient. In ELO, we mostly did puzzles: we completed tangrams almost every day, were given a constant supply of 3-dimensional “break-apart” puzzles, and completed more riddles and word puzzles than I can count. This blog post, however, isn’t about how I got to play games instead of going to math class – it is about the valuable visual imagery skills I developed while playing them.

In high school sculpture and art classes, I had some classmates point out to me that I am strangely good at figuring out shapes and compositions; I had never noticed this ability before, but I could very easily draw different perspectives of objects or still-lifes that my fellow students had more difficulty with. It is well known that mental images can be rotated in our minds just like they can be physically rotated in our hands (Shepard and Metzler, 1971), and that it becomes easier to mentally rotate objects that we are more familiar with (Cooper and Shepard, 1973). Because of this combination of factors, I believe that my practice with shape-puzzles like tangrams (fitting small laminated shapes to fit a specific pattern or mold) and 3-dimensional riddle puzzles in elementary school has contributed to my affinity for physically fitting things together. Since I had so much practice with so many combinations of shapes and objects, I have somehow maintained the ability to mentally rotate many things I encounter to solve puzzles and visualize interesting perspectives for my art pieces. These visual imagery skills have proven immensely helpful to me, as I love making art and playing with interesting perspectives of bodies and geometric shapes, and being able to mentally create compositions allows me to translate my ideas on to paper. The skills I developed also greatly helped me with problem solving, as I can apply aspects of visual imagery and manipulation to generate ideas.

The development of problem-solving skills should not only be applied to my case – there have been studies about the increased “cognitive load” of students who are allowed practice with puzzles and other problem-solving activities and the benefits these students have later in their education and lives (Paas and Van Merrienboer, 1994).



Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Chapter 2: Cognitive Neuroscience. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience (3rd ed.)(pp. 23 – 45). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Shepard, R. N., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science171(3972), 701–703.

Cooper, L. A., & Shepard, R. N. (1973). Chronometric studies of the rotation of mental images. In W. Chase (Ed.), Visual information processing. Oxford, England: Academic Press.

1 thought on “Visual Imagery in Problem Solving

  1. Paul Hernandez


    This was an interesting read. Clearly the practice of solving puzzles added the availability to cognitively train your mind to visually see in 3 dimensions and rotate the object in question. Yet, lets analyze this closer, would you say that either you had learned to created an acute mental image of the object or created a semantic network of basic puzzle objects, their capabilities, the angles associated with the object, and previous experience manipulating the object. In the first approach your process would be accurate that practice and visualization can improve solving or drawing puzzles/ objects accurately. In the second process, the action of solving puzzles and drawing objects allowed you to develop an extreme amount of bottom-up experiences to develop a substantial Semantic grouping. Once you’ve mastered the grouping, which you state that you can accurately draw or solve complex problems by visualization, you approach these problems now in a top-down approach which now capitalizes on the memory grouping mastered.

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