# 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).

References:

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.

# Do Faster Note-taking Methods Really Work?

With the rising use of laptops and tablets in class, many stress the benefits of using technology to take notes – electronic note-taking is faster, more efficient, easier to find when going back to reference, and it is easier to connect notes to online materials like graphics and videos. However, the benefits of handwriting notes may outweigh these new advantages.

When writing notes by hand, students have to pay attention to what professors are saying, what PowerPoint slides are showing them, remember this information long enough to write it down, and then pay visual attention to what they are writing. This creates a loop in which students are constantly repeating the information they have just learned in their heads through both audial and visual pathways, making it much easier to remember said information when recollection is necessary (Goldstein, 2011). Electronics also pose the threat of distracting attention from class, with abundant entertainment available online at the hands of social media and news websites, etc.

An article in NPR also suggests that longhand writing of notes forces students to be more selective in the information they choose to write – in effect, they need to pay attention to relevance of information they are given, which both streamlines notes for future use and forces additional processing of stimuli to determine which pieces are absolutely necessary to remember (NPR, 2016). In another study published in Psychological Science, it is suggested that generative note-taking that requires summary and processing of relevant information helps retention and encoding much more than non-generative notes that copy class lectures verbatim (Mueller, 2014). This is similar to the streamlining process in that additional analysis of information is needed, which benefitted students’ memory and retention of material in the long run.

The type of material being recalled can also display differences between laptop notes those taken by hand. In Mueller’s study at the University of California, students in each group scored equally when tested on facts and dates, but more semantic or “conceptual-application” questions heavily favored students who took notes by hand (Mueller, 2016). This suggests that while taking notes on a laptop or electronic “shortcut” may provide short term efficiency or speed, students who reinforce their learning by writing and streamlining are more likely to understand the information well enough to provide application of material and answer semantic test questions.

As a college student, I often find that I remember class notes better when I write them down. However, it is impossible to ignore the convenience of typing notes and the possibilities that come with note-taking software and the connection of notes to the Internet. Obviously this class is online, and I don’t think that the absence of in-class or handwritten notes is detrimental to my learning in this course. I also think the way this specific course is designed as an online class helps tremendously, as we are given textbook pages and learning modules to read and note, and then retain and reference those notes and sources in weekly quizzes, blog posts and labs that require us to look at the information again. Because of this repetition, it is much easier to recall information on tests and students can successfully apply what we have learned.

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

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is Mightier than the keyboard. Psychological Science, 67(1), 1159–1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

NPR. (2016, April 17). Attention, students: Put your laptops away. Retrieved July 13, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2016/04/17/474525392/attention-students-put-your-laptops-away

# Top-down and Bottom-up processing in Sarcasm

When discussing the processing of information in the human brain, “top-down” and “bottom-up” processing techniques are often analyzed with regard to visual stimuli. Most of the examples used to explain these processes involve optical illusions and visual tricks, because it is relatively easy to manipulate images and see how visual information could be interpreted in multiple ways. However, top-down and bottom-up processing are also very important to speech perception and audial stimuli, especially with regard to complex language cues like those used in sarcasm.

Bottom-up processing can often be thought of as the more “basic” of information pathways – it simply refers to the way the brain takes input from the outside world, by means of sensory perception, and transforms that information into understandable signals for the rest of the brain to interpret (Elbich, 2016). This input comes in many forms, including light energy for vision, chemical energy for taste and olfaction, or waves of energy for hearing. When I listen to someone speak, the bottom-up processing taking place in my brain uses the energy of the sound waves that are converted to action potentials inside my inner ear and sends those signals to other parts of my brain that subsequently analyze them to associate the sounds with meanings (Goldstein, 2011).

This association of sound and meaning leads into the top-down processing pathway, which takes information from previous experiences and uses that information to analyze new input (Elbich, 2016). In optical illusions, this type of processing would help differentiate similar visual stimuli by using the context of surrounding stimuli and remembering previous uses of the stimuli – for example, the lowercase letter L and capital letter I are very similar characters, but by using the context of words most humans have no problem differentiating the two while reading. Speech works in a similar way, because sound syllables are slightly different depending on a person’s tone of voice and inflections, but humans are still able to understand each other because of the language memory we generate throughout our lives.

The use of more complex language, like sarcasm, adds yet another layer to this type of speech processing – in addition to the basic comprehension of sounds and the analysis of syllables to understand words with meanings, sarcasm requires top-down processing of context clues. These clues can come from body language, tone of voice, and previous experience with individuals’ personalities, all of which help to deduce meaning from words. Comprehending sarcasm also requires a general understanding of the connection between certain voice tones and inflections with emotion and humor. For example, I could say “oh, great!” with an upward inflection at the end of the word “great” to convey enthusiasm and surprise, while a more somber or sarcastic “oh, great…” could be used to express frustration or disappointment. Being able to differentiate between these multiple meanings based solely on these cues requires a great deal of top-down processing, as past experiences with sarcastic phrases and tones need to be used to recognize and categorize new stimuli.

As sound information is processed through the ear and analyzed in the brain, both bottom-up and top-down pathways are activated to interpret sounds and words and associate meanings and feelings to them. The use of these pathways is evident when studying sarcastic language, in which the literal meaning of words being spoken may be different from the intended meaning of those words. These cases require context clues and tone to be analyzed in comparison to past experiences to determine intended meanings, which would not be possible without the combination of top-down and bottom-up processing pathways used in the human brain.

References:

Elbich, D. (2016) Lesson 3: Perception. Retrieved from Lecture Notes Website: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1782691/modules/items/20877302

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