As you have already realized, visualization is something that we often use unconsciously. Th is simply means that your imagination forms an image of an object, an abstract term, or an idea or as the dictionary puts it, it “dreams up something pleasant for the eye.” This may sound old-fashioned, but it does hit the nail on the head, since in terms of memory training, you learn to see consciously what you hear or read. But many expressions such as, “feast for the eyes,” “music to one’s ears,” or expressions such as “cast one’s eyes upon,” or “to picture something,” take advantage of this opportunity to describe sensory perceptions so that they can be better understood.

These days there is little need for us to look and think about pictures consciously, since we’re increasingly exposed to color pictures and images. Before photography, movies, and television were invented, texts contained few illustrations. When stories, news, and fairy tales were told in the streets, in the bars and restaurants, or at home, the listener was forced to rely on his or her own powers of visualization to bring the narrative to life. Today, we are increasingly inundated with visual stimuli. The apparent images of reality used in advertising or other forms of media influence the way we behave, whether consciously or unconsciously.

In addition, our understanding of language has become more abstract. It’s no longer necessary to create an image of something in order to understand it, and even when we’re listening to an explanation or story, we rarely bother to use our imagination. We have become used to this abstraction of language, and the world in our mind has, from a certain perspective, become duller in spite of the brash, loud colors used by our media.

So what does visualization have to do with memory? A lot, since our brain—which has been subjected to genetic refinement over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution can remember images better than words. Th at is why it is absolutely essential that you practice creating images in your mind to improve your memory.

An interview with Peter Jackson, the editor/director of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, communicates my point exactly: “The film is created within me when I am working on the script. Th ere is a small film running within my head the whole time. At any time I can close my eyes and see it, with special effects and all cutting and editing, etc. And I can rely upon this small film.” It is precisely this ability to be able to visualize something more clearly and easily that we ought to use for our own benefit. Remembering lists will be a piece of cake by the time you finish this article. Th e important thing is not to give up right away if your first attempt doesn’t succeed too well. Some people will find it easier to form mental images in their head; others simply need a little bit longer to train their mind’s eye. Let’s look at several examples.

Examples

Let’s begin with something easy. Imagine a really beautiful giraffe and give her a name—Annette, for example. (If you don’t like this name, you can choose another.) Now close your eyes and imagine Annette in all her glory. What sort of hide does she have? What does it feel like? Imagine stroking her neck. What is the expression in her eyes? Is she sad or happy? It is important that you try to imagine her actual facial expressions. What does her expression look like when she’s tired or hungry? You might think that this exercise is childish, but it is very good for improving your powers of visualization.

Now think about Annette’s size. Imagine her shrinking, so she fits into a matchbox. Close your eyes and try to see her as accurately as possible, with her long legs and the markings on her hide. Now imagine Annette’s size as larger than life. Try turning her around in your mind so you can look at her from all sides.

A little splash of color would suit her too. Take a paintbrush and paint her all blue. Imagine adding red dots to her blue hide. Now you can see a blue giraffe with red spots. Make sure you can really see this strange animal in your mind’s eye. Now make Annette green, or dunk her in a pot of your favorite color paint, regardless of how silly she looks like afterward. I want you to actually see what you have done with Annette and also imagine what she feels like (warm or cold) and what she smells like (well, maybe that isn’t absolutely essential). But that’s enough of giraffes for the time being. Let’s move on

Play the same game with an elephant or an ape. You can also practice by mentally putting your favorite comedian, your boss, or one of your friends or acquaintances into a ball gown or some other silly scenario. Th e key point in this exercise is that you learn to make images in your head, modify them, and make them move.

Another good exercise is closing your eyes and picturing the room you are in. Can you actually see it? It isn’t so easy. If you try to walk around the room in your mind with your eyes closed, you will notice that there are plenty of gaps in your image, details that you don’t remember. For example, what was on the table—a vase, a fruit bowl with some fruit in it, or something else? If you find this exercise difficult, look around the room again and closely note the small details. Now close your eyes. You will probably have a much more accurate picture of your surroundings.

Don’t expect to have a precise photographic image in your head. When I see the giraffe in front of me, the image is supplemented by other impressions. Emotions and memories also form part of the picture. For example, I remember how, as a small child on my first visit to a zoo, I stood in front of a large giraffe with its long neck and looked at it in amazement. You experience this type of image not only with your (imaginary) eyes, but with your other senses as well. With some time and practice, you will be able to dig up your own images and pictures, and many memories you thought you had forgotten will flood back into your consciousness.

Here are some more simple exercises for you to try. Just think of an apple. Everyone knows what an apple is and what it looks like. Initially, it might be difficult for most of us to see a colorful fruit in our mind as soon as we hear the word apple, let alone smell it, feel its smooth or wrinkled skin, or even taste it. However, in theory we can call up all sorts of associations with apples, depending on how old we are or how much life experience we’ve had.

Children may well think of the pictures in their first storybooks or an apple that has been thrown against a wall so hard that it splatters in all directions. Older people may have memories of apple picking; the aroma of apples stored in a cool, dark cellar for the winter, or the smell of cider when the apples are put through the press. People who are interested in history may respond to the word apple with images of Charlemagne holding the imperial orb, William Tell shooting the apple from his son’s head with an arrow, or Adam and Eve.

Abstract terms, such as freedom, can also be put into pictures. The following images may present themselves: the Statue of Liberty, Delacroix’s painting Freedom Is the Leader of the People, or a birdcage being opened.

If you now try to play around with the words apple or freedom in your thoughts, you will see how easily associations with color, shape, smell, taste, and emotions develop in your mind.