According to an article in Psychology Today, “the effective use of visuals can decrease learning time, improve comprehension, enhance retrieval, and increase retention.” That’s because “the brain is mainly an image processor … not a word processor … The part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.”
Post-it Note company 3M says that visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. Advertisers are no strangers to this idea, using logos and striking photos to make products more memorable. Even the briefest exposure to visual stimuli can promote learning. So, what can you do to harness the power of images to remember more medicine?
Though a picture may not contain everything you need to know, it can act as a memory cue for more complex information. The trick is to pair a visual with the concepts you want to remember. Here are 4 ways to get started:
- Draw a concept map or take visual notes. A 2014 study showed that subjects who drew about something remembered more than those who wrote about it. Though researchers still don’t know exactly why it works, you can still put the “drawing effect” to work by thinking in visual terms when you take notes.
- Zero in on photos or figures illustrating a concept, whether in the pages of a text, in a slide, or on a video. Associate applicable concepts with the image by writing headings or marginal notes. You can also make an visual more memorable by imagining you’re taking a photo of it, taking care to also assign it a mental heading, such as “dilated cardiomyopathy.” When the topic comes up later in an exam or practice, picture the image, and associated information will come with it.
- Create a mental storyline. This is especially useful when a photo, figure, or illustration is not provided, and you can’t draw in the moment—such as when you’re listening to an audio recording while driving. As you hear a list of symptoms, picture a patient or loved one experiencing each symptom throughout their day. Using those you care about in your storyline also injects emotion into the memory, which amplifies recall.
- Study in a variety of locations. Even if the sights (and sounds and smells) you encounter have nothing to do with your topic, they can act as a cue. As memory researcher Robert A. Bjork says, “the brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time … regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”
To maximize your study time with science-based learning techniques like these, consider using the MedStudy Method.