Snapshot Recall

Snapshot Recall
Visualization is an important part of the use of imagery in memory and recall. Though experts may disagree on how the brain uses images and the mind processes them, there is no doubt that they exist. The actual process of visualization can be done by almost everyone. We do it so naturally that it seems simple.
Usually, when we hear word we know the meaning if, we “see” what it represents in our “mind’s eye.” Even when the word is the name of something not visual, we usually “get the idea” of whatever it is. Examples of words we don’t really get “images” of are able, try, chance, etc. These words, though, do make our memories work and come up with “concepts,” that is, clusters of ideas that may or may not have images. We’ll explain the uses of words in another section.
“Snapshot Recall” is, as used here, a description of an exercise that can help you develop a very important memory skill. It’s one that is rarely explained or used, perhaps because psychologists don’t agree on how our minds DO it. There are other problems as well. Researchers have found that recall of very sudden events are seldom recalled very well. When there are several eyewitnesses to crimes, their testimony is often contradictory. Experiments have shown that most witnesses of “sudden events” they are asked to describe will describe “what they expected to see, rather than what actually happened.
Law enforcement agencies know this, and train their agents to be observant, sometimes using some form of “snapshot recall” technique. What is important about this is that to be a good observer or investigator requires training and practice. The exercise you will learn is a variation of this kind of training. It is designed to help you develop the ability to “photograph” the image of what you observe and recall it as it is, not as you expect it to be.
The exercise is very simple. You can train yourself to be observant by DOING IT. Here’s how.
Step 1. Look at any object or set of objects nearby. It can be the branch of a tree, a table with dishes on it, a desk with books and other articles. Look at it for five seconds. Then close your eyes and “visualize” it.
Step 2. Open your eyes and try to recall whether the “image” in your mind was accurate. If you are like most of us, your image differed. It might have differed a lot, or just a little, depending on how observant you are. Try it again, recalling what was different in you image from what you actually saw. Then do it again, until your mental image is as close to what you actually see as you can make it.
There is another part of this step. If you are looking at too-large a scene, and the details are to numerous, narrow the scene you “image” until you can “recall” it accurately. On the other hand, if it is too easy, widen the scene you focus on until it becomes too difficult.
In this exercise, you are your own teacher. You can do it any time you have a few minutes and want to practice. The process improves awareness of specifics in your ability to observe accurately. You may not be aware of how much your “imagination” “fills in” what you miss when you glance at things. Notice as you do the exercise how much more you “pay attention to” as you do it.
Continue to practice until you can look at a set of objects, a picture, a street scene, or an object with complex marks or colors or angles and visualize it as it actually is. For example, you are on the street and see a line of parked cars. Look at them for five seconds, close your eyes and visualize them—their colors, size, location, etc. Notice what you tend to do after the first look. You “notice” and pause a little at each item to make sure that you actually SEE it, are not “filling in” with what you “expect.”
When you have done that for awhile, you will find that you don’t have to take as much time “noticing each thing.” You will get better and better at it, until you will be seeing simpler things accurately the first or second time you go through the process.
You may think that this process is unusual. It’s not. You do something quite similar when you LISTEN TO MUSIC AND THEN TRY TO SING OR PLAY IT. You hear the sound and then reproduce it in you mind. Then you try to use your voice or an instrument to repeat it. After a few tries, or if you are have a good musical ear, you DO reproduce it as you heard it. This is using your sense of hearing, just as this exercise uses your sense of sight. Your mind has an “image,” an auditory image, of the music. Your other senses can function similarly. Wine-taster have hundreds of flavors in their memories that they use to compare with the wines they taste. Blind people use their fingers to read Braille; their memories of the order of raised dots are “images.” Try to recall passing a bakery, and the aroma of baking. You might not know exactly what is being baked, but you know it’s an image of something you eat
You might ask, “What good is this for school work or other practical things?” Here are some suggestions.
1. Look at a mathematical formula you may need to know—really look at it—and then visualize and write it without copying.
2. Find a list of dates, ideas, etc. that you need to know for an exam. Look at the list, close your eyes and visualize it, then write it down.
3. If you take notes in class, look at an entire page and then “visualize” see it, in your mind. If you can’t see the whole page, look at part of it. Or, if you know you will try to visualize your notes, write them so that they are “idea joggers” that will remind you of what you know. THEN visualize the words that will jog your memory to recall the ideas they represent.
You can think of many other applications of this technique. The “snapshot-recall” technique is primarily for short-term memory. Unless you decide to put it into long-term memory, you may not be able to recall the image for long. But if you DO want to keep the information or image, you can use other memory techniques to KEEP it, such as reviewing it immediately, and then the next day, and then a week later. You will have a more vivid image of it, in any case.
We suggest you begin practicing with simple things, and progress to more difficult ones until you have learned to “observe” and “recall” without having to go through several attempts. Practice, and only practice, will make you better at doing this. But once you have this skill, many other memory and learning tools will become easier to use. A final plus from practicing this simple exercise is that YOU ARE IN CONTROL. YOU CAN DO IT ANY TIME YOU WANT TO. YOU CAN DO IT YOUR OWN WAY, AND YOU KNOW IMMEDIATELY WHEN YOU HAVE GOTTEN BETTER AT DOING IT.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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