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Developing mental imagery using a digital camera: A study of adult vocational training

Ken Ryba, Linda Selby and Roy Brown

This study was undertaken to explore the use of a digital camera for mental imagery training of a vocational task with two young adult men with Down syndrome. The results indicate that these particular men benefited from the use of a collaborative training process that involved mental imagery for learning a series of photocopying operations. An outline of a mental imagery assessment method is provided along with a description of the training procedures that were used in the study. Mental imagery was taught and rehearsed by means of a PowerpointTM computer presentation. Trainers and participants worked collaboratively to complete a task analysis and to take photos of each person performing the operations correctly. Through the use of self-modelling and feed forward, participants were able to learn from observing their own actions and, in particular, to learn from ‘successes’ that they have not yet had. On the basis of this pilot study, it is proposed that mental imagery training is an important new approach for collaborative training, especially for individuals whose language systems are not well developed. There is a need, however, for further investigation into the role of mental imagery as this relates to memory, self-regulation and metacognition.



Mental imagery implies the ability of a person to generate images of objects and events. The images can include perceptions of oneself engaging in specific activities or behaviours. These images may be mediated through a number of different modalities including, visual, tactile, kinaesthetic, olfactory, and auditory cues. It is suggested that mental imagery is a distinct ability that can be directly taught and developed. While mental imagery is obviously related to such cognitive functions as memory and visual association, the view advanced here is that imagery can serve an important self-regulation function to facilitate task performance especially for individuals whose language systems are not well developed. Mentally imagery has the potential to provide scaffolding to guide task performance in much the same way as metacognitive strategies that are verbally mediated.

Mental imagery training has been put forward as a "new door to development" of social, educational and life skills for persons with Down syndrome (Brown & Bullitis, 2002). Results of this preliminary work show that many adolescents and adults with Down syndrome appear to have well developed visual imagery. Utilising a set of pictures, individuals were asked to reply to a series of questions, such as "What did you see?"; "Can you talk to him or her?"; and "What did this feel like?" Videotape analysis of the sessions showed that while there was considerable variation amongst individuals, several of the participants, particularly those with Down syndrome verbalised graphic imagery, often with considerable excitement and elaboration. These results suggest that many adults with Down syndrome, perhaps compared with other people with intellectual disabilities, show evidence of vivid mental imagery as is often required in dance and drama situations where visualisation is often used as a rehearsal technique.

The effectiveness of mental imagery as a method for facilitating recall has been demonstrated in experimental studies using paired associate learning (Davidson, 1964; Levin and Kaplan, 1972). These studies indicate that imagery can improve performance on paired-associate tasks (Richardson, 1998). More recently, Fernandez, Buceta and Campos (2004) have shown that adults with Down syndrome who use mental imagery for paired-associate learning have higher levels of recall compared with the use of learning by repetition alone. These results lend support to the use of mental imagery as a learning approach with adults who have Down syndrome.

On another front, the advent of digital camera technology has opened new opportunities for research and development of learning programmes for all students, especially those with special educational needs (Ryba, Curzon & Selby, 2002). The availability of low cost digital cameras and their ease of operation offer some new and ecologically sound methods of using the medium for education and cognitive development.

The purpose of this study was to investigate whether provoking mental imagery through training, utilising digital cameras and multimedia presentation software, could be built into an effective training strategy. The aim was to use a digital camera in a systematic way to create learning sequences tailored to individual needs, and using instructions that direct learning to the retention and use of the visual and allied imagery. The advantage of the digital camera is that it is highly portable and can be easily used to augment learning and communication in a range of settings. For example:

  • Photos can be used to recall people and events, to rehearse names and to discuss activities and achievements
  • Work tasks can be analysed and recorded with photos and video clips for training purposes
  • Social interactions such as introductions and greetings can be photographed for rehearsal and overlearning
  • Shopping skills can be taught through photographs and video sequences taken in actual settings
  • Photos and video clips can be integrated within presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint TM) to support the development of expressive language
  • The technology lends itself to a task analysis and facilitates a sequence of operations

The work of Brown and Bullitis (2002) and Brown, Bayer and Brown (1992) suggests that many people have rudimentary imagery while others can provide highly active material projecting themselves into a variety of situations using motor movement, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic imagery. The recorded responses were highly varied but suggested that many individuals with Down syndrome could evoke considerable mental imagery, and use it in considering responses in a variety of problem solving situations provoked by looking at a wide range of pictures. Following their removal, the individuals discussed elements of the picture content and examined their ability to manipulate those components in a range of social situations.

The ability to engage in different modes of imagery may be especially valuable for complex task performance in social and vocational situations. For example, the mental imaging could be used for teaching social behaviours involved in greeting others appropriately and understanding and respecting the concept of personal space. Vocationally, mental imaging could be applied to teach an individual how to operate a machine through following visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic cues in the correct sequence. It may be that complex tasks such as these can be taught more effectively when mental imagery is combined with traditional forms of verbal instruction.

Mental imagery for improving memory and task performance

Despite the awareness of the educational benefits of computer use for instructional purposes, there is a lack of information on the extent to which these new educational technologies can be used to facilitate cognitive growth and self-regulation of learning.

Few systematic studies have been undertaken to study the effects of information communication technology (ICT) on memory, language acquisition, and speech production. It may be, for example, that digital cameras and multimedia can be used to assist with the development of expressive language and various forms of problem solving. The potential value of such approaches is highlighted by recent research indicating that people with Down syndrome experience problems with speech production on the basis of verbal cues. In contrast, there is evidence that while individuals with Down syndrome may be slower than others of a similar mental age when reacting to auditory cues, they are just as capable of efficiently processing visual cues and signals (Welsh & Elliot, 2000).

Individuals with Down syndrome appear to have particular difficulties with short-term memory compared with others at the same developmental level (MacKenzie & Hulme, 1987). There is evidence from several studies to indicate, however, that they perform significantly better on tasks that involve processing and recall of visually presented material compared with listening tasks. Moreover, presenting the material visually seems to improve performance on verbal and nonverbal tasks that require the individual to carry out some specific action. It may be that the systematic application of mental imagery training can assist with the development of short-term and long-term memory through self-regulation of task performance.

Traditionally, special education has tended to emphasise short-term listening memory and the development of techniques that help the learner to retain and subsequently recall information. There is cause for concern, however, that if the auditory system is not well developed then the learner will experience difficulty with storing information and recalling this correctly. Moreover, the auditory system depends on a "language to think with" in which the learner uses self-talk to regulate memory and task performance. Learners are frequently encouraged to listen and rehearse tasks by repeating the information sub-vocally. Research shows, however, that people with Down syndrome often lack this silent speech that most children develop at around four years of age (MacKenzie & Hulme, 1992). The practical implication of this research is that learners with Down syndrome may benefit from being taught nonverbal mental rehearsal strategies that they can apply to recall information in the correct sequence, which may be linked to the auditory components. Once students understand about rehearsal, they appear more able to apply these skills, for example, to remember telephone numbers or to deliver messages (Lorenz, 1998).

The use of visual imagery for rehearsal has been applied as a training technique with teenagers to teach them a strategy for recalling names. One study involved showing and naming a set of pictures in a fixed sequence. Later on, the pictures were removed and the young people were encouraged to repeat and rehearse the name without the visual cues (Comblain, 1994). Likewise, another study by Broadley (1994) made use of a 'windows' device in which pictures could be inserted behind the text. These studies show that the use of visual prompts to scaffold task performance is more effective than the use of verbally presented material alone. While such studies are focused on visual rehearsal, it is reasonable to propose that systematic instruction in imagery using a number of different modalities may scaffold memory and task performance. Approaches such as these lend themselves to the use of digital photo technology and multimedia where sound, photos, text and graphics can readily be incorporated into a training sequence.

The above studies suggest that rehearsal techniques that include visual prompts and other forms of mental imagery may assist persons whose language system is not well developed to remember and correctly perform a variety of tasks. Accordingly, it is suggested that teaching individuals to create mental images of successful task performance may be an effective way of training them to perform complex tasks that are not dependent on auditory recall.

Imagery training and feed forward

Imagery training has been an important dimension of recent work by Peter Dowrick and colleagues in the Creating Futures Project at the University of Hawaii (Dowrick, 2000). Creating Futures is an intervention approach that emphasises the potential to learn from observing one's own successful actions, in particular, to learn from 'successes' that the learner has not yet had. This is accomplished through providing feed forward thereby creating images of adaptive behaviour that have not yet been achieved. By building up pictures of the person performing skills that are already available edited together, she or he can see herself or himself performing new tasks that they have not yet mastered. For example, a student can be taught to get to and from school or work safely by preparing and following a videotaped learning sequence in which she is shown correctly performing the required steps (e.g. stay on footpath, check traffic left and right before crossing). The approach is based largely on the philosophy of self modelling in which learners receive "feed forward" about what they will be able to do in the future as opposed to traditional forms of feedback about what they have done in the past (Keys & Dowrick, 2001). Mental imagery training and feed forward fit well with other theoretical influences, such as constructed environments and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1993), and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978).

The Alaska Center for Human Development and the Anchorage School District is carrying out a Video Futures Project that teaches school staff to use positive Video Futures strategies (self-modelling, video explorations) with students at risk of dropping out of high school, to improve educational outcomes and transitions to adult life. The project involves collaboration between educators, high school students with disabilities, and their families. Educators and community support workers were taught the basics of video production and the theory and applications of video self-modelling. Teachers and trainers produced short videotapes that showed students in desired roles, editing the video footage to retain adaptive-only skills and behaviour. This strategy has proven efficacious in preventing course failure and dropout, promoting generalisation of academic and vocational skills, and developing pro-social behaviours. It is also being adopted by clinicians for more therapeutic issues, such as autistic behaviour and emotional problems (Dowrick & Skouge, 2001)

Implications for training

Research and demonstration projects suggest that mental imagery training with digital cameras could provide a valuable context for scaffolding the learning of adults with Down syndrome. These implications can be summarised as follows:

  1. Collaborative research process: Mental imagery training with digital cameras lends itself to a collaborative research process in which parents, adults with Down syndrome, researchers, and training staff can work together to undertake specific, individualised projects.
  2. Personally meaningful and relevant learning sequences: Mental imagery training is most likely to be effective when it employs carefully planned learning sequences that are highly meaningful to the learner and actively engage them in the process of photographing and presenting the results. Moreover, it is important to ensure that the person has the ability to engage in mental imaging. If this capacity does not exist then such training is likely to be a hindrance. It is essential, therefore, to provide experience and instruction in mental imaging prior to the outset of training.
  3. Needs-based adaptive behaviour: Digital cameras can be used to capture positive self-images of adaptive-only behaviour. These images can be used as a positive support for facilitating a range of skills and behaviours. This may include training in specific work tasks, job interviews, speech intelligibility, activities of daily living such as mobility and dressing, anger management, and dating behaviour.
  4. Self-modelling: Modeling is a powerful and effective way to learn. Visual imagery training with digital cameras enables the learner to see himself or herself performing positively. Viewing oneself as a competent, highly engaged "learning model" can enhance self-efficacy and the acquisition of specific skills. In other words, self image and therefore personal control of activity is likely to be enhanced.
  5. Positive adult-oriented learning approach: Digital cameras are widely used by adults for a variety of purposes. The immediacy of digital picture taking, the ability to share photos, and the context provided for working collaboratively with others are all advantages of the method.
  6. Functional assessment and skill development: Taking photos with a digital camera by the person who is learning, and incorporating these into a multimedia presentation are important skills that can enhance social skills, work performance and quality of life. The collaborative work provides a good context for authentic assessment of learning that is positive and unobtrusive.

Research questions

The following research questions were put forward to guide the study:

  1. Did the adults with Down syndrome engage in mental imagery?
  2. Can digital cameras and multimedia be used to scaffold the development of mental imaging?
  3. What are the effects of mental imagery training and digital camera work and how useful is this in developing effective learning and performance of vocational tasks?

It is important to recognise that this report is not aimed at proving the existence of mental imagery or deciding on the relative value of particular digital camera use. Rather, it is directed at seeing how these strategies outlined above can be combined. It is also directed at making observations of the behaviour of individuals through noting their use of particular components and the successes and challenges they encountered and how they dealt with these situations.



The intention of this exploratory study was to trial the use of some new methods for assessing and training mental imagery. This involved systematically training the participants to make use of mental images to guide their task performance. For this purpose, an authentic training task (photocopying) was chosen. Photocopying was selected as the training task on the basis that this would provide practical work skills of benefit to the participants. The two young men with Down syndrome who participated in this study were viewed as project associates and were recognised in the writing of this paper with their enthusiastic consent. The authors believe this recognition is ethically appropriate and desirable when appropriately consented to, and results in motivation and positive self image.

The Down Syndrome Research Foundation, where the study was carried out, had recently acquired a large commercial copier with the intention of setting up a bulk copying operation. It was hoped that by training these two adult participants, they could gain a potential employment opportunity as photocopy operators. The photocopying training sequence enabled on-going assessment through the systematic collection of data and information before, during, and after training on specific learning sequences. In addition to task performance data, a mental imaging assessment was also carried out pre- and post- training.

A collaborative research process was used to ensure a direct link between research and practice and to capitalise on the skills and experience of the individuals in the group. The initial planning group involved participants, parents, and researchers in working together to select an appropriate task and to plan the training schedule.

The photocopying task was selected by the research group for the following reasons:

  1. To reinforce and further develop the work skills and abilities of the participants.
  2. The two young men with Down syndrome and the Down Syndrome Research Foundation were interested in skill development in this area.
  3. To provide a suitable context for assessing and developing mental imagery in order to scaffold their thinking processes.
  4. To provide an opportunity for the development of skills and experience with using information and communication technologies.
  5. To develop a digital record of the participants skills and abilities which could be of interest to themselves, significant others and future employees.


The participants in the study were Brian (age 31) and Christopher (age 25). Brian attended "special education" throughout his schooling but was integrated into many activities with his peers. After completing high school, he attended a local community college career awareness programme and has had several volunteer positions in the community. Christopher attended both elementary and secondary schools in his local community. After graduation, he completed a one-year community college programme in reading and writing and was then accepted into a career awareness programme at another post secondary institution. He travels and participates independently in community events and sports activities. Both young men are physically fit and keenly interested in sports and in gaining greater independence and increased work skills.

Vocational training task

The photocopier was a large commercial machine capable of a full range of options including copying, stapling, collating and enlarging/reducing original materials.

Three copying sequences of increasing difficulty were used for training:

  • Task 1 - copy 2 pages
  • Task 2 - copy, collate and staple 2 pages
  • Task 3 - copy, collate, enlarge, and staple 2 pages

Both participants had some prior familiarity with copying but had not independently operated this machine.

Pre-assessment of concepts involved in mental imagery training

As an extension of previous research, the present study investigated whether these skills could be used to advantage by people with Down syndrome in formal task situations. The initial aim was to design tasks where the role of imagery, if employed, could be recognized and recorded either quantitatively or qualitatively. In order to do this, it was considered desirable to link the mental imagery with recognized learning strategies such as spaced learning, modelling, cue enhancement and personal motor activity.

A number of approaches were applied in order to assess and rehearse the mental imagery aspects. First, the vocabulary of the individuals was ascertained in relation to mental imagery. This included recognition of and basic understanding of the words brain, mind, and image. For example, "Picture in your head." Simply pointing to one's head was taken as an indicator that the individual knew the location of the brain. Once established, the words identified by the individual were used in the imagery production process. Their familiarity with and commenting on imagery (particularly visual imagery) was noted and an assessment of this before and after training was administered on an individual basis.

Gross eye movements were noted as well as any motor behaviours. This process was not only done in the pre- and post- assessment of mental imagery but also during the demonstration, modelling and carrying out of the tasks. Participants were also given directions for mental imagery for example, "Think of it in your brain", and "Do you remember what you saw?" Similar phrases were employed in demonstration and when individuals had a mental block in applying their knowledge to the activity. Visual positioning in terms of imagery was also provoked, for example, by asking "Can you remember, can you see it in your brain - one along and two down." "Can you imagine it-in the middle." "What colour is the button that you press?" "Where is it?" This was required in terms of an indication on a blank piece of paper covering the photocopier screen at this stage, thus provoking imagery of colour and position so that this could be applied when faced with the real situation again. For example, after showing a photo of a layout it was covered over and the individual asked to point to where it was actually located and what colour it was. Participants were also encourage to state what sounds were made by the machinery at specific stages.

It is important to remember that in this study we are not attempting to "prove" mental imagery, but make use of the process and observe whether we can, in a pilot project, pick up indicators of the use of imagery.

Collaborative learning method

A collaborative learning sequence was set up in which the researchers and participants worked together over a two-day period. During this time, they tried out the assessment procedures, carried out an analysis of the copying tasks, prepared the PowerpointTM presentations, rehearsed the copying tasks, and socialised together over lunch and coffee breaks. Table 1 gives a brief description of the steps in the sequence.

Step Description
1. Baseline Assessment of Mental Imagery The individual assessment consisted of: a) Gaining an appreciation of the participant's understanding of their thinking and imagery. For this purpose, they were asked to describe or define particular words such as mind, brain, imagination (pictures in your head), and imagery. b) Photos of participants and other selected images. Each photo was displayed in turn using a PowerpointTM presentation. The order of the slides was as follows: (1) ferry; (2) man (Ken) washing dishes, (3) woman (Linda) on phone, (4) participant operating photocopier. Each photo was presented by computer for 10 seconds and then removed. Each individual was asked to indicate what they had seen, what activities were taking place, who the people were and whether the participant could imagine being in the picture and carrying out specific activities. Eye movements during pre- and post presentation were noted and the verbal content was tape recorded.
2. Baseline Assessment of the Three Copying Tasks One of the researchers explained and demonstrated the set of operations required. Participants were asked individually to perform a set of operations independently. The sequence was as follows: Demonstration 1 - Basic copying Individual performance Demonstration 2 - Copy, collate and staple Individual performance Demonstration 3 - Enlarge, copy, collate and staple Individual performance Notes were taken.
3. Digital Camera Training Participants were taught how to use the digital camera and took turns taking photos of one another using the copier.
4. Collaborative Task Recording Researchers and participants worked together to take photos of each step in the copying sequence. Photos were taken with each participant to show them how to perform the task correctly. Notes were taken.
5. PowerPoint TM Presentation The researchers and participants worked together to download photos from the camera to the computer in order to prepare a presentation showing the copying sequence with text and digital photo illustrations, for example, "press collate", "press staple", "press start".
6. Rehearsal and Mental Imagery Training Each participant worked individually with one of the researchers to rehearse a copying task. The powerpoint slides were used to practice the mental imaging for each task. For example:
"First press collate" (Slide displays a photo of the participant's finger pressing the collate button.) The participant was asked to press collate on the slide. Then the slide was covered with a sheet of paper and the individual was asked "Shut your eyes and imagine where the 'collate' key is." "Now, point to the 'collate' key". The cover paper was then removed to provide visual confirmation to the participant on whether his image of the key's position was correct. Each task rehearsal took about 15 minutes following which the participant was invited to perform the task.
(The rehearsal and task assessment was carried out separately for each of the 3 tasks in order.)
7. Post Training Assessment of Copying Tasks Participants were asked to independently carry out the copying task following rehearsal. They were given a verbal instruction by the researcher corresponding to the task that they had just rehearsed. For example, "Please copy these two pages", "Please copy and staple these two pages." "Please enlarge these two pages to 130 percent and then copy and staple." Notes were taken.
8. Post Training Assessment of Mental Imagery The PowerpointTM presentation used in the baseline assessment was readministered. Each photo was displayed in turn. The order of the slides was as follows: (1) ferry; (2) Ken washing dishes, (3) Linda on phone, (4) participant operating photocopier. The identical procedures were followed to the pre-assessment.

Table 1. Collaborative Learning Sequence


This section presents the pre- versus post-training assessment results for the mental imagery and a comparison of task performance on the photocopier before and after training. Table 1 displays the responses to the photos used in each assessment. This is followed by a reflective evaluation of the outcomes for each participant.

Imagery concept check: pre-training assessment

Brian: When asked the meaning of brain, Brian pointed to his head and said "in head." He was confused over the word 'mind'. He stated that he was able to imagine pictures in his head. Asked to think about a box he closed his eyes and when asked to speak about it he said, "Dianne has one. Like Robert's. Small". To a request to think about a car he said "It is small-a blue truck. BMW." Asked to think of opening the front door to the car he says, "Yes" and mimes opening the door by turning a key. Asked if he can make himself sit in the front seat he said, "Yes, by my Mom".

Christopher: Christopher knew the word 'brain' and pointed to his head. He said he can "sometimes" imagine pictures in his brain. Asked to think about a box he said, "Yes" and, "It is big and grey". The car he is asked to imagine is said to be black and he stated he can open the front door. Asked to sit in the front seat, he at first said "I can't", but then spontaneously says "yes, the road-on the road" Asked whether there was anything else he says "Nothing else going on in my head. Stuck in my head and won't come out".

Mental imaging: pre- versus post-training assessment

Each person made a number of identical remarks in both the pre- and post assessment, but on the second occasion additional remarks and behaviours occurred. It is these, for the most part and for the sake of brevity, which are described in Table 2. Note that all remarks in the pre- and post-training assessment were made after the photos had been removed.

Brian: reflective analysis

It was evident in both the pre- and post-assessment that Brian accurately remembered what he had seen. He knew what was going on and he described, at least minimally, action particularly in the last picture, which was of himself at the photocopier. He showed eye movements and scanning when he described the picture, which he saw earlier. At times he closed his eyes and then described what was going on. Mental imagery seemed very likely and appeared to involve colour and movement. He mimed actions that were related to his "imaging" of the picture. This is a common feature of his behaviour. His speech was sometimes unclear and those remarks that were clear were often brief statements without much elaboration. Visual images seem to have predominated with some possible sound and movement. Although the statements regarding what he saw were brief, they are accurate. The post-assessment protocol appears richer in information, scanning, considering possibilities (sometimes spontaneously shutting eyes and miming). There was spontaneous verbalisation during the showing of one picture. There is more detail; more responding to each picture after it was removed. Comments relating to sound and touch were present as well as visual aspects of the removed picture. He used considerable miming and imitation. He stopped several times to "consider" with head slightly tilted. Sometimes, he pointed to his head.

Brian Christopher
*Pre-training Assessment *Post-training Assessment *Pre-training Assessment *Post-training Assessment
Photo 1 - Ferry

He said "a cruise boat", and there are "people on boat" What are they doing? "Traveling" He could not put himself on the boat. Asked if there is a café on the boat he says "yes". "There is a bar" and he gestured with his hands. He then went on to talk about his cooking classes.
Photo 1 - Ferry

He said "this is a ferry" and adds, "Going to Alaska". He said he could imagine himself on the boat "hopping around, sports." Café, can you see it? "Yes - buffet. Any kind - love boat - swimming pool - surfboard, clothes."
Photo 1 - Ferry

He said "A ferry. Going on one on Friday. Lot of people." Can you see the people? "No." He perseverates on "Going on ferry this Friday".
Photo 1 - Ferry

"Nice ferry". This time he said he could see the people on the ferry. He said, "Yes of course, lots of people on the ferry." What are they doing? "Eating and sleeping". Can you imaging yourself on the ferry? " Yes". He said he is eating and sleeping. "There is a restaurant on the ferry. Can you see it? "Yes". Go to the restaurant and buy something. "Food, eggs and toast." What have you bought? "Chicken burger. Tastes nice and fries and ketchup."
Photo 2 - Ken washing dishes He said it's about, "washing your dishes" "Clean". The bowl, he said is "brown" and then corrects to "grey". He states the person washing the dishes is "Ken". Asked to put himself in the picture and asked what are you doing he replies, "at home, all myself. Picture good." The water is said to be "cold" and "hot". Photo 2 - Ken washing dishes He said "Bowl is grey". When asked "can you put yourself in the picture - what are you doing?", he replies "Washing with soap and water. Wash dishes, cups knives, spoons." When asked "What does the water feel like?", he says "Good, drink." When asked "Anything else in the picture?" Brian says "Kitchen. Hop around my backyard." Photo 2 - Ken Washing Dishes Said he sees a man cooking in the kitchen. The sink is grey. Who is the person? "Man, just a man." Can you put yourself in the picture? He replied "at home" Now? "No". Can see yourself doing that? "Just breakfast dishes- Mom does it always." What does the water feels like?" He laughed "Cold." Photo 2 - Ken washing dishes What did you see? "Man wash dishes." Tell me about it? "Does them and puts them away." (Spontaneous addition to the picture.) He insists the man in the picture is a stranger. Can you put yourself in the picture? What are you doing? "Washing dishes." Can you see yourself doing that? "Yes". What does the water feel like? "Freezing (laughs). Wash all right, yes". Is there anything else going on? "Just washing dishes."
Photo 3 - Woman (Linda) on phone He says "picking up a telephone talking to a friend." When asked to shut his eyes and can you see it now?", he said, "see my picture good." Saw himself and described picking up the phone. He mimed this. He said " It is blue, it feels hard." But asked whether it is heavy he said "light". Asked to imagine dialing a friend he said he wants to tell his friend that it was his birthday last week. He said he was talking to "Tom". He elaborates on this. Photo 3 - Woman (Linda) on phone He says "Linda on phone" He verbalized while the picture was shown. What did you see? He shuts his eyes. "Talking to Archer. Linda - pick up telephone. Talking - yes." When asked "Can you put yourself in the picture?" he shuts his eyes, "Yes". Can you hold the phone?: "Yes" See yourself? " Yes". What colour is it?: " Blue". What does it feel like?: "Good, heavy." I want you to dial a friend: Mimes dialing. "Girlfriend, Jean is …. (unclear) phoning." Who are you talking to?: "Anybody." What are you saying?: "Have a good h… (Unclear)." Said he has lost the picture and talks about kitchen and cooking tomatoes. Photo 3 - Woman (Linda) on phone "A woman on the phone". Can you see it now? "Nothing, I can't." Can you hold the phone? "In my family room." "My grandmother's one". Does not want to talk about it further. "Just a woman on the phone." Photo 3 - Woman (Linda) on phone Notes the items same as on the first occasion. What is happening "Nothing on the phone." Can you hold the phone? He laughed "Yes, That's funny." What colour is it? "White." What does it feel like? "Cold, freezing." Is it heavy? "No-good." I want you to phone a friend. He looked puzzled. "Can't." He pulled a face. Who are you talking to? "Can't, can't (whispered this)."
*Pre-training Assessment *Post-training Assessment *Pre-training Assessment *Post-training Assessment
Photo 4 - Brian at photocopier To the photocopier he indicates it is "grey-green, start, press". There were complex eye movements as if he was scanning an image of the photocopier. He said he could see the start button. Asked what happens if pressed he replied, "paper laid down copying, pick up copies". He mimes the process. To the question, What can you see?, he answered "Yes". To the question, What can you hear? he again answers "yes", but closes his eyes and said, "Paper stuck in it". Finally he states his "picture is good." Photo 4 - Brian at photocopier Brian said he was looking at the big screen "Photocopier machine, brand new one." Can you see copy button? "Grey." If you press it what happens? "It starts, copies." What can you hear? He looked as if listening and then imitated sound of the photocopier. Is there anything else going on in picture? "Me." Then continued on apparently unrelated ideas. Photo 4 - Brian at photocopier What are you looking at? He laughs and says "Me!" What does it look like "Green". Tell me about it. "Pushing the button". If you press it tell me what happens. "Begins." What can you see? "Yes." What can you hear? "Noises coming out." "Me talking". What are you saying? "Nothing much" What can you feel?" "Tired- when pressed button feel like a man." What can you see in your mind? "Nothing except myself. Nothing else in room except machine - the machine - doing fine." Photo 4 - Brian at photocopier Said it was a "TV screen, big." Tell me about it? "Paper in the screen." Can you see the start button? "Yes - green." If you press it tell me what happens? " Paper goes out". What can you see? "Nothing." …Hear? "Nothing.". … Feel? "Nothing." (On previous occasion made no verbal response to these questions.) Anything else? "No."
*Note: all remarks were made after the photos had been removed

Table 2. Pre- Versus Post-training Assessment of Mental Imagery

Christopher: reflective analysis

Christopher did not mime, nor were eye movements readily apparent. It is difficult to be sure of what he imaged although he reported recalling the essential features of the pictures he had seen, including colours. He was accurate. He talked about action and became excited when he saw himself. His spontaneous remark, "feel like a man" suggests identification and positive self image in this context. He may have imaged sound and appears to 'view' movement. A few of his responses suggest some anxiety in the situation. Christopher appeared to also retain the main characteristics in the pictures but was unable to name who was in the picture except on the last occasion, when he enthusiastically stated it was a picture of him at the photocopier. His language was abbreviated, but his speech was reasonably clear and therefore easy to record. In the post assessment, Christopher made a greater number of responses to all pictures. His responses were more elaborate and essentially accurate. He described what was there, but in most instances the responses suggested a static scene. He described what happened, but did not describe action nor did he put himself in the picture with action, except possibly in pictures one and two.

Photocopying task: pre- versus post-comparison


Following a physical demonstration by one of the researchers, Brian and Christopher were able to independently carry out task 1 - basic copying. However, neither participant was able to carry out the two more complex tasks involving copying, collating, enlarging, and stapling after demonstration.


Both participants were able to accurately and efficiently perform the two complex tasks: (1) Copying, collating and stapling; and, (2) Enlarging, copying, collating and stapling. Brian carefully performed each step in the task and seemed to mentally check that he was using the correct operations. He pointed to his head with his finger, apparently with the intention of prompting or cueing each step in the sequence. Christopher, on the other hand, rapidly performed the copying tasks by 'shooting' with his finger at each button and adjustment. The finger shooting seemed to mediate task performance by directing his attention to the relevant button and adjustment on the touch sensitive video screen controls.


1. Did the participants engage in mental imagery?

Although it is difficult to know exactly what Brian and Christopher were imaging, they appeared to build up and demonstrate a bank of images for recalling a sequence of operations. Evidence of this included them showing the correct sequence of operations and verbally reporting on cues (visual, auditory and tactile) that they used to guide their performance. Familiarity with the task may have assisted in this, though mental imagery was discussed with examples on the initial familiarisation occasion, making unfamiliarity less likely. Manipulation of pictures seemed easier for Brian than Christopher and it is of interest that Brian said he had been involved in drama. Brown and Bullitis (2002) noted that individuals who had taken drama classes or acting seemed more readily able to manipulate mental images. It also appeared that Brian either understood what was required or had greater facility in dealing with imagery. He appeared to develop a strategy with planned time for thinking or recalling (i.e. head on one side, finger pointing to his head, and considerable eye scanning) even when the picture was not present. He also describes action on several occasions and this included his description of himself. Eye scanning was less apparent with Christopher although his use of finger shooting appeared to also direct his attention to performing the relevant operations of the task in correct order. He would point at each touch sensitive button on the video in turn and then make a shooting sound prior to touching the selection or making an adjustment.

Christopher seemed to show some anxiety in the situation, particularly on the first occasion. This may have been because the questions were unfamiliar to him (particularly if he did not understand what was required or had limited imagery compared with Brian). An alternative explanation is that the actual items or activities themselves may have made Christopher feel anxious. Previous research by Brown and Bullitis (2002) noted that some individuals sought to avoid imagining certain objects or situations as these stimuli caused them to feel anxious (e.g. imagine warming your hands by the fire). Christopher also tended to get in a pattern of joking on the second occasion. He maintained that he did not know who the people were in the pictures saying they were strangers (also laughing). He may well have known and after the assessment gave a similar response when talking about Linda or Ken. Christopher enjoyed teasing and joking but he also appeared not to want to imagine some of the events despite the fact that, apart from the comments on individuals, his description of what the pictures showed was accurate. Brian readily used imagery, and there were clear indications of it in his response to training. It was possible to cue him into mental imagery in training to assist in making correct responses. In Christopher's case other strategies appeared more effective. It appears there may be many individual differences in the use of mental imagery. This is very likely since children and adults are not directly trained or educated in imagery processes. One of the exceptions to this is for people who take drama classes or go into acting.

2. Can digital cameras and multimedia be used to scaffold mental imaging?

At this stage we believe it is possible to combine ICT with imagery training, using it to provide demonstration and external prompts. It can be adapted to the interest of the individual thus heightening or maintaining effective motivation. While we found some qualitative evidence of the use of mental imagery, it appears to be important to ensure the individual recognises that she or he has mental imagery in the first place. If the individual does not make use of imagery then much more external cueing is likely to be necessary. With both participants in this study, the adaptation of the training approach to individual interests, language, and cueing mechanisms enabled the participants to master the task and experience success in their learning achievements.

An important feature of using ICT for the mental imagery training was that it enabled both participants to interactively locate themselves in the task and to build up a sequential picture of them effectively engaging in a meaningful activity. While the technical requirements of learning to use the ICT placed extra demands on the two participants, it was noted that active engagement in the technical aspects were well within their capabilities and that the higher cognitive loading was offset by the intrinsic appeal of the digital camera and multimedia work. Furthermore, the technology provided a more mature and adult-oriented context compared with traditional training methods that are, by their very nature, often more passive and non-interactive.

One of the messages arising from recent quality of life work is the importance of recognizing variability in approaches, knowledge, likes and dislikes, and sense of personal involvement and control in the situation (Schalock et. al., 2002). This was evident in the way that we were able to adapt the person's own language to the task including the use of fantasy to learn the process (e.g. Christopher firing a gun). The mental imagery training made use of Brian and Christopher's own images and they were also able to include their own interests. Christopher used his own video camera to help take photos and Brian enjoyed setting up the equipment and downloading photos into the computer. A feature of the training process is that the camera, computer and copier all provided concrete and meaningful feedback on progress and whether the task has been carried out correctly, and reinforced visual aspects of learning. Christopher and Brian were very motivated to work and perceived the photocopying as meaningful and authentic jobs. Indeed, one of the participants referred to the task as "a man's job".

3. What are the effects of mental imagery training and digital camera work?

Whether or not the mental imaging exists in a visual form for the participant may not be so important as the cueing function that the imagery serves. On the basis of the results, it can be speculated that the use of such cueing becomes an important strategy for promoting memory and task performance. Such cues may be valuable in directing attention to the relevant dimensions of the task. Research on attention theory and discrimination learning (Zeaman & House, 1963) has shown that while students with intellectual disabilities initially experience problems identifying the relevant dimensions of a task, their learning follows a similar pattern to all other students once they learn to operate on the relevant task dimensions. It is interesting to speculate that the self-cueing aspect of the imagery training appeared to direct the attention of the participants to the relevant steps and sequence of the copying tasks.

Although it is not possible to identify which aspects were particularly useful in such a complex array of strategies, there is no doubt that the integrated approach resulted in effective performance over a relatively brief period of time. Although the piloting and development of the mental imagery approach occurred over a two-day period, the actual amount of direct training time was approximately 45-60 minutes. It was possible to readily identify an individual's interests, to assess their basic performance and to make a rudimentary assessment of mental imagery so that key aspects from these could be built into the training programme. The use of personal language and strategies (e.g. sounds, gestures, head-tilting) helps to make the training task concrete and meaningful. In turn, this individualisation increases the likelihood that the person can actively engage and perform tasks correctly over a series of trials.

Anxiety may be an issue for some people who do not understand or wish to consider the use of imagery. Christopher showed anxiety, which apparently is not uncommon for him in new situations, but it also appeared that he might have more difficulty in using or recognizing he had mental imagery. Thus the use of a camera to film actions and pictures to help recognize procedures proved helpful. Brian was able to make use of imagery in his learning. In other words it appeared that one participant was most comfortable with external structures to prompt leaning whereas the other could internalize the processes and lock into his mental imagery as a structure to promote his learning. One would hypothesize that this latter approach is likely to be more helpful if it can be used, as it would help the individual learn more rapidly and to generalize more effectively. It may also be helpful in retaining the sequence of events over time, though this hypothesis remains to be tested.

Prior to the first session the three researchers spent some time (around 2 hours on a previous day) talking to Brian and Christopher and their mothers. Later the two men were seen individually to enable them and the researchers to become familiar with one another. They were interested and keen to be involved. Christopher was a video camera enthusiast and brought his own equipment along to do some recording of the training sessions. It was considered important at the outset to develop these working relationships as collaborative learning was a key strategy of this vocational training project. Moreover, mental imagery training is most likely to succeed when it is done within the context of a comfortable and respectful working relationship. A particularly satisfying aspect of the project was the opportunity to work in partnership within a socially interactive and stimulating training environment.

The collaborative approach used in this project was found to be an appropriate and effective method for working with adults. The relationship building aspects together with the exploratory nature of the project meant that it became a joint enterprise for all concerned. Brian and Christopher worked in collaboration with Roy, Linda and Ken to trial the mental imagery procedure. This involved carrying out a task analysis and deciding on photos to be taken. Working together, the team set up the collaborative learning tasks (enlarging, copying and stapling). This involved much trial and error as they took various photos and put these together into a PowerpointTM presentation. An assessment of mental imagery was also developed in collaboration with Brian and Christopher. Over a two day period, the researchers and participants had planning meetings, carried out work trials, developed training sequences, and had lunch and coffee breaks together. Overall, this collaboration provided a basis for genuine partnerships and collegial working relationships that are an essential component of adult development and quality of life.

Suggestions for future research and practice

It is apparent that there are difficulties with defining mental imagery as a discrete ability. Moreover, it is problematic to operationally define and measure the construct without taking into account the contribution of other related dimensions, for example, memory and visual association. Notwithstanding these concerns, mental imagery can be thought of as a unified construct that reflects the ability of a person to utilize a number of cognitive and emotional processes in order to generate images of herself or himself engaging in specific task sequences. Results of this study indicate that the most important feature of mental imagery may be the function that it serves in self-awareness and regulation of task performance (i.e. metacognitive events).

Individuals whose language system is not well developed and have limited speech may especially benefit from mental imagery training as a metacognitive problem-solving strategy.

This was a pilot project that points to the need for future research. Some specific suggestions include:

  • Refinement of the imagery training assessment and training process
  • Development of more effective ways for identifying and utilising mental imagery
  • Analysis of preferred modalities for imaging through motor activity, visualisation, auditory cues, tactile and kinaesthetic cues.

Further research is required to build a model that can be applied to guide the development of approaches to mental imagery training and to determine their effective for teaching and learning in all areas of work, home and community life.

As a footnote, the two men continued training with a small group of university summer students who worked with them to improve their photocopying and allied skills using the methodology developed in this project.


The authors are grateful to the Down Syndrome Research Foundation for their support in making this study possible. Thanks also to Sheryl Dickson, Sue Macht, and Jo Mills for their assistance in planning the project. Thanks also to Kam Srikamaswaran who produced a videotape programme on the project for teaching and research purposes.


Dr Ken Ryba • College of Education, Massey University, Private Bag 102 904, North Shore MSC, Auckland, New Zealand • E-mail: • Tel: +64 9 443-9688


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