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Do You Dream in Pictures?

by Dr. Renee Fuller, Ph.D.

“You mean you dream in color - with pictures?” I was incredulous.

My mother nodded. “Of course. Don’t you?”

I shook my head, not quite believing her. At the time I was nine years old and had come to the conclusion that adults sometimes make strange claims - although my mother was different. Could she really dream in pictures? Then how could she tell the real world from the dream world? Or if she closed her eyes, could she make Daddy appear?

Again my mother nodded. “Of course. Can’t you?”

Again I shook my head, fascinated and mystified with this first encounter into the amazing differences of the human mind. My mother shared my fascination. We returned to our original conversation many times over the years, exploring our dissimilar ways of learning, remembering, visualizing, and just being. Eventually I understood why memorizing a poem was so easy for her. She could visualize it. For my mother it was almost like reading a poem off somewhere in space where she had projected it. As for learning to read, when she was five she found she could. Nobody had taught her. Yet at age twelve I was still having trouble deciphering words.

Did my mother think I was “learning disabled” or “dyslexic” because I had so much trouble learning to read? No way! Even my grandfather, a much-quoted professor of experimental psychology, brushed off my inability to read the books he had loved as a child. “She’ll read eventually. Right now she’s busy figuring out how things work.” That was before “learning disability” and “dyslexia” had become a part of our pop culture. What would my grandfather’s response have been to the latest statistic claiming that 20% of all children are “dyslexic?” Most likely peals of laughter. And the claims that Leonardo Da Vinci and Charles Darwin had been “learning disabled?” That would have struck him as equally hilarious. However, he would have been as fascinated as my mother and I had been by the amazing differences in the way we learned and remembered. And he would have wanted to know more about how these differences must be affecting our perception of the world.

If you are like my mother, you’re probably wondering as she did, “How is it possible to dream without pictures? How do you know what’s going on?”

My answer; “It’s that things and people are just there. You don’t have to see them to know they’re there.” She was mystified and asked for further details.

“Can you touch the things or persons in your dreams? Can they talk?”

“I guess they could talk, though they don’t. But sometimes there’s music. Of course I can’t touch them. It’s a dream, not reality.”

Years later, after becoming a physiological psychologist I found myself returning to these conversations with my mother. By that time I understood the linkage between not being able to dream in pictures and why learning to read had been so difficult for me. And I understood what particular aspect of my intelligence made it possible to become the fluent reader I am today. By that time I had also become aware that there are advantages to not being able to rely on memorization, advantages to not being able to create pictures in your head. I had discovered that for me things have to make sense in order to be remembered. Everything that is seen or heard (in other words perceived) immediately has to be placed into a logical framework. This means that my mind functions as a screening device for sense - automatically screening out non-sense. For a scientist having an automatic screening device for sense represents an important advantage. But it also means that exams that test the ability to memorize will be living a nightmare.

Many a parent and all elementary schoolteachers have seen children like myself who struggle with learning to read. If you ask these children to project a scene or a face in their mind, they are likely to look confused. “How can you produce pictures in your mind?” It’s as though you had asked them to make their head into a TV set. Of course their head can’t be a TV set! And if you ask them whether they dream in pictures, their response will be an equally perplexed, “How can you dream in pictures? Dreams are not movies!” Although superficially fluent talkers, these children frequently have a lot of trouble taking words apart in to phonemes. And yet they can be such clever children, taking mechanical things apart and putting them together again. Often they are fascinated with how things work. Which, if reading came easily for you, has you wondering “why are they such duds when it comes to something as simple as taking words apart in phonemes and thereby learning to read?”

My mother and I discovered the answer to that question many years ago when we first found that one of us could dream in pictures, something the other thought was very strange. We had experienced first hand that the brain organization of different people can be very different. And when in seventh grade our teacher, with a lot of fanfare, told us we would learn something new as she wrote an algebra equation on the board I had a repeat experience of how differently what’s in our head can be organized. For my puzzled response to her fanfare was, “We’ve already had that.” And I went up to the board and produced the correct answer after the equal sign.

“Where did you learn that? Who taught it to you?” I searched and searched my memory but couldn’t find the answer. Surely, somebody must have taught me because I already knew about those equations. But who? Much later I recognized the similarity of this experience to my mother’s, when she found she could read without anyone having taught her. It felt like the know-how had always been there - waiting.

So why did I have so much trouble learning to read? If you had asked me at the time why taking words apart was so difficult my answer (at least to myself) would have gone something like this. “How can you take words apart? Words don’t have parts, like a car. Besides, I don’t hear those different sounds that people claim they hear. Maybe they’re just pretending to hear those different sounds. And the funny symbols that are supposed to represent the different sounds - they all look alike.”

Recent research by Dr. Shaywitz at Yale showed that the MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) of dyslexic and/or learning disabled students, like myself, have different cortical activation during reading attempts than those of normal readers. The brain scans show what my mother and I had realized - the human brain can be organized in different ways. My experience that things have to make sense (in other words they have to be high context material) in order for me to recognize them and therefore remember them was probably an accurate description of what was actually transpiring in my head.

But how did I eventually teach myself to read? Was it by practicing how to take words apart into the phonemes I couldn’t hear? Was it by drilling myself with out-of-context words - i.e. word-lists? No such thing! As my research many years later demonstrated, it probably wouldn’t have worked if I had. Instead, I used the abilities that are mine to overcome the ones I lacked. That meant the application of my ability to find context even amidst the jumble of hieroglyphs on the page. The Oz books were my medium. I began with The Wizard of Oz. Since I already knew the story, the book with its large print and entertaining pictures game me the contextual clues that helped me decipher the hieroglyphs and the sounds associated with them. After three weeks, eight hours a day, I finally finished the book. The rest of the Oz books followed. I continued my full-day labors, and at the end of three months it took me only two days to read an Oz book. It had worked! At age twelve I had taught myself to read, just as my grandfather said I would.

Years later I developed a similar, but faster and simpler, way of teaching children like myself to read. Instead of it requiring months of hard labor, our research demonstrated that even severely retarded and “learning disabled” students can become literate in weeks. To accomplish this, a brief and simple phonics lesson is immediately embedded in exciting and entertaining stories. By then I was a presumable “expert” in child development and cognition, and had data from neuroscience and perceptual psychology available to me.

By that time I had also observed that the cognitive differences between people are not just the two categories of learning disabled and normals, but a multitude of variations, reflecting a myriad of talents. There are the visuals and the auditories: People for whom the written page is the easiest route to acquire information and knowledge, and others for whom the human voice is almost essential for learning and remembering. The latter in order to become fluent readers have to teach themselves to hear a human voice when they read. Then there are those who can not only take words apart into phonemes, but excel in building words out of letters in Scrabble games. My mother, who was so good at the first, was a disaster when it came to Scrabble and crossword puzzles. Just as the human face can have a multitude of variations, so can the way we organize and therefore perceive and experience the world that surrounds us.

Because there are so many differences in cognitive organization, effective teaching systems require a loading of the dice. That means that teaching systems should offer many different and alternative routes to learning. Thus if one approach is difficult or impossible for a student, he/she can choose another that comes easily. In our research we had many opportunities to see first hand how effective the technique of loading the dice can be.

The first one we observed involved one of the innovations of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system - its alphabet teaching method. An interesting difference showed up among the students when they were shown how alphabet letters can be made with the three basic forms. High context students learned almost instantly when told “this way your brain will know which parts of a letter to pay attention to, and which parts it can ignore ‘cause they’re just the doohickeys.” Hands-on students (the kinesthetics), on the other hand, remembered most easily when allowed to actually make the letters with the three basic forms. Visual students only had to see how the letters are made. Auditory students responded best when the letter sound was emphatically linked to the visual presentation of letter building. Of especial interest to parents and teachers was our additional finding: Given a teaching system that offers alternative routes to learning, students of all ages and IQ levels tend to guide their teachers into the learning route that is the most effective for them.

But the differences amongst us in how we learn and perceive the world are not limitless. Just as faces, although different from each other, must all have to have a nose, eyes and mouth, there is a fundamental way in which our cognitive processes are identical. It is our ability, in fact our need, to organize our experiences into a narrative, thereby making story organization fundamental to human thinking. People all over our planet, regardless of their culture, organize their experiences, their perceptions of life, by creating stories to explain and remember the happenings around them. All of us, regardless of whether we can take words apart, whether we are visual, kinesthetic, auditory, or context oriented learners, structure our experiences by making a story out of them. This is how we try to understand what is going on around us, how we create our reality. When I was laboring at teaching myself to read I successfully used the power of the story structure - what I have since called the story ingram. Many years later, using a similar technique, we were successful in teaching our students to read - regardless of their age, IQ or learning style.

Because structuring what has to be learned into a story framework is such a powerful facilitator of learning, I see it as the essential component for teaching systems. Stories harness that aspect of cognition that all of us have in common. Regardless of whether we dream in pictures, in color, with sound or without, our brain imposes the story structure on our real world experiences, just as it does on our dreams (albeit the dream stories can be rather weird). By embedding facts into narratives we make them memorable - literally, easy to remember. But even more important, facts embedded in their explanatory stories make it possible for these facts to become a part of thinking. For when we think, we do not do so in factual isolation the way a computer crunches data, rather we make a story out of the facts and think in the framework of the story these facts tell.

An exciting story for parents to share with their children, and teachers with their students, is the one my mother and I found so fascinating - how our minds can be so dissimilar and yet so similar. Like my mother and I, you and the children can experience the astonishment in finding out how differently we dream - in pictures, with sound? “Do you have to hear things in order to remember them? Can you project a poem into space? Can you see Grandma’s face in your mind?” The exploration of how we learn and remember can be an exciting adventure. It tells us more about a youngster than any test, never mind how skillfully administered, thereby letting us know how to help the child learn. And the child will gain a respect for her/his own talents and differences and those of others. But even more important, many years from now the child, like myself, will look back on this exploratory experience with pleasure and love.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media