SLTinfo logo

Using Mental Images

Key word technique

Forming a mental image gives us another cue when we come to recall information. In addition, the effort we make in forming the image will help to fix it in our memory. This works best if the images we form are large, colorful and bizarre, as we tend to remember distinctive items rather than everyday items.

Using mental images when you first start to learn a new language, for example, has proved effective for helping people grasp basic vocabulary. This is the key word technique. For example take the French word ‘poubelle’ (pronounced pooh-bell) which translates as ‘bin’ in English. The first step is to think of an English word or words that sound like the French word or part of the French word. This will give you your key word. Then you make a mental picture of the key word with the English translation. So in this example you could picture yourself lifting the lid off your bin which has turned into a bell and holding your nose because of the ‘pooh’.

La poubelle

Figure 1. La poubelle

This might sound complicated, but doing it is much simpler than describing it. It is successful as well as being a lot less effort and more fun than learning lists of vocabulary by repeating the words over and over again.

Michael Raugh and Richard Atkinson (1975) developed this key word technique and carried out an experiment on two groups of participants. The participants were asked to learn a list of 60 Spanish words but only half of them were taught to use the key word technique. When they were tested later the participants using key words scored an average of 88 per cent compared to only 28 per cent for the participants who did not use key words.


A number of mnemonics or memory strategies are based on using mental images. A mnemonic is a strategy for improving memory and you are probably familiar with several mnemonics such as the rhyme ‘30 days hath September, April, June and November, all the rest have 31 except February which has 28…’ or ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ to remember that the rainbow is made up of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.

An ancient mnemonic device called the ‘method of loci’ was developed by the poet Simonides who lived in Ancient Greece in the year 500 BCE. This technique works by the learner linking mental images of the items they are trying to remember with a sequence of locations that they already know.

Activity 1: Method of loci

Let’s take a simple example. Suppose you wanted to remember a list of ten items that you need to shop for.

A shopping list

Figure 2. A shopping list

You would imagine each of these items at various locations around your home or placed at different points down a street that you know well. Remember this technique works best if the images are outstanding and silly rather than sensible. There are some suggested images for the list in the passage below. Read through the passage and take a moment to make the mental pictures but do not worry too much about trying to remember the items. However, it is important that you do make the picture in your mind.

Try to imagine your front door but with a huge banana instead of the usual handle. When you open the door and walk into the entrance the floor is covered in eggs and you have to walk over the eggs to get to the living room. Imagine the eggs cracking under your feet and the mess! Anyway it gets much messier because when you open the living room door you are almost knocked off your feet by the river of milk that comes gushing out. You stagger over to the window to pull the curtains which have turned into two giant slices of bread. You try to turn on the TV but fail because that has been replaced by a very large packet of cereal. Time to have a sit down, but when you collapse on the sofa you sink down into a sofa sized ginger cake. Go to the kitchen for a drink. Walking across the kitchen floor is a bit difficult as it is knee deep in sugar and when you have reached the kettle you find it has turned into a bottle of wine. I prefer white but you can visualize red if you want. Give up and go for a mug of water. Unfortunately when you reach down a mug from the cupboard it is filled with a bouquet of flowers and when you turn the tap on it is chocolate not water that comes out.

Method of loci

Figure 6. Your shopping


Leave the shopping list now at least for an hour and in the meantime try not to keep checking whether you have remembered the items. You will probably find that an hour or so later you will be able to remember most of the items on the list. You will even find that a few days later you will still be able to recite most of the list.

This is a fairly trivial example and that most of us would just write our shopping list down. However, hopefully it has demonstrated for you that making mental images can be a powerful aid to memory. The technique can be adapted for other more relevant situations. It has been tested on students revising for exams where it has been found to improve recall. For example if you had to take a speech therapy exam you could make up mental images of some of the research you have read about and arrange these images in a logical sequence around your home.

Organizing our thoughts

Psychologists who study thinking are working in the area of cognitive psychology (see The Diversity of Psychology). Cognition means knowledge so cognitive psychologists are interested in what knowledge people have, how they have acquired this knowledge and how they use this knowledge. This means that the areas they study include attention, perception, memory, problem solving and language. Organizing our thoughts involves:

  • using mental images
  • putting information into categories (concept formation)
  • constructing mental packages of related information (developing schemas)


Raugh M. R. and Atkinson R. C. (1975) ‘A mnemonic method for learning a second language vocabulary’, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 67, pp. 1–16.


[Information last accessed: 27 July 2017]

This article is adapted from ‘Starting with psychology’. An OpenLearn ( chunk reworked by permission of The Open University copyright © 2016 – made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence v4.0 As such, it is also made available under the same licence agreement.