Volume VI - 2001
Mental Holography: The Power of Imagery in Communication
by Geri Silk and Marsha Sunshine Norwood
Geri Silk is a registered dance movement therapist and drama therapist/master teacher. She is an adjunct at Seton Hall University teaching Communication, ESL, and Communication through movement. Geri has an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and is completing her doctorate in creative arts education at Rutgers University. She is composing her first video, "Street Dancer, the Spiritual Autobiography of a Young Man with Down Syndrome."
Marsha Sunshine Norwood is an Associate Professor in Freshman Studies in the John Hazen White School of Arts and Sciences of Johnson and Wales University, where she teaches Communication Skills, Literature and Composition. Marsha, who has an MBA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College, chairs the regional Conference on Teaching Communication at Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island.
A hologram is a manipulation of light from different sources to create a very realistic, three-dimensional image of a person or object that is not physically present. The study and practice of holograms is called "holography." The term "Mental Holography" was coined by the authors to refer to the creation of images in the mind to enhance communication. We believe that the ability of an individual to experience such images can be developed. One result is that the person in question will speak and communicate more effectively. In other words, when speakers learn to create sharp, vivid images in their mind, they can better transfer them to others via means such as traditional language, body language and facial expressions. A more formal definition is that Mental Holography refers to the use of imagery, metaphor, symbolism and related constructs to focus cognition and the transfer of meaning in the oral communication process. In this paper, we will focus on the use of Mental Holography in the classroom and then briefly explore this idea by looking at supporting research.
Whispering in the Twilight
Let us consider an example of Mental Holography. Think back to a favorite storyteller, perhaps a grandfather sitting on the porch in his favorite chair, or a special friend whispering in the twilight in front of a darkened house. The magic of the story and of the memory depends upon all of the senses and on detailed images exchanged that evening, images that are linked to the emotions. This is indeed an important link because emotion is a powerful tool in Mental Holography. Another fundamental component is, of course, imagery itself. Despite the incomplete understanding of how it functions in the brain and personality, imagery is a familiar term. "Imagery is a common, everyday phenomenon that is indicated by a whole range of colloquial expressions: 'having a picture in the head,' 'picturing,' 'visualizing,' 'having/seeing a mental image/picture' 'seeing in the mind's eye,' and-in some contexts-simply 'imagining'" (Thomas 1999, p.3). It goes beyond visual to auditory, kinesthetic, and other sense formats.
There is almost always more involved in communicating than meets the eye. For example, just as an artist selects from varied life experiences to construct a painting or a piece of sculpture, so each of us as communicators selects from our experiences to convey a chosen view of reality. This view will be affected by traditions, stories, history, and precedents-especially when symbolism is considered. The media also have an effect because of experiences from television, movies, radio and now the internet. An important part of this understanding is that the images be vivid and real for the speaker. This is so because such a sharpening of images often accompanies a clarifying of ideas. When that is the case-even if there is some difficulty in interpretation-the listener probably could absorb the gist of the communication or at least be interested enough to inquire. Consciously or unconsciously, good communicators therefore strengthen their awareness of images and of related associations. One of our main points in this article emphasizes that such strengthening is possible and that learning strategies can be extended to the learning of language.
Thinking with the Body
Speaking through creative movement and dance can be a rich source of stimuli for the exchange of meaning. Memories and experiences are thought to be stored deep within the muscles and connective tissue so that activating a familiar or forgotten movement pattern brings forth a flood of memories. Sitting in a rocking chair with the gentle to-and-fro movement may stir vivid memories of Grandma's kitchen, warm cookie in hand. Polishing an old table with long, loving strokes can bring back the long-forgotten action of grooming a favorite horse. A sudden slip on the ice may conjure up the famous third grade slide into home plate for the winning run.
Geri Silk (1996) describes the three-dimensional nature of learning in dance, which uses the imagination to establish an inner environment that can be entered by the dancer as if it were a "holographic reality" (p.7). This is a reminder that mental holography works with strong nonverbal images. When a dancer internally sees and interacts with the envisioned reality, an observer can identify kinesthetically and feel the experience imagined by the dancer. "Not only can we see the dancer leap across the stage and over the imaginary brook [as a deer in the woods], but we can feel and re-live it, that is, experience kinesthetically, imagine, the musculature and sensations involved to master that moment of movement" (p.8). Turning to the classroom, an action scenario can be provided by the teacher. "Run twenty paces; drop down; hide; jump out; sit down; breathe deeply." The student then provides an interpretation from his or her own imagination. For example, the above sequence can be interpreted as the following: running through a field, dropping down a rabbit hole, hiding from grownups, jumping out to surprise everyone, sitting down and retelling the experience, relaxing. Dance, either with or without music, takes this process a bit further and can provide a powerful entree into the imaginative consciousness of mental holography. For the dance to have meaning, the dancer must visualize where she is dancing and what she is doing. Otherwise, the dance is a random series of movements. If the dancer does not see and understand the meaning of the dance, the audience will see and understand less.
Clarified Images and Writing
As the images are clarified in one individual, they are ready to be transferred to others in any number of ways, including writing. Once I "see" the beautiful fawn drinking from the motionless water of a pool hidden in the greenish light behind the trees, then I can "show" it to others. We tell students, "You need to see it, or we won't see it." In search of the perfect words to build this mental projection, they will push beyond casual language to specific emotion-laden description. Again, we note the great importance of emotion in Mental Holography. Also, experience with the language of art adds to the descriptive palette. For example, words having to do with shapes, sizes, textures, surfaces, shades of color, and types of movement can be brought into active vocabulary. A dictionary the teacher might find useful is The Facts on File Visual Dictionary (Corbeil, 1986).
Mental Holography in the Classroom
A number of classroom techniques show promise in developing in students the ability to visualize, that is "see" images in the mind, and to evoke those images in the minds of their audience. These may inspire adaptations for a variety of language environments. Starting with actual diagrams or objects, students develop a comfort zone with the use of images. Then, they can be guided to use their imaginations without props, building in emotional content that helps the speaker or writer and the listener or reader to target the intended meaning. Instead of worrying about the production of speech and words, novice speakers are encouraged to concentrate upon the backbones of communication-purpose and meaning-through an exchange of images. Immediately following are nine specific techniques that have been and can be used in the classroom. In addition to being quite usable, they suggest the scope of Mental Holography. More background will be provided later in the article.
1. Diagram Your Home
When asked to describe their home, students often first give a vague and brief response. Then, they are asked to draw a diagram on the blackboard or to instruct another person in the drawing of their house or building. Class members are encouraged to ask how the home being drawn is different from another similar building or house. Gradually, as the diagram turns into a drawing, the power of detail in both mental and physical pictures becomes obvious. What they have produced in chalk on the blackboard now can be verbalized with words in their speech.
2. Representative Object
Everyone is asked to bring in an object which represents something special about the person's life. Each person then shows the object and describes its history, meaning and symbolic value. With prompting, this object will reveal other mental associations. Reinforce the importance of linking the object to an emotionally laden experience or situation. These connections are often vivid enough to last the entire term and beyond. Examples are keys to a new apartment, pictures of family and friends, a gift watch, a book store receipt, and a special hat.
3. Comfort Zone Impromptus
Students who have minimal experience with public speaking benefit from non-threatening topics such as a favorite place or a good friend: these evoke multi-layered mental images or holograms. Building on such images, progress can be made in visualizing our ideas for others. Also, "visiting" this place or friend in the imagination often helps to reduce anxiety.
4. Role Model / Invisible Teacher
Each student chooses someone he or she admires as a ideal communicator-from personal life, media, politics, entertainment, etc. The students write a detailed essay on why this person is a good communicator. For example, Robin Williams is a quick wit, a great comedian, yet a profound and serious actor. These papers are shared with the class in the student's own spoken language. Throughout the semester, the students "consult" with their ideal communicator (e,g., Robin Williams) for personal evaluation, brainstorming and criticism. In this way, the student gains an invisible ally and a constructively didactic inner voice which assists in developing judgment, confidence and articulation.
5. Parlays from Props
This is spontaneous speaking with no preconceived thought or plan. The leader (teacher) assembles an array of props such as a toy truck, a can opener, dried flowers, an aloe leaf, a bowl. The speaker (student) chooses from three to five of them and must string them together into a story, connecting them in a meaningful way. Variations on this could be pulling five objects out of a box without looking at them. Each object is an unknown surprise. Exercises like this help the student gain flexibility, imagination and inventiveness.
6. Atypical Product Prompt
Pairs of students are given their choice of a few product photographs, taken from magazines or other sources. Most of the pictures are intentionally bizarre or otherwise challenging. Youth-oriented science magazines are helpful sources of unusual ideas. The objective is to design a new product or service, "illustrated" by the picture, which will be attractive to the given audience and will satisfy a perceived problem, need or desire. Once the product or service is imagined, a name for it is prepared and a script written for a short television commercial. The following are examples:
Picture: Gorilla facing Tarzan.
Product: Tarzan Gymnasium.
Script: "Get pumped to face any gorilla. Convenient, low rates; gain the power of 10 gorillas."
Picture: Girl in a camping site with horse
Service: 1-800-Animal Care
Script: "We don't call you-You call us. We'll care for animals at your home or ours."
7. Stories on Sound
The teacher provides an evocative, new sound track-something to which the students have no previous association. The music or sound effects should be fresh to the listeners; preferably, they are hearing it for the first time. The students listen and are encouraged to create their own inner guided visualization, as though they were seeing a movie in their mind. Then, the students can either tell an adventure, mood and/or fantasy tale using the music as a mental sound track, or a group of students get together and create a tale or adventure story. In such a group, they can practice changing voices from the narrator to the characters to a commentator. This exercise promotes shared listening, timing and discovering a group voice.
8. Silent 'Silent Night'
The class mentally and silently sings this carol without making any sound or moving lips. As in a choir, breathing must be in the right place, and the proper feeling must be captured. Students notice an immediate change of mood. Many songs can be used for this exercise; however, this one seems to provide a great opportunity to discuss the visualization that accompanies it.
Students choose from a group of really unusual photographs and drawings of people, animals and fantastic creatures-a rugged Appalachian farmer, children intently at play, women with unusual careers such as lion tamers and mountain climbers, a thin snake, a contemplative monkey, etc. The students develop a name and a detailed active biography for their characters. After they give a brief introduction in the character's voice and with the character's gestures and mannerisms, the rest of the class interviews them. The speaker must remain in character while answering these questions. What we have discovered is that students choose characters or animal figures or fantasy projections that reflect hidden aspects of their own personalities. This leads to a discussion of the many presentations of self and the multiplicity of personality necessary to function in a complex society.
Strengthening Communication with Ourselves and Others
In Mental Holography, we believe that practice with various applications of imagery will strengthen both our communication with ourselves and with others. In addition to the immediate objects in our imagination, we can follow links to other associations. Janet Muff, a nurse psychotherapist who observes the power of both intuitive and conscious uses of imagery, explains this advantage. Why, she asks, are people attracted to particular images? "Whether they come from our inner world, through dreams or fantasies, or from the outer world, images have the power to move us....A painting, a poem, or the gesture of a stranger can strike a familiar chord, bringing a flash of recognition and the certain knowledge that we have stumbled over something relevant to our own experience" (1997, p.2). With experience in following images, it is possible to notice relationships and groupings of images as well. For ourselves and our students, this closer attention to patterns and associations will add most relevant insight.
Emotions and Images
The emotions connected with the images provide memory power. Ms. Muff works with clients to amplify images until they reach those with emotional significance. This "expands the meaning of dream [or other] images by bringing to them a wide variety of corresponding images from my personal history as well as from non-personal sources" (1997, p.4). Extending this idea, we see that learning about archetypes is helpful since they hold significance in society. A better comprehension of our own images and that of our culture (and other cultures) will contribute to mutual understanding, certainly an objective of communication.
In the realm of cognitive science, there is a significant discussion about the specific brain processes that operate when imagination is at work. In fact, there is an unresolved debate among the major researchers in the field about the operation of imagery in cognition. Theorist Nigel J.T. Thomas has reviewed the cognitive science literature in an accessible summary of key theories. The two major theories, "quasi-pictorial" views of Stephen Kosslyn and the "description or propositional theory" of Zenon Pylyshyn, have been the source of much research and speculation. The first theory considers "that having visual imagery involves having entities in the head or in the mind, which are like, or functionally equivalent to, inner pictures" (Thomas 1999, p. 3). The competing theory contends that instead of pictures, mental images are "language-like representations" (p. 6) not perceptual so much as descriptive or in some sort of notation in the brain.
A third theory that is particularly interesting to us is that of perceptual activity. "Perceptual learning is not viewed as a matter of storing descriptions (or pictures) of perceived scenes or objects, but as the continual updating and refining of procedures...that specify how to direct our attention most effectively in particular situations: how to efficiently examine and explore, and thus interpret, a scene or object of a certain type" (Thomas 1999, p. 8). According to this theory, instead of a final description or image, the brain collects details and places them into recognizable patterns. This interpretation also applies to the other senses. It is related to artificial intelligence and information processing, and sees the mind as active, reaching to and making adjustments. Again, looking for relevance to language teaching, this tends to substantiate our observation that mental holography aids the speaker in spontaneity, in "be here and now" language. It is not canned or pre-produced. The speech, or even the conversation, seems to live in the moment because it is produced through imagery that is alive in the mind.
Semiotics and Signs
Further study into semiotics, the study of signs, offers additional insights into the ways that we attach meanings to symbols and how they are learned. In Seeing is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication, Arthur Asa Berger (1998) looks at the importance of visual literacy skills in interpreting mass media. In this context, we see that images evolve over time as a culture evolves. Accordingly, cultures provide the codes we use to interpret symbols. When we are dealing with a variety of cultures, we need to be aware that translation may be required in order to ensure that communication does in fact take place, and that mis-communication is generally avoided. In Mental Holography, the same is true. This could also be helpful in translating across generations and in each person's construction of reality. For example, in the West, black is the color of mourning. In the East, it is white. Discussion of universal and culture-specific images and symbols will assist students in understanding the constraints that may affect their message.
Exercising the Muscle of the Imagination
Helane Rosenberg, in her book Creative Drama and Imagination: Transforming Ideas into Action (1987), suggests that the imagination is like a muscle that can be developed and exercised. Images are stronger when personal and specific. Instead of stopping at a stereotypical image of a grumpy old man, students can be encouraged to proceed to a particular image of an individual farmer who always forgets his neighbor's face. Since people recall or envision images in varied ways, the method is not as important as practice for improving quality. Some get a flash of an entire picture while others focus as if through a camera lens. Others add detail onto a vaguely shaped template. Rosenberg explains the Rutgers Imagination Method (RIM), a system which allows greater access to images because they have been consciously noticed and manipulated. The exercises provided can improve a person's ability to use imagery. Sample workouts suggest quickly viewing in the imagination many different items such as dogs, cakes, and shoes. "See" a house, car, or tree from different angles-above, below, inside. Manipulate an item and change it to something else. Visualize a green crocodile that changes into a rocket ship. Mental transformations help keep the mind flexible, playful, and inventive.
Our students can apply these lessons to become effective communicators, competent in conveying clear ideas with memorable content, enhanced with imagery. Over the next several years, the understanding of such language abilities as Mental Holography will increase. As teachers and facilitators, we need sensivity to individuals' varied aptitudes and experiences. At the same time, we should keep our objective of giving confidence to at least attempt some version of Mental Holography. With practice, models, and encouragement, we can assist each student to appreciate the potential of conveying living, breathing ideas. In short, with effort and imagination, we can all use these valuable tools to help us not only in communication but in becoming aware of what it is we want to communicate.
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