Improving Visual Memory

Could the phenomena and methods below help improve my visual memory? Both short-term, for when I'm doing quick sketches, and long-term, for memorising components of drawings against future use. Are there any others?


This is the way we learn to remember things as entities in their own right rather than as collections of smaller units. For example, remembering words as words rather than as sequences of letters. So could I train myself on, for example, visual patterns often found in faces, and hence learn to remember faces in terms of these few chunks?

Flashbulb memory

That is, the way that emotion and interest in an event make memories of it more vivid and hard to forget than "normal" memories. The deaths of Kennedy and Diana are famous examples. If I could find a way to arouse suitable emotions when looking at a subject, would that make it easier to memorise?

Chinese characters

It's been estimated that a typical Chinese graduate recognises 4,000 to 5,000 characters. Some characters are very intricate:

Learning to write them takes a lot of practice:
From the Language Log post "Learning to write Chinese characters". Photograph sent to the blog by Alex Wang.

It's natural to ask whether researchers have investigated ways to make learning them (both writing and recognition) easier. If they have, these techniques could be applied to the relatively stylised shapes found in many cartoons. "Rubrick"'s comment in the Language Log post "The miracle of reading and writing Chinese characters" makes this explicit:

I neither speak nor read Chinese, but as a child I did learn to write some characters of about the same order of complexity as Chinese characters — specifically cartoon characters. For example, I spent a great deal of time memorizing the sequence of strokes that would yield the face of Fred Flintstone. There's even a (very approximate) parallel to the sharing of sets of strokes among different characters. Nearly all Hanna-Barbera characters, for example, include the nose-plus-jowl-area "radical".

A quick search showed me that there has been research on this. For example, Xiaoqiu Xu's dissertation "Using Meaningful Interpretation and Chunking to Improve Memory: the Case of Chinese Character Learning" (August 2011); and Sean H. K. Kang's paper "Enhancing visuospatial learning: The benefit of retrieval practice" in Memory and Cognition December 2010, Volume 38, Issue 8, pp 1009–0.. It would be worth surveying such research.

Tachistoscope training

A tachistoscope displays images to a subject for a very short time, often for experiments on memory. There are anecdotes about lab assistants who, after a year or three preparing such experiments, found that they were better at remembering the tachistoscope images than they had been originally. I don't have references, but I seem to remember that some of these had been experimentally verified. So might tachistoscope practice help me?

I found a blog posting "Exercise V - Tachistoscope - Don't sight-read and chew gum at the same time!", which describes tachistoscope exercises to improve sight-reading for piano players. It's from the blog Advanced Sight Reading Piano Music by Cynthia Irion, an expert pianist and a neuroscientist and psychologist. (She writes about many studies on the psychology of sight-reading. I'd love to see psychology applied in the same way to drawing.) I also found an article by Edward Godnig on "The Tachistoscope, its history and uses" which describes tachistoscope use for training memory and other visual skills.

This picture is an example of what I want to train myself to memorise. It's a self-portrait of the artist Phil May, well-known for his cartoons in Punch.

From a Spartacus Educational page about May's life.

That self-portrait is typical of May's style, in that he uses few lines, and many of those he does use indicate wrinkles and folds in clothing. Which are useful in a line sketch, because they depict 3D shape without using shading. So I'd been wondering whether I could improve my sketching by tachistoscopically training myself to very quickly memorise such wrinkle and fold marks. I've never read of artists doing this.


I see vivid images in dreams. Some are vivid enough that I could draw them after I woke up. How can I make myself visualise equally intensely when awake?

Symbol memory

Although my visual memory is fairly weak, I don't have trouble learning new alphabets, and even Chinese characters. Why is there a difference? Can I exploit my symbol-learning skills to improve my visual memory?