University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006
Constructing skilled images
Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
When experts construct mental images, they do not rely only on perceptual features; they also access domain-specific knowledge and skills in long-term memory, which enables them to exceed the capacity limitations of the short-term working memory system. The central question of the present dissertation was whether the facilitating effect of long-term memory knowledge on working memory imagery tasks is primarily based on perceptual chunking or whether it relies on higher-level conceptual knowledge. Three domains of expertise were studied: chess, music, and taxi driving. The effects of skill level, stimulus surface features, and the stimulus structure on incremental construction of mental images were investigated. A method was developed to capture the chunking mechanisms that experts use in constructing images: chess pieces, street names, and visual notes were presented in a piecemeal fashion for later recall. Over 150 experts and non-experts participated in a total of 13 experiments, as reported in five publications. The results showed skill effects in all of the studied domains when experts performed memory and problem solving tasks that required mental imagery. Furthermore, only experts' construction of mental images benefited from meaningful stimuli. Manipulation of the stimulus surface features, such as replacing chess pieces with dots, did not significantly affect experts' performance in the imagery tasks. In contrast, the structure of the stimuli had a significant effect on experts' performance in every task domain. For example, taxi drivers recalled more street names from lists that formed a spatially continuous route than from alphabetically organised lists. The results suggest that the mechanisms of conceptual chunking rather than automatic perceptual pattern matching underlie expert performance, even though the tasks of the present studies required perception-like mental representations. The results show that experts are able to construct skilled images that surpass working memory capacity, and that their images are conceptually organised and interpreted rather than merely depictive.
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© University of Helsinki 2006
Last updated 13.10.2006