Dual coding

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Dual-coding theory, a theory of cognition, was hypothesized by Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario in 1971. Paivio used the idea that the formation of mental images aids in learning when developing this theory. According to Paivio, there are two ways a person could expand on learned material: verbal associations and visual imagery. Dual-coding theory postulates that both visual and verbal information is used to represent information. Visual and verbal information are processed differently and along distinct channels in the human mind, creating separate representations for information processed in each channel. The mental codes corresponding these representations are used to organize incoming information that can be acted upon, stored, and retrieved for subsequent use. Both visual and verbal codes can be used when recalling information. For example, say a person has stored the stimulus concept, “dog” as both the word 'dog' and as the image of a dog. When asked to recall the stimulus, the person can retrieve either the word or the image individually or both, simultaneously. If the word is recalled, the image of the dog is not lost and can still be retrieved at a later point in time. The ability to code a stimulus two different ways increases the chance of remembering that item compared to if the stimulus was only coded one way.

Types of Codes

Analogue code Analogue codes are used to mentally represent images. Analogue codes retain the main perceptual features of whatever is being represented, so the images we form in our minds are highly similar to the physical stimuli. They are a near-exact representation of the physical stimuli we observe in our environment, such as trees and rivers.

Symbolic code Symbolic codes are used for mental representations of words. They represent something conceptually, and sometimes, arbitrarily, as opposed to perceptually. Similar to the way a watch may represent information in the form of numbers to display the time, symbolic codes represent information in our mind in the form of arbitrary symbols, like words and combinations of words, to represent several ideas. Each symbol (x, y, 1, 2, etc.) can arbitrarily represent something other than itself. For instance, the letter x is often used to represent more than just the concept of an x, the 24th letter of the alphabet. It can be used to represent a variable x in mathematics, or a multiplication symbol in an equation. Concepts like multiplication can be represented symbolically by an "x" because we arbitrarily assign it a deeper concept. Only when we use it to represent this deeper concept does the letter "x" carry this type of meaning.

Support for this theory

Many researchers today have agreed that only words and images are used in mental representation. Supporting evidence shows that memory for some verbal information is enhanced if a relevant visual is also presented or if the learner can imagine a visual image to go with the verbal information. Likewise, visual information can often be enhanced when paired with relevant verbal information, whether real-world or imagined (Anderson & Bower, 1973). This theory has been applied to the use of multimedia presentations. Because multimedia presentations require both spatial and verbal working memory, individuals dually code information presented and are more likely to recall the information when tested at a later date.

Paivio found that participants when shown a rapid sequence of pictures as well as a rapid sequence of words and later asked to recall the words and pictures, in any order, were better at recalling images. Participants, however, more readily recalled the sequential order of the words, rather than the sequence of pictures. These results supported Paivio's hypothesis that verbal information is processed differently than visual information and that verbal information was superior to visual information when sequential order was also required for the memory task (Paivio, 1969). Lee Brooks conducted an experiment that provided additional support for two systems for memory. He had participants perform either a visual task, where they had to view a picture and answer questions about the picture, or a verbal task, where they listened to a sentence and were then asked to answer questions pertaining to the sentence. To respond to the questions, participants were asked to either respond verbally, visually, or manually. Through this experiment, Brooks found that interference occurred when a visual perception was mixed with manipulation of the visual task, and verbal responses interfere with a task involving a verbal statement to be manually manipulated. This supported the idea of two codes used to mentally represent information (Sternberg 2003).

Working memory and dual-coding

Working memory as proposed by Alan Baddeley includes a two-part processing system with a visuospatial sketchpad and a phonological loop which essentially maps to Paivio’s theory.


Paivio’s work has implications for literacy, visual mnemonics, idea generation, HPT, human factors, interface design, as well as the development of educational materials among others. It also has implications for, and counterparts in, cognitive sciences and computational cognitive modeling (in the form of dual process cognitive models and so on; e.g., Anderson, 2005; Just et al., 2004, Sun, 2002). It also has had implications for cognitive robotics.


There are limitations to the dual-coding theory. Dual-coding theory does not take into account the possibility of cognition being mediated by something other than words and images. Not enough research has been done to determine if words and images are the only way we remember items, and the theory would not hold true if another form of codes were discovered. Another limitation of the dual-coding theory is that it is only valid in for tests on which people are asked to focus on identifying how concepts are related. If associations between a word and an image cannot be formed, it is much harder to remember and recall the word at a later point in time. While this limits the effectiveness of the dual-coding theory, it is still valid over a wide range of circumstances and can be used to improve memory.