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Dual-coding theory, a theory of cognition and a information processing model, 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 (Reed, 2010). 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 (Sternberg, 2003). 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 (Sternberg, 2003). 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.

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 (Phylyshyn, 1973). 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 (Reed, 2010). 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 (Reed, 2010).

Types of Codes

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 (Sternberg, 2003).

Symbolic codes are used to 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

Psychology Support

Many researchers today have agreed that only words and images are used in mental representation (Phylyshyn, 1973). 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 (Brunye, Taylor, & Rapp, 2008).

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 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.

Dual-coding theories complement a dual-route theory of reading. When people read written information, dual-route theory contends that the readers access orthographic and phonological information to recognize words in the writing.

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.

Cognitive Neuroscience Support

Two different methods have been used to identify the regions involved in visual perception and visual imagery. Cerebral blood flow allows researchers to identify the amount of blood and oxygen travelling to a specific part of the brain, with an increase in blood flow providing a measure of brain activity. An event related potential can be used to show the amount of electrical brain activity that is occurring due to a particular stimulus. Researchers have used both methods to determine which areas of the brain are active with different stimuli, and results have supported the dual-coding theory. Other research has been done with positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that participants had improved memory for spoken words and sentences when paired with an image, imagined or real, and showed increased brain activation to process abstract words not easily paired with an image.

Alternative Theory

The dual-coding theory is not accepted by everyone. John Anderson and Gordon Bower proposed an alternative method- the propositional theory- of how knowledge was mentally represented, the propositional theory. The propositional theory state mental representation are stored as a proposition rather than as images. Here, proposition is defined as the meaning that underlies the relationship between concepts (Sternberg, 2003). This theory states that images occur as a result of other cognitive processes because knowledge is not represented in the form of images, words, or symbols.

The common coding theory has also been proposed as an alternative to the dual coding theory. The common coding theory looks at how things we see and hear are connected to our motor actions. It claims that there is a common code that is shared between perceiving something and the respective motor action.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Anderson, J. R. (2005). Cognitive Psychology and its implications. New York: Worth Publishers.
  • Anderson, J. R. & Bower, G. H. (1973). Human associative memory. Washington, DC: Winston.
  • Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Paivio, A (1986). Mental representations: a dual coding approach. Oxford. England: Oxford University Press
  • Paivio, A (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Reed, S. K. (2010). Cognition: Theories and application (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Cognitive theory (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Sun, R. (2002). Duality of the Mind. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


  • Brunye, T. T., Taylor, H. A., & Rapp, D. N. (2008). Repetition and dual coding in procedural multimedia presentations. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 877-895.
  • Clark, J.M.; Paivio, A. (1991), Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review, 71, 64-73
  • Denis, M. and Mellet, E. (2002). Neural bases of image and language interactions. International Journal of Psychology, 37 (4), 204-208.
  • Just, M. et al (2004). Imagery in sentence comprehension: an fMRI study. NeuroImage 21, 112-124.
  • Mayer, R. E. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psycologist, 38(1), 43-52.
  • Mayer, R. E ; Simms, V.K. (1994), For whom is a picture worth a thousand words? Extensions of a dual coding theory of multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86 (4), 389-401.
  • Mayer, R. E. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.
  • Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2000). A coherence effect in multimedia learning: the case for minimizing irrelevant sounds in the design of multimedia instructional messages. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 117-125.
  • Paivio, A (1969). Mental Imagery in associative learning and memory. Psychological Review, 76(3), 241-263.
  • Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology 45, 255-87.
  • Phylyshyn, Z. W. (1973). What the mind's eye tells the mind's brain: A critique of mental imagery. Psychological Bulletin, 80, 1-24.
  • Simpson, T.J. (1995), Message into medium: An extension of the Dual Coding Theory. In Imagery and Visual Literacy: Selected Readings from the Annual Conferenece of the International Visual Literacy Association (26th, Tempe, Arizona, October 12-16, 1994), 2-10

Additional material


  • Sternberg, Robert J. (2006). Cognitive psychology fourth edition, 234–36, Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Thomas, N. J.T., "Mental imagery", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N Zalta (ed.).


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