Visual Memory And How It May Be Improved

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Visual memory—which functions through the retention and retrieval of information gathered through the visual system—plays a crucial role in our ability to interpret the world around us.

Both short-term and long-term visual memory are used frequently in daily life and are considered especially important factors in our ability to learn. Impairments to visual memory can lead to complex challenges; but its function can also be improved in various ways. Below, we’re going to cover visual memory, how it works, and how it can be enhanced. 

Visual memory affects how we interpret the world around us

What is visual memory?

The term generally refers to the recollection of something we’ve seen, such as visual patterns, words, symbols, numbers, or other types of visual stimuli. Visual memory is an important mechanism through which we learn and recall information. There are :

Visual working memory

This is a short-term form of memory processing that helps us briefly store and utilize information from different visual stimuli. Visual working memory is used frequently in our day-to-day lives. For example, an artist may see an object in their environment and immediately sketch it, a student might quickly copy down text that they read, or you may remember the new password to your Wi-Fi network until you can write it down. 

Most of us take in quite a bit of visual information in our daily lives, so the majority of the information that is processed in our short-term memory disappears quickly, particularly if we do not actively try to retain it. However, certain factors can cause short-term visual memory to convert to long-term memory, including repeated exposure or the existence of an emotional connection to the information.

Visual long-term memory 

Visual long-term memory is a memory system that has a large capacity and can help us recall information that our brains have transferred from short-term to long-term storage. For instance, you may have childhood memories that you can recall vividly; or, when you repeatedly drive to a location, you may eventually learn the route without using a GPS. The retrieval of this information is often facilitated by visual long-term memory.  

Examples of visual memory include:

  • Remembering the faces or outfits of people you’ve only seen once

  • Recalling specific details about objects, buildings, places, etc.

  • Remembering phone numbers in the correct order after reading them once or twice

  • Recalling specific words, images, letters, etc., after seeing them briefly

Visual memory and language

Visual memory is vital to our ability to communicate. As children learn to read and write, they generally process images of the words they see through their visual memory. If they then attach meaning to those images, thus helping them retain the information, they are more likely to recognize the words (and put them in context) when they see them again. You might remember learning sight words—frequently repeated words that children are often taught to recognize in order to make reading easier—when you were young. 

Then, as children learn to write and spell, they can start to recall the appearance of each letter within the words. Similarly, when we’re learning to type, we may look at the keyboard to locate each letter. As we continue to practice typing, though, we typically start to remember where each letter is so we no longer have to look at the keyboard. Additionally, when we try to remember how to spell a word, many of us do this by picturing the word in our minds or visualizing ourselves writing or typing the word.

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Recognizing deficits in visual memory

It can be important to be able to identify impairments in visual memory as they can signal the existence of a learning disorder or similar challenge in children. Someone who experiences a deficit in visual memory may display the following signs:

  • Trouble with reading comprehension, including needing to sound out every word

  • Difficulty spelling from memory

  • Math struggles

  • Trouble copying words and other images

  • Difficulty writing, including mixing up letters

Someone with a deficit in visual memory may use other forms of memory, such as auditory memory, to compensate. For example, when trying to spell something, someone with visual memory impairment may hear the letters in their head instead of seeing the visual stimuli. Auditory memory may not always be as effective as visual memory, so this can create challenges when it comes to processing and retrieving important information.

Common reasons for visual memory challenges

Damage to certain parts of the brain—particularly the visual cortex—can impair one’s ability to process visual information. Struggles with visual memory processing have also been linked to ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and similar conditions in which learning is impacted. Other factors that can negatively impact the visual system’s ability to process memory include poor sleep, substance use, and aging.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

How to enhance visual memory

If you or your child is experiencing difficulties with visual memory in daily life, or if you want to strengthen your visual memory, various techniques may help. Many of the following exercises are geared toward children but can also be useful for adults.

The I Spy game

To play I Spy, you’ll need at least two people. One person will look around the environment and select an object, then describe it to the others using only its first letter (typically by saying, “I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter __”). Then the participants can guess what is being described. This can require the players to digest the world around them and use their visual working memory to find things that match the description of the object. 

Spot the Difference

This game can be played in various ways, but it primarily asks the participants to identify variations between two similar images. You may be able to find activity books and online games where you're shown two similar pictures that have minor differences. These games usually list how many differences there are so that you know when you’ve found them all.

To play this game with a child in person, you can put a few objects on a table, ask them to take a look, and then have them look away or close their eyes. You can then replace or rearrange the objects and ask them to identify the differences.

Visual memory affects how we interpret the world around us

Matching games

One of the most popular types of memory exercises is a simple matching game, which can improve visual memory in children and adults. In general, the game involves setting out an even number of face-down cards that are paired off and shuffled so that they aren’t easily matched. Each player may flip over two cards at a time. When they find a pair, they can put the cards in their pile and take another turn. Whoever has the most cards in their pile when all pairs have been claimed wins.

Recounting daily experiences

To help a child or someone else with their visual memory, let them discuss their day in as much detail as possible. Ask them what they ate for lunch, what they did at school, and so on. They may use their visual memory to provide answers.

Combining audio and visual memory

To enhance one’s ability to understand written instructions, such as those on a homework assignment, it can help to also provide verbal instructions. This reinforcement can help not only with visual learning, but also with strengthening the connection between auditory and visual memory. 

Online therapy for memory challenges

Studies show that online therapy can help individuals address concerns that may be related to their mental health and cognitive functioning. For example, researchers in one study found that online therapy reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety while also improving memory. These results can be added to those of a number of studies pointing to the efficacy of online therapy for a range of mental health and cognitive challenges. 

Online therapy is there for you when you want to talk through the emotions that may arise as a result of memory impairment. Utilizing an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can receive frequent reminders of appointments with your licensed therapist, making it easier for you to remember upcoming sessions. You’ll also have the option of reaching out to your therapist outside of sessions, which can be helpful if you forgot to mention something or want to clarify a point made during therapy. 


Forming mental images of experiences, people, and items seen previously, and recalling those images, can be crucial to our ability to function and interpret the world around us. We employ short-term and long-term visual memory on a daily basis, often using it to read, write, and spell. Luckily, it is possible to improve visual memory through activities like mental exercises and simply recounting your day. If you’re experiencing memory impairment that negatively impacts your life, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online to discover potential solutions. With the right help, you can foster both cognitive and mental wellness.
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