Why do our brains like pictures?

A picture’s worth 1000 words

Whether it’s a cringy Polaroid from your high-school reunion, a quick glance at the orange trees outside your kitchen window, or an animated 3-D visualization tool like Newton that helps you know how your investment portfolios are doing this month, the human brain is hard-wired to process visual information in a way that helps us understand life more easily.

But why do our brains find it so much more interesting?

In last week’s blog, we talked about the definition of data visualization and how it can help connect with your clients. Today, we’ll dive into the psychology behind data visualization and what is actually going on behind that connection.

According to Thermopylae Sciences and Technology, “Visualization works from a human perspective because we respond to and process visual data better than any other type of data.” 

The University of Minnesota backs this up with some surprising stats: 

  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual
  • The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text.

What’s more, the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds

Compare that to the amount of time it would take to read a written description of that same image.

Dr. Lynell Burmark, a digital literacy proponent, shares this example: “…When I’m doing a presentation, [I] have people look around the room, and then I say, ‘Okay, describe everyone in the room.’ There [are] maybe 200, 300, or more people in the room at the time. How long would it take you in words to describe everybody? And from another room could I read that description and really have a clue what anyone looked like? Compare that to whipping out your iPhone and hitting the camera button. You’ve got the whole room in a recognizable fashion instantly in the palm of your hand!”

This data indicates that images are a highly-effective way of displaying big ideas that are more quickly understood than text.

“The fact that you can [identify images] at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts,” said Mary Potter, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at.” 

Not only do we process visual information faster, but we also hold onto that knowledge longer.

In her book Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn, Dr. Burmark notes: “…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2) […]. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”

Another thought to consider: might our brain’s ability to better process visuals come from the simple fact that written language hasn’t been around as long as verbal language? Could our brains have simply adapted to faster visual processing?

Let’s take this one step further to consider the impact of 3D visualizations v. 2D

Humans have a tendency to look at things that move. In the same way you’re more apt to watch and cheer for the sprinter huffing it down the track than the person pickin’ their nose at the starting line, data visualizations that move make us want to get involved.

“Animated infographics,” says Caleb Gichuhi, communications officer for The Institute of Social Accountability in Kenya, “are more successful in stimulating curiosity; getting users to explore the issue more in depth.” 

Imogen Robinson, M&E Coordinator at SciDev.Net adds that interactive data visualizations through touch screen or clicking a mouse allow users to explore and experiment with the data portrayed. Such innovations…encourage readers to engage with data presented in a way that is impossible in more traditional text-based outputs.”  

And the brain agrees:

  • Triplidata Is 6x more effective than 2D images with text (aka Powerpoint)
  • Moving images increase memory by 6x
  • Moving images increase brain activity by 60,000x

At the end of the day, whether you learn better by reading, listening, or watching, there’s no doubt that the brain engages more quickly with visuals. When you’ve got a 30-minute meeting to go over a file with a client, or you’ve only got ten minutes before they have to pick up their kids from school, a quick, animated visual is the best way to connect.