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Look at That! Using Visuals to Improve Learning Outcomes

APRIL 15, 2019

The human brain is not a word processor. It's an image processor. Tapping into the processing power of the visual cortex makes it easier for students to encode, store and recall complex information and ideas.

The Amazing Visual Cortex

The visual cortex is one of the most amazing systems in human anatomy. It is the largest and most complex system in the human brain, responsible for receiving, processing and analyzing visual information from the world around us. Its most basic function is to create a representation of the world around us in our brains so that we can navigate our environment.

Humans, like other primates, are highly visual creatures. While dogs and rats have highly developed olfactory centers in the brain to process smell-based information, humans have evolved to rely primarily on visual information. Our ancestors relied on vision to spot predators, locate prey animals and food sources, recognize our family members and evaluate potential partners.

This high reliance on visual information has resulted in a visual cortex that is optimized to process large amounts of complex data. Different subsystems are responsible for processing information about shape, color, motion, spatial relationships, and visual patterns. All of these systems work together to create a coherent picture of the world around us. The visual system has a large number of neural connections both within the visual cortex and between vision centers and the rest of the brain, which allow it to process large quantities of visual information quickly and connect what we see with other inputs, memories, skills, and knowledge.

The visual cortex is so good at processing complex data that we sometimes tap into this system even for non-visual data. People who are blind or otherwise visually impaired often find that other senses, such as hearing and touch, become more acute. Researchers have found that rather than growing the areas of the brain devoted to these other senses, the brain taps into the already-optimized visual cortex to process these stimuli.

A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words: The Picture Superiority Effect

Pictures and images are easier for almost everyone to remember, even those who regard themselves as auditory or linguistic learners. Pictures are recognized and recalled more quickly and easily than either written or oral language. This is known as the picture superiority effect.

Pictures and images are easier for the brain to encode and retrieve. They are processed by the visual cortex rather than the language processing centers, and we have already seen that the visual cortex is optimized for making sense of complex information. It is also better at retrieving that information. That's why visualizing a famous painting you are familiar with—like the Mona Lisa—is so much easier than remembering details about the artist's life. (For the record, the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506 in Florence, Italy—but we don't expect you to remember all that.)

The picture superiority effect has been well known for millennia. That's why philosophers going back to the days of the Greek and Roman Empires used imagery for formal memory training. The "Memory Palace" technique taps into the brain's visualization and spatial memory abilities to link information you want to remember with familiar places and images for faster and more accurate recall.

Dual Coding for Maximum Learning

The best results for learning come from combining both words and images. Words allow us to explain complex or abstract concepts in greater detail and nuance. Images help us encode those concepts for more efficient retention and recall. Dual coding taps into multiple parts of the brain—visual, linguistic, and symbolic.

Dual coding theory was first described by Allan Paivio and has since been refined by numerous researchers. The basic idea is that when we have multiple representations of a concept that activate different parts of the brain, we are more likely to be able to recall the idea later. A prompt may activate either the visual or linguistic part of the brain. Once one system is activated, the connections we have made through dual coding help us to recall information encoded in the other system as well. This is why a visual cue can prompt a flood of related verbal information that would not have been recalled otherwise.

Researchers have found that when information is presented only as words, people remember about 10% of what they learned three days later. When relevant images are combined with text, retention goes up to 65%!

The Thinking Maps "Visual Language for Learning"

Thinking Maps uses a "visual language for learning" to take advantage of the visual processing power of the brain to encode complex ideas and information. As students draw their Maps or create them online, they are activating the visual cortex. Adding words to the Map taps into the brain's dual processing abilities.

Using both visual representations and words in the form of a Map improves encoding, comprehension and recall. For example, a student who creates a Tree Map to classify types of fossils will have an easier time recreating the information again later.

When we make learning visual, students are more successful. Using a visual language for learning is the key to better retention, recall, and understanding.

Download Our White Paper for More!

Want to know more about brain-based learning? Download our white paper: The Building Blocks of Brain-Based Learning—The Research Base for Thinking Maps. You'll learn:

  • How the brain processes, filters, stores, and retrieves information
  • The six building blocks of brain-based learning
  • How Thinking Maps taps into the way we are already wired to learn


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