Post by Ruthanna Gordon
I have a confession to make: I am not the world’s most visual thinker. I like language. I like finding the exact right word, Mark Twain’s “lightning” rather than his “lightning bug.” By default, I think in blocks of text. I have learned, through long experience, that this annoys people. With some effort, I now remember to put pictures into my presentations and blog posts.
This is a little odd, because when I’m reminded, I actually learn as much from a good visual aid as anyone else. I pour over XKCD’s intricate and amusing charts for informational tidbits. And the examples from this TED talk made my jaw drop with the sudden rush of clarity. But somehow, I can still forget to look for—or create—the right visualization if it isn’t dropped in my lap.
Psychology suggests that my flaw isn’t all that unusual. Most people find imagery incredibly helpful—and most default to representing information verbally. Some time back, a group of researchers asked people to solve a problem. They had to determine the most efficient order of processes in a hypothetical, given several constraints. When people were explicitly told to draw a diagram, they came up with better solutions, more quickly. Yet those who just got the problem rarely used this strategy spontaneously.
Images are easier to remember than visual descriptions. A picture is not only worth a thousand words, it takes considerably fewer mental resources. Images require us to ground even the most abstract ideas in specific, concrete details. Since most of our cognitive abilities have evolved to deal with a specific, concrete world, imagery invokes all our most effective and efficient mental abilities.
We have some instinct for this advantage with kids. In elementary school, students who have trouble reading may be given playsets to help them follow along—a toy farmhouse with animals that can be moved to fit story descriptions, for example. Those beginning addition or subtraction are given colored blocks to play with, and shown how to push them together or pull them apart to illustrate equations.
These innovations help children overcome bumps in learning, and stay ahead long term. Yet, as we get older, we tend to dismiss the need for such aids. It feels a bit like counting on your fingers. It shouldn’t, though. Visualization is at the heart of the way we think.