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If you can’t picture it you can’t understand it

Visual thinking: Another look 

Guest post by Howard, B. Esbin

The ancient Indo-European root word for ‘vision’ is ‘weid’ “to know” as well as “to see.” We use our physical eyes to make sense of things. Newborn babies, for example, begin imprinting their mothers face in their first few days of bonding. We also use our “mind’s eye” to picture images independent of sight or external stimulus.  Perception and seeing are two sides of the same coin. “We don’t see things as they are; we see things, as we are” [Anais Nin].

The term ‘image’ derives from the Latin imago meaning to imitate. Neuroscience now confirms this ancient semantic understanding of the image’s mimetic quality. Mirror neurons predispose humans to observational learning. These neurons respond when we perform any action and when we witness others performing any action. 

Children are therefore “‘hard-wired’ to learn through imitation” (Muthukumaraswamy, 2007). Moreover, “observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons. 

By watching a game, a performer will be better able to predict what will happen next.” A picture is an analog of experience. It’s one step removed from the actual event. 

Images convey complex data simply, directly, and powerfully. They transcend the need for extensive dialogue.

Research shows our neurocognitive ‘visual highway’ is faster and more efficient than our ‘verbal highway’. It’s also underused in comparison. The more visual our sensory input is, the more likely we can recall it. Visual images are more efficient due to richer ‘information density’. This is called the Picture Superiority Effect. 

Not surprisingly, visual literacy precedes verbal development. Indeed, most alphabets consisted of pictures or started as pictures.

Yet Western society historically has favored the written word over the image. Many people still widely believe a child progresses intellectually when they move from drawing pictures to writing words.

This initial skill is incorrectly “regarded as a dispensable embellishment” (Millard and Marsh, 2001:55).  

This is also why most individuals never fully develop their graphic skills they way they do their written and verbal skills. 

Both visual and verbal communication modes are equally vital. For example, the verbal system is ideal for a crosswords puzzle whereas the visual system is ideal for a jigsaw puzzle. Presenting verbal and visual information together promotes creative problem solving more than if verbal and visual information is given separately (Mayer and Anderson, 1991). 

This has been understood throughout history as the following quotes attest. 

• Without image, thinking is impossible – Aristotle

• Words are the images of things – Simonides

• A word to the wise is sufficient – Plautus

• When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence - Robert E. Horn 

Perhaps the most telling saying of all is that  “one picture is worth a thousand words”. This is wrongly attributed to Confucius. It was actually coined by an early American advertising manager, Fred R. Barnard. He wrote it as copy for an advert that appeared in the trade magazine Printers’ Ink in 1927. His pitch was that an advert with a large picture and little text would be most effective on the side of a fast moving trolley car. 

Barnard shamelessly called his copy a Chinese proverb. He instinctively knew this would confer a patina of legitimacy to his spin. It became ascribed to Confucius. This isn’t too surprising. Confucius had been known in the West since the 1600s, thanks to Jesuit missionaries. Later, leading philosophers such as Voltaire embraced Confucian ideas such as atheistic philosophy as well s political morality and ethics. By the early 20th century, Confucius was well ensconced in the popular Western mind as a symbol of ageless philosophy. 

Paradoxically, Bernard’s false attribution registered authentic precisely because it was easy to imagine Confucius saying this. It isn’t just that the Chinese alphabet is composed of ideograms, or word pictures, thus giving the attribution extra credibility. Rather its because Barnard’s fake saying actually does embodies timeless wisdom about the power of the image. 


So 86 years later, what is our own equivalent “influence that could not be created with the same picture in any other advertising medium?” Imagine today’s Internet without images. BORING. Singing cat videos aside,

how do we make truly authentic human connections while managing high-pressure, high-stakes online projects often with virtual strangers?

Cue. Think of Emoticons. We need to learn how to express the intangible, the subtle, and the emotional expressly during this process. Moreover, we need to know it’s not only ok to do so but essential.

Collaborative online resources that are multidimensional offer the most scope for this kind of integral communication and engagement. Putting text, talk, and picture together is simply better. 



About Howard:

Dr. Howard B. Esbin is founder of Heliotrope, a social enterprise based in Toronto. He’s also the creator of Prelude, a new online creative game for virtual team training that uses creativity to help members work online more effectively and enjoyably. It’s now in closed testing. Howard has a life long fascination with visual thinking and expression. This includes two decades of as a senior marketing and merchandising executive. He’s also a certified gemologist. His doctoral thesis examined how an isolated stone carvers community transferred their skills from one generation to the next non verbally and informally within multigenerational family groups. UNESCO, the International Labor Organization, and Education Canada have published his writing.

For more information: 

Howard B. Esbin, PhD

E: hbe (at) heliotrope (dotcom)


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