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Why your brain loves visual information

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

I recently came across a time-lapse post that illustrated newspaper front-pages through the ages, and one of the most striking things to watch was the gradual introduction of images into what was previously just columns of tight, textual information.

From small, supplementary illustrations to the first instances of photography in print, to the colourful spreads we have today - it looked as though the seeds of images were sprouting in between the columns until they grew into the ever more eye-catching prizes of the page.

An image of a "brain coral"

Here are a few pictures of The Times front pages from 1782, 1982, and 2018 respectively that illustrate the change pretty well:

An image showing the gradual introduction of images into the Times newspaper

The use of visualised information in newspapers increased by 142% between 1984 and 1994 alone, and it’s far from being the only space the image has begun to dominate.

Recent statistics show that:

  • Articles with images get 94% more views than their visual-lacking counterparts.

  • Coloured visuals increase people’s willingness to read a piece of content by 80%.

  • Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images.

  • Facebook posts with images see 2.3 times more engagement than those without images.

  • Marketers who use video grow revenue 49% faster than non-video users.

  • The average user spends 88% more time on a website with video.

  • Video will be part of 80% of all internet content by 2019.

(Via: Jeffbullas and Crackitt)

But why is this the case? What makes visualised information so much more enjoyable to process than text? It turns out there are a few key, scientific reasons why our brains can’t get enough of them:

1. We’re ‘visually wired’

An image of a woman's eye.

According to neuroscientist Andrew Tate, ‘About 20% of your brain is there purely for vision, and that’s actually at the back of your head. Your optic nerves snake through the middle of your brain, and spread out into the occipital lobes right at the back.’

This important part of the brain isn’t just a neat little compartment that works alone to deal with visuals, either. ‘The visual cortex at the back does the bulk of the processing of visual information, but it then sends that information out to almost all other areas of the brain, where it is combined with our sensory information, retained in memory, or used to recall something once remembered.’

What this means is that our brains are particularly adept at processing visual information - likely tied to the fact that 70% of all our sensory receptors are in our eyes. We all have plenty of senses of course (even more than the usually cited 5) but for most of us, sight is the primary way we navigate the world.

Research into the sensory development of babies has even found that from the first moment we open our eyes, our brains start processing and understanding shapes and visuals. Newborns can detect changes in brightness, distinguish between stationary and moving objects, as well as turn to find their mother’s face before their eye muscles can even focus. In fact, faces are something we’re hard-wired to find -hence the reason people sometimes see them in seemingly random objects, like the surface of the moon.

This is one of the reasons visuals feel so much more appealing than a block of text. We naturally learn how to interpret visual metaphors from our earliest stages as we began to associate objects with behaviours. We only learn to use words to describe those things, on the other hand, a few years later.

2. It’s a lot faster for our brains to process visual information

A hand holding a stopwatch

It’s been reported that we humans are capable of getting the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second. It only takes us 150 milliseconds to process a symbol, and 100 milliseconds to attach a meaning to it. Phew!

That’s an awful lot quicker than trying to muddle your way through a particularly dense text - something that may especially ring true to you if you’ve ever found yourself reading the same sentence over and over to try and make sense of it. To say a picture paints a thousand words might be a cliché, but it makes a valid point.

Take road signs, for example. Which one of the below are you going to be able to quickly understand as you speed by?

An image comparing a popular road sign symbol with its verbal meaning

Being able to process information quickly is particularly relieving for our busy brains. Think about the sheer amount of information you try to digest on the day-to-day, especially now that we have Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter timelines and Snapchat stories constantly sending more our way. Research has shown it’s roughly the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day.

Our brains have to sift through all that to figure out what’s important and what isn’t, so the speedier the process is, the less taxing it feels to absorb.

3. Images aid with comprehension

A thumbs-up emerging from some foliage

We’ve all sat through a boring, text-heavy PowerPoint presentation before. The points all seem to blend together, and never feel like they properly sink in.

Adding a few simple images can dramatically change that. One study looking at the comprehension rates of medicine labels found that only 70% of people fully understood labels with text-only, whereas there was a 95% rate of comprehension for labels with text and pictures. Another study found that people following instructions with illustrations do a whopping 323% better than people using instructions with text alone.

It makes sense. After all, our conversations are filled with visual cues. Things like facial expressions and body language have a huge impact on the meaning someone conveys, and people with disorders that prevent them from reading these visual signals often experience difficulty with communication because of this. Think about how tricky it can be to properly convey your feelings over things like text messages where you can’t give visual cues. (Hence, the invention of the emoji…)

Colour also plays a big role. Our preferences and associations with certain colours have roots in evolution. Because blues and greens are associated with nature, health and cleanliness - we still make those links between them today. Because browns and yellows were generally colours our ancestors wanted to avoid when foraging for food, we still find them unappealing thousands of years later.

All of these visual elements combine to give our brains a well-rounded sense of what’s in front of us, much more easily than a text might be able to do through description alone.

4. Visuals have better connections to memory

A wall of photographs

There’s an often-quoted statistic that people remember 80% of what they see and do, 20% of what they read, and only 10% of what they hear. It’s worth bearing in mind, as research has consistently found that visual aids can seriously improve the retention of information.

Remember that visual system at the back of your brain? It’s able to make rapid connections to already-stored information in our memories, helping to cement concepts in our minds. Additionally, if an image is well-designed with an aesthetic or emotional appeal, this can also prompt us to make a greater connection with it and help to encourage that retention.

On top of this, it’s been noted that our memory itself is primarily visual. If you try to recall a memory now, it will likely appear first to you as a picture.

When we try to remember the directions to get somewhere, for example, you probably think about the landmarks you usually see along the way, rather than a long list of instructions about where to turn. It’s just the way our brain works. Studies have even shown that we can remember up to 2,000 pictures, with only a little learning, and still recognise them days later. Not so easy with excerpts of text.

With all this in mind, it’s not hard to see why visual media is so ubiquitous. 200,000 years of human evolution ensures that we snap to attention when we see a colourful image, so keep this in mind when putting together your marketing strategy.

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