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The Science of Visualization

Brain research related to the physiology of sight and the ways in which we process information using our eyes presents compelling rationale for considering the use of infographics in your business communication mix.

Hardwiring

Vision is a huge part of the physical brain. Approximately 50% of the brain is dedicated (directly or indirectly) to visual functions.1

The network of cells, neurons, and fibers that hosts all this activity is truly expansive. Within the eye, the retina alone is made up of more than 150 million cells and is actually a physical extension of the brain. In addition, neurons that are responsible for visual activity take up a large portion of the brain’s real estate, representing approximately 30% of our total gray matter. To put this in perspective, neurons for touch and hearing make up only 8% and 3%, respectively.2

Easy on the Mind

With all this visual “hardwiring” in place, it makes sense that it would be less complicated for the brain to process infographics than pure text.

Each letter in a word is essentially a symbol. To read text, the brain needs to act as a decoder first, matching those letters with shapes stored in memory. From there the brain must figure out how all the letters fit together to form words, how words form sentences, and how sentences form paragraphs. Although all this comprehension takes place in only a split second, relatively speaking, when compared to how the brain deals with images, the process requires considerably more mental effort.3

One of the reasons we can process images faster than text is because of how the brain handles information. It processes data from pictures all at once but processes text in a linear manner, as shown in Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3

Visual learning.

So, in a way, by using infographics to communicate, you make it physically easier for your audience to relate and connect to your information.

In a TED talk about the beauty of data visualization, writer and designer David McCandless expands on the idea that infographics provide a sense of relief in a landscape filled with a mind-numbing amount of information:

  • “There’s something almost quite magical about visual information. It’s effortless. It literally pours in. If you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or lovely data visualization is a relief. It’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle.”4

Novelty

The brain is designed to seek out things that are different.

Think of the mind as a computer hard drive. For the brain to remain nimble and operate efficiently, its memory can’t get filled up. To maintain an optimal processing speed, the brain filters incoming data and ends up discarding 99% of all sensory information almost immediately after perceiving it. One key component of this filtering process is assessing whether the incoming information is different from what the brain is accustomed to seeing. Information that is in some way novel or unusual attracts the brain’s attention.5

Infographics provide an opportunity for your organization to add that element of novelty or uniqueness to your information and make it more noticeable to your audience.

Visual Learning

Based on the VARK6 model, people use four primary learning styles to process information:

  • Visual—People learn by viewing graphic formats such as charts, maps, and diagrams instead of words.
  • Auditory—People learn by listening to spoken words.
  • Read/write—People learn by reading or writing words.
  • Kinesthetic—People learn through experience (by doing).

Organizations using infographics to communicate their ideas and information have an opportunity to bridge the knowledge gap with their audiences. Infographics can improve the level at which customers and prospects engage with their marketing content. In addition, visualizing information can improve learning among employees and other internal stakeholders.

Some of the learning benefits associated with infographics include the following:

  • Improved comprehension of information, ideas, and concepts
  • Enhanced ability to think critically and develop and organize ideas
  • Improved retention and recall of information7

Because it’s estimated that visual learners represent approximately 65% of the population,8 it makes practical business sense to begin incorporating infographics into your organization’s content strategy.

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