How Our Brains Are Hardwired for Visual Content

Science of Visual Communication

Our brains process visual content at an incredibly high speed. In fact, by one estimate, visuals communicate information 60,000 times faster than text.

On an intuitive level, this actually seems to make a lot of sense. If you’re hiking in the woods and you see a bear, your heart will probably start racing and you may even start running (an ill-advised reaction, for the record) long before your brain puts that reaction into words — say, with a thought like, “Hey, there’s a bear!”

Visual information 60,000 times faster than text

Visual stimuli are a natural and essential source of information for practically all life on Earth with a sense of sight. Text-based communications, meanwhile, have only been around for a few thousand years and are, as far as we know, exclusive to humans. So it just follows that visual content feels more natural and intuitive to us on a basic level.

Let’s take a look at some of the science behind how the brain interacts with visual stimuli. We’ll also discuss what this means for brands and marketers who are trying to find a better way to connect with audiences.

Better Retention and Comprehension with Visual Content

The use of visual content has a profound effect on our brains’ ability to learn and process new information. A combination of words and pictures has proven time and again to be a more effective teaching tool than words alone.

For example, as Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer write in their book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, accompanying text-based instructions with a graphic improved students’ performance on a test by a median amount of 89%. Whereas students had gotten less than 40% of answers correct after reading a text comprised of words alone, the number of correct answers improved to around 65% when words were combined with graphics.

Meanwhile, color can play a strong role in memory too. Scientists have observed a significant improvement in memory recognition when study participants are presented with color images vs. black-and-white images. While these studies didn’t compare images to text, it can perhaps be concluded that color graphics might offer a similar improvement in memory over text, which is generally presented in black and white.  

The so-called multimedia principle, which posits that “people learn more deeply from words and graphics than from words alone,” has become among the most well-established educational principles, and has been applied widely in educational spheres.

This is one reason why visual content is so effective at helping marketers achieve their goals. If you want to improve brand recognition, retention of your message, or comprehension of a complex topic you’re discussing, visual content will prove essential.

Attention in the Age of Information Overload

We’re living in the age of social media, big data, and uninterrupted, global internet access. That means people are taking in more data than ever before. And visual content is uniquely poised to help us cut through all the static.

How are people adapting to the mountains of content they interact with on a daily basis? When that content is comprised of text, we’re simply reading less. Generation Z, which this year became the world’s most populous generation, doesn’t read text the way previous generations did. They’re master skimmers, Dr. Darla Rothman reports, spending just 4.4 seconds on every 100 words of text.

But our brains are uniquely wired to take in and process a huge quantity of visual data. Human eyes can register a stunning 36,000 visual messages per hour. Think about reading 36,000 words per hour. That’d be a pretty big challenge for the average reader, who reads about 250 words per minute on average (depending on your source), totaling 15,000 words per hour. Even if you did manage to read 36,000 words in an hour, consider also that one image contains so much more information than one word. Bottom line: visuals communicate much more information, much faster.

What’s more, our brains are already doing this work. More than 80 percent of the information that our brains are processing is visual.

All this means that when you present audiences will visual content, you’re giving them something that their brains can process faster, and seemingly (if the visual communication is effective) with less effort, considering how much visual processing our brains are doing already.

Keep these scientific considerations in mind the next time you’re designing a marketing campaign. They’ll be essential for ensuring you keep visual content high on your list of priorities when it comes to effectively reaching your audiences.

Have a question about creating unique visual content? Get in touch with Killer Infographics here.

Erin McCoy

Author Erin McCoy

Erin McCoy is director of content marketing and public relations at Killer Visual Strategies. She earned her BA in Spanish with minors in French and Russian, and holds 2 master’s degrees from the University of Washington: an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literature. She has won nearly 2 dozen awards in photojournalism, and has dedicated those skills to boosting Killer’s brand recognition and thought leadership in visual communication. Since Erin took on her marketing/PR role, Killer has been named a member of the Inc. 5000 for 4 years in a row; has been featured in such publications as Inc., Forbes, Mashable, and the Huffington Post; and has been invited to present at such conferences as SXSW and SMX Advanced.

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