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Why do our brains crave visual communication?

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

Visual information has an enormous influence on us, but why? Why are we so hungry for visual input? Let’s take a look at some scientific evidence and explore seven reasons why we yearn for visual communication.

1) We are visually oriented.

We descend from apes and, over time, have evolved to walk upright. The main advantage of this was that we could see farther than ever before. With this ability came further development, and now nearly half of our brain appears to be involved in the processing of visual information. Sight has been so important to our survival that 70% of all our sensory receptors (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling) are in our eyes. With all that computing power behind us, we can process a visual scene in 1/10th of a second.


The visual input we now receive compared to earlier stages of our evolution has also changed. Today, we receive five times more information than we did in 1986 alone, not to mention millions of years ago. Part of that comes down to having to process about 100,500 words per day [5]. Subconsciously, we then select what we do and do not find interesting. Thus, the key question is: how can we get the attention of our audience?

2) Colour attracts attention.

Getting people involved starts with attention and attention starts with colour. Bulls are not the only creatures guided by colour—people are too. For example, 80% of us are more inclined to read a text if colour is involved. It not only attracts our attention, but also influences our ability to think. So much so that a connection has been found between the colour green and our creative ability. At Google, they even have rooms where employees can recharge their creativity, and guess what colour the walls are!

3) Create clarity through illustrations.

Once you’ve got your audience’s attention, they’ll want clarity otherwise you can lose them, and fast! Just imagine buying a cupboard on eBay—it doesn’t always have to be IKEA—you visualise the finished cupboard, ready to be filled up. You unpack all the boxes, full of anticipation and then realise that the previous owner has provided written instructions only. After hours of frustration, you still end up driving to IKEA for a BILLY.


It doesn’t have to be like this though. Research by Levie and Lentz shows that we do 323% better if instructions include illustrations compared to text-only. Illustrations make things clearer, help us to understand and inspire confidence in our ability to get the job done.

4) Visuals inspire confidence.

Illustrations not only make concepts clearer, they also give us more confidence in what we are seeing. For example, in Dowser and Ehlers’ study on the use of medicines, one group was given medication with a leaflet containing textual description only. The other group received their medication with a leaflet containing textual and visual information. Only 70% of the textual group said they understood the information fully, as opposed to 95% of the visual group. Visuals help us understand something to a higher level and to trust it more.


5) Visuals are convincing.

Building trust is important, but sometimes we must convince people of something first. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania researched the influence of visualisations in presentations. They found that in only 50% of cases, audiences were persuaded or convinced by verbal presentations alone. However, once a presentation included visuals, the number persuaded or convinced rose to 70%.


6) We remember better what we can see.

Not only are we more convinced by visual experiences, they also help us to remember things, especially when compared with text-only. Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist from New York University, carried out research into the retrieval of information. He found that we remember 10% of what we hear and 20% of what we read compared to 80% of what we see and do. That’s not surprising when you consider how long we’ve been using text as compared with visuals. The earliest texts date back to c.3200 BC, but the earliest drawings are about 40,000 years old and the first known alphabet consisted of icons.

7) Visuals make us happy.

There are many benefits to visual communication. Not only does it affect our relationships, but also the hormones we produce. Semir Zeki, a British neurobiologist at University College London, researched the effect of art on our emotional state. Volunteers in the study underwent brain scans while looking at twenty-seven different works of art. The study found that seeing artwork stimulated the secretion of the hormone dopamine in the orbitofrontal cortex, resulting in feelings of happiness in the participants.


The production of dopamine in turn gives us the advantage of better reasoning, especially in the creative part of brain. For example, Zablina et al studied the effects of dopamine on creativity (divergent thinking). They found that higher dopamine levels in our bloodstream resulted in a more creative approach to problem solving.


As we all know, creativity is a skill that is increasingly important in a marketplace where competition and speed of development are essentials for survival. So take up the pencil, clay or paint out of the closet and go create something!


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