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September 8, 2012


Vision Trumps All Other Senses & Images Trump Text

by Marina

In his book “Brain Rules” John Medina talks about latest research in Neuroscience and has an interesting chapter on Vision. Even though the focus of his book is on learning and doing better presentations, I though this information is useful for anyone doing UI/UX Design as well.

So here is how our Vision works:

Visual senses

  • We See with our Brains.
  • We trust our vision to be 100% accurate up-to-the minute representation of what’s out there. The reality can be slightly different.
  • We see what our brain guesses is out there
    “The brain is actively deconstructing the information given to it by the eyes, pushing it through a series of filters, and then reconstructing what it thinks it sees. Or what it thinks you should see… It makes a gazillion calculations, then provides you its best guess.”
  • Our brain is doing all these guessing because it doesn’t know where things are. In a three-dimensional world, the light actually falls on our retina in a two-dimensional fashion. So our brain approximates viewable image.
  • Our brain devotes a lot of thinking resources to Vision, in part because it has to process input from both eyes, which give our brain 2 separate visual fields, and they project images upside down and backwards.
  • Actually we trust Vision more than any other senses because “our brain insists on helping us create our perceived reality“.
  • What’s even more fascinating is that our “Previous experience plays an important role in what the brain allows us to see“. To me this means what we see and perceive is highly individual, as our individual experiences in life.

Now, if you’ve heard about the rule of 7 (the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2), you’ll find this interesting. According to the new research, most of us can hold about 4 objects at a time in our visual working memory, and as the complexity of the objects increases, the number of objects capable of being captured drops.

People remember and recall information better if its presented visually, and “the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled.” It’s called Pictorial Superiority Effect, or PSE

“If information is presented orally, people remember about 10%, tested 72 hrs after exposure. That number goes up by 65% if you add a picture.” ~ John Medina

“Tests performed years ago showed that people could remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy several days post-exposure, even though subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63%.” ~ John Medina

Text is Inefficient Compared to Images

It actually creates bottlenecks for people trying to consume information.

“One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures… Instead of words, we see complex little art-museum masterpieces, with hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters. Like an art junkie, we linger at each feature, rigorously and independently verifying it before moving it to the next… My text chokes you, not because my text is not enough like pictures,  but because my text is too much like pictures. To our cortex, unnervingly, there is no such thing as words.” ~ John Medina

If you’ve ever done Usability Testing, you probably heard comments from users that the page is text-heavy. Now you can understand why that’s a problem.

According to John Medina, no matter how experienced we are as readers, we will still stop and ponder individual textual features as we go through text.

“Our evolutionary history was never dominated by text-filled billboards or Microsoft Word. It was dominated by leaf-filled trees and saber-toothed tigers. The reason vision means so much to us may be as simple as the fact that most of the major threats to our lives in the savannah were apprehended visually. Ditto with most of our food supplies. Ditto with our perceptions of reproductive opportunity. The tendency is so pervasive that, even when we read, most of us try to visualize what text is telling us.” ~ John Medina

This might explain why in the experiment determining “usable” homepages, designs that were judged to be the most usable showed high graphics-to-text ratio.

Are there any Exceptions to these Rules?

I’ve heard a few times now that Lawyers is the only group that tends to like text-heavy documents and prefers non-visual communications. Apparently, images for lawyers add to the confusion and destruct them from consuming information. I wonder if there is any truth to that in light of what the brain research tells us.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dean
    Mar 22 2013

    Great summary, a very insightful read.

    Curious whether dismissing text’s inefficiency compared to images is a tad simplistic though, since not all images are created equal. It would be interesting to delve deeper into the weighted relationship between the two elements under varied conditions.


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