Visual Thinking: Another Look

“If I can’t picture it I can’t understand it”

~ Albert Einstein ~


The Indo-European root word for ‘vision’ is ‘weid’ “to know” as well as “to see.” We use our physical eyes to make sense of things. Newborn babies, for example, begin imprinting their mothers faces within the first few days of bonding. We also use our “mind’s eye” to picture images independent of sight or external stimulus. For example, visualization used in meditation. Perception and seeing are two sides of the same coin. “We don’t see things as they are; we see things, as we are” [Anais Nin].


The term ‘image’ derives from the Latin ‘imago‘ meaning’ to imitate’. Neuroscience now confirms this ancient semantic understanding of the image’s mimetic quality. Mirror neurons predispose humans to observational learning. These neurons respond when we perform any action and when we witness others performing any action.

Children are therefore “‘hard-wired’ to learn through imitation” (Muthukumaraswamy, 2007). Moreover, “observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons. By watching a game, a performer will be better able to predict what will happen next.” A picture is an analog of experience. It’s one step removed from the actual event.

Images convey complex data simply, directly, and powerfully. They transcend the need for extensive dialogue. Research shows our neurocognitive ‘visual highway’ is faster and more efficient than our ‘verbal highway’. It’s also underused in comparison. The more visual our sensory input is, the more likely we can recall it. Visual images are more efficient due to richer ‘information density’. This is called the Picture Superiority Effect.


Not surprisingly, visual literacy precedes verbal development. Indeed, most alphabets consisted of pictures or started as pictures. Yet Western society historically has favored the written word over the image. Many people still widely believe a child progresses intellectually when they move from drawing pictures to writing words. This initial skill is incorrectly “regarded as a dispensable embellishment” (Millard and Marsh, 2001:55). This is also why most individuals never fully develop their graphic skills they way they do their written and verbal skills.

Both visual and verbal communication modes are equally vital. For example, the verbal system is ideal for a crosswords puzzle whereas the visual system is ideal for a jigsaw puzzle. Presenting verbal and visual information together promotes creative problem solving more than if verbal and visual information is given separately (Mayer and Anderson, 1991).

This has been understood from antiquity onwards as the following quotes attest.

  • Without image, thinking is impossible – Aristotle
  • Words are the images of things – Simonides
  • A word to the wise is sufficient – Plautus
  • When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence – Robert E. Horn

Perhaps the most telling saying of all is that “one picture is worth a thousand words” This is wrongly attributed to Confucius. It was actually coined by an early American advertising manager, Fred R. Barnard. He wrote it as copy for an advert that appeared in the trade magazine Printers’ Ink in 1927. His pitch was that an advert with a large picture and little text would be more easily seen and apprehended on the side of a fast moving trolley car.


Howard Esbin, PhDVisual Thinking: Another Look