Hard wired to think in pictures, socialised to deal in facts

Prompted by a tweet from Lucy Gower about the power of visuals in communications, an anecdote I really like sprung to mind that highlights the competing forces of how we are naturally inclined think and what we’re taught to think. I forget where I read it, but it was almost certainly in one of the books listed here or here (I think it was probably Switch by Chip & Dan Heath, but I could be wrong).


As I remember it, it goes like this*…


Researchers observed a group of MBA students at Harvard Business School who were asked to give a presentation on a recent project to their classmates. The students were then told to grade each other on the quality of their presentations. The students who delivered presentations full of facts and figures were rated considerably better by their peers than the ones who favoured stories and pictures. 


However, when the researchers went back to interview the students a few months later they asked them what they could remember from the presentations they’d seen. Despite the low marks the students had given them, the things that they could remember were not the facts and figures, but the pictures and stories.


And there lies the problem we face…Generally our brains find it much easier to remember an image or a story than facts – you might say we’re hard-wired to remember stories and there seems to be some basis for the phrase ‘a picture tells a thousand words’! However, through schooling, business and cultural norms we are conditioned to value facts and figures more highly than stories and pictures. Any participatory practitioner or visual artist will not be surprised to hear this…the value of storytelling and visualising in communicating and engaging people is well known. And of course MBA students are not particularly typical of society at large. However there has been a huge growth of MBAs within the public and private sector over recent years and this sort of thinking – valuing facts more highly than a story – is commonplace in boardrooms up and down the country.

Why does this matter? I think these two quotes from Albert Einstein help highlight the problem


Imagination is more important than knowledge…

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.


Storytelling and images – and words, if used correctly – are far more creative and imaginative than regurgitating facts. [I acknowledge that when one gets to the advanced level of maths and physics that Einstein was working on an element of creativity and beauty comes into play too]. As a society we risk inhibiting learning and social advancement if we continue to under-value creative expression in this way. God knows what Einstein would have made of the recent proliferation of MBA courses.

We face a constant pressure to justify the legitimacy of pictures and stories as evidence (putting to one side the current government’s distaste for ‘evidence based policy making’). But we know that they are more likely to convey a message that sticks in people’s minds. Ministers are forever asking civil servants (who in turn are always asking me and my peers in the VCS) for a ‘good story’ that they can drop into a speech they’re giving. They know the value of a good story.

I’ve been interested in making information visual for some time. Initially I came up with the idea of ‘Policy in Pictures’ as a way of encouraging Whitehall’s producers of weighty volumes of fine words to adopt a more visual approach to communicating their ideas. Noel Hatch built on this concept to come up with ‘Visual Camp’ which we’ve worked on together, along with Visual Facilitator Emily Wilkinson and others.


Visual Camp is a participatory process for helping policy makers, citizens and designers to explore and visualise a topic. It builds on what we know about the power of images, whilst creating a space for debate and discussion to take place. There has been excellent work on storytelling too that Nicky Getgood and Lloyd Davis (to name just two) have been doing. [If you’re interested, I’d strongly recommend having a look at the fantastic content that was generated from Storycamp] which was held recently.


‘Selling  stories and pictures’ will be tough if a ‘it’s not facts and figures’ mentality continues to prevail – even without the tough financial climate – but until we overcome that in-built bias, we can’t expect our communications to really connect with people as well as they might.


For some strange reason I keep coming across quotes from scientists that highlight better than most the importance of images and stories. So I’ll leave the final word to Nobel-winning scientist Peter Debye: ‘I can only think in pictures…..it’s all visual’.



*I apologise unreservedly for any inaccuracies, omissions and not being able to remember where I read it. I blame New Labour for their mismanagement of my brain during their time in office 😉


2 thoughts on “Hard wired to think in pictures, socialised to deal in facts

  1. It is widely reported that many a scientific break-through are initiated with non-rational behavior and creativity. Einstein had a dream about about running alongside a beam of light. Tesla was inspired to discover alternating currents by reading a poem from Goethe and having a near religious experience during a bright sunset. Mullis took LSD so he could think about the problem of DNA Sequencing. If you want more examples of this kind see Michal Brooke’s new book "Free Radicals – the secret anarchy of science."That scientists urge the use of creativity in scientific think does not place them orthogonally away facts and figures. A scientist might make use of creativity at the inception of a process, they might use accessible narrative to mobilise collaboration, they might use visual to communicate progress in their efforts. Yet they must use facts and figures, and logic and method, to test if theory/experiments/treatment has merit. Einstein had to use imagination to solve the conundrum of gravity in special relativity because knowledge was limited yet the foundation of the problem and the solution were fact based – deploying many observations and theories from Newton’s observation of the apple falling to Gauss’s statistical prediction of the path of the dwarf planet Ceres.For social innovators this must also be true. There is definitely an over-emphasis of ‘hard’ knowledge – and I’m critical of much of this from the perspective of both method and relevance. But we must be wary that ‘soft’ knowledge doesn’t leave us bereft of a testable reality. When trying to deliver social change we must be accountable, and that require more than a good story and a sympathetic image.There is stuff we can do to ensure that that we choose the right type of communication appropriate to the purpose of dissemination and dialogue. Often its about be honest about the claims that made for change-making. It’s true enough that people who come with a panacea often come armed with weaponised with fact and figures but its also true that some people do change-making without a theory of change and mis-placed sense impact and outcome. We should not be entering a battle of gnostic propositions but seeking to find relevance to aid us both understand and communicate.http://econintersect.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/baby-bathwater.jpg

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