What A Picture Is Worth

What A Picture Is Worth

June 2, 2011

We Process Visuals Almost Instantaneously

The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is a dramatic understatement! Pictures can tell stories, they can evoke certain feelings and they can cause us to unconsciously tap into our memories to understand and perceive what a visual image is communicating. Take the above photograph, for instance. I don’t have to tell you what’s going on, and you were probably amused within about a millisecond of seeing it. We love these types of visuals at Brandtrust®, not only because they communicate great stories (and we’re obsessed with the power of telling a story!) but also because they serve as a testament to the power of visuals, due to the innate and almost instantaneous human ability to understand and process them.

Visual Cues Guide Us

Humans are dominantly visual creatures and a vast amount of data can be communicated through images, compared to written or spoken words. We rely heavily on visual cues to make it through the day, e.g. the look on our boss’ face after he’s read our report, the clouds outside as we’re getting dressed, how our new outfit looks in the mirror, etc. And we’re able to process and understand associated images quickly, e.g. the boss slammed his hand on the desk, the clouds were black, the mirror cracked, etc. We’re able to process these visual cues efficiently because of the memories we’ve tied to each of them based on our past experiences. Said another way, every last one of us is a visual learner.

If you read Lacey’s blog post about Making Robots Cry (which you should!), you know a bit about mental models and how they’re created and stored on the basis of how something makes us feel. When we experience something, the memory is stored based on the emotion it evoked. If we feel happiness, anger, greed or joy in the moment, we remember that experience as having that specific impact. Interestingly, and affirming to our use of visualizations in Brandtrust®’s Emotional Inquiry® work, not only is there a link between emotion and memory, but also between imagery and memory.

Visuals Anchor Our Memories, Too

Consider this story we love to tell at Brandtrust®: you’re at a party and your friend introduces you to Mike Baker. You’re also introduced to another friend, John, who is a baker. Immediately during the meeting with John the baker, you’ve associated him with all sorts of imagery related to bakers (bread, pastries, aprons, etc.), as you’ve had previous experience with bakers and your brain has stored those images. Chances are that if you ever see John in the future, those visual cues will flash in your brain and you’ll remember he’s a baker for a pretty long time, because of those visual cues. That other guy, Mike Baker? There’s a pretty slim chance that you’ll remember his name, even just a few minutes later, because there’s no visual imagery associated with it.

Logogens and Imagens

In Paivio’s theory of mental imagery, he suggests that there are two systems humans use to process the world around them: logogens and imagens. The logogen system is used to make sense of words and text while the imagen system is responsible for making sense of feelings and visual cues. While the two systems are definitely used in conjunction, it makes the most sense to tap into the system associated with the type of information you’re trying to recall. For example, if you were asked to recall what the Eiffel Tower looks like, you’d tap into your imagen system rather than the logogen system you rely on when trying to solve a crossword puzzle. In contrast, when you’re trying to conjure up a word that is a synonym for “crazy,” you’ll probably think of the logogen “insane.”

So if the imagen system is responsible for interpreting visual cues, emotions and feelings and it stores this processed information visually, it only makes sense to try to access it visually. As I mentioned, during our Emotional Inquiry® interviews we use visualization techniques in which we have the respondents close their eyes and paint us a clear picture of specific experiences they’ve had with the brand or category of focus. Leveraging what we’ve learned about the visual processing system, we’re able to access emotional memories and understand the emotional journey consumers have experienced via these visualizations. You gotta love that imagen system!

At Brandtrust®, we’re in constant pursuit of the best research tools. If there’s one thought I’d like to leave you with it would be that humans use two different processing systems and you should use a technique designed to tap into the appropriate one, depending on your learning challenge.

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