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Brain Science and Infographics

Your brain really REALLY loves... Images.

Well. Clearly we do. But really. They’re awesome! And they’re increasingly in use. Check out this great infographic by San Francisco-based Interactive Artist Ivan Cash on current trends and devices.


They’re a powerful tool when it comes to communicating complicated ideas – quickly and compellingly.

But I missed a step there – because you need to break down the components a little further to understand why it is that we humans just. Get. Them. It’s because it turns out your brain really REALLY loves… Images. And pictures are becoming arguably even more prevalent as we increasingly interface with our technology through app icons and thumbnails. Because it also just makes good sense to leverage something that makes that much sense to our brains.

So getting back to the brain and its love affair with the visual. One of the most striking characteristics of human memory is that pictures are remembered better than words. You already probably know this anecdotally – but there’s buckets of science to back it up. We have a really remarkable ability on this front.

In a study conducted in the 1970s on image perception and memory, researchers showed 21 undergraduates 2560 images for 10 sec. each. Then they tested their recognition memory and found that the students remembered at least 90% of what they’d been shown, that’s at least 2304 different images. Up to three days after originally seeing them. This far outstrips our ability to remember words. One theory on the why is that pictures automatically engage multiple representations and associations with other knowledge we have about the world, so the result is a more elaborate encoding than occurs with words.


(See this infographic on how memory works in its entirety here.)

Seems our brains just treat images differently, perhaps even hierarchically. They matter more. Articles with relevant images have 94% more views than those without, for example, high quality imagery is very important to 67% of consumers when making purchase decisions.

And memory matters when you’re trying to share information. We need to be able to remember in order  to understand, and to internalize before we can share. So one might say images drive social engagement. Which despite sounding fairly modern, is really not a very new idea. Neither, as it turns out, are infographics.

Here’s one put together by Florence Nightingale in 1857. She had a bit of an axe to grind about hospital cleanliness. So she put together this polar area chart showing mortality causes during the Crimean War.


And it’s really hard to make any sort of argument against hand washing when you register the deaths caused by communicable, preventable diseases, shown in blue, which just massively outstrip deaths from wounds shown in red. She made her case effectively apparently, and helped change the face of modern medicine.

(Healthcare is the sector today that most employs infographics to get their message across. Politics and business follow in short order rounding out the top three.)

And when NASA sent the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft out into deep space in the early 1970s they included a pair of plaques (gold-anodized aluminum) adorned with images telling a story of earth with the hope that they would be decodable to extraterrestrial life.


Human figures, hydrogen – our most abundant element, the position of the sun in the galaxy and 14 pulsars, the solar system and a silhouette of the spacecraft. Astronomer Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, who at the time had lectured about communication with extraterrestrial intelligences at a conference in Crimea (we’re looping back to Florence here) came up with the design in just 3 weeks. (And took a lot of heat for the naked people, by the way.)

Where are these infographics now? Well Pioneer 10 sent its last signal 30 years after its launch in 2001, some 12 billion kilometers from earth. Pioneer 11 was last heard from in 1995, and is currently headed in the direction of constellation of Aquila. It’s expected to pass near one of the stars in about 4 million years. Which is really rather an extraordinary thing to consider.

So humans, and I guess we’re hoping aliens too, like their data visualized. It really is just easier to interpret a chart or series of stats in image form than from a block of text. (And as a writer, I will say that this pains me some). I’ll close out with this rather fantastic motion graphic from Column Five Media that neatly sums up the value and science of visualization.

Alison Christie

With a Major in witty comebacks and a Minor in motherhood, Ali is all about the words and has been sharing them liberally with all and sundry for years. Oh! The stories she could tell, but for those million dollar non-disclosure contracts she has signed. Moving swiftly on.