Now You See It… Now You GET It – The Power of Visuals in Learning

First, some important factoids regarding our Vision:

  • Vision is the hardest working process in our bodies
  • Vision takes up 30% of the brain’s processing capabilities
  • Neuroscientists know more about our vison-sense than any other sensory system in our body
  • We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains

As important as vision is for survival (is that a saber toothed tiger I see charging toward me?) it also trumps all our other senses when it comes to learning, interpreting and understanding the world around us. Vision is probably the best single tool we have for learning anything, so says John Medina author of Brain Rules (check it out at

One of the reasons that vision (and thereby the use of visuals) is so powerful is because something that we see is easy to label, identify, categorize and recall later. What’s the circular thing with buckets that twirls at the carnival? Oh right. A Ferris Wheel.

Visual input is so important, neuroscience has given it a fancy title: Pictorial Superiority Effect (or PSE). In one experiment, test subjects were shown 2,500 pictures for 10 seconds each. Several days after the exposure to the pictures, the subjects were able to recall 90% of the pictures. The same type of experiment, utilizing words, fell to an abysmal 10% recall three-days after exposure. But the RIGHT words can help learners to create visuals.

Words Create Pictures

The very tall man folded his body, in order to fit in to the sports car, then sped away.

Did you “see” those words in your mind as you read them? Everyone did. And everyone saw a different picture. Very tall is relative. Sports car is generic. But you have a picture in your head related to what you just read. We don’t see with our eyes – we see with our brains. You did not physically see the scenario that was described but you have a picture of it in your mind. Amazing.

Pictures Create Emotion

Additionally, pictures can evoke emotion, which helps with retention and recall. Think about the image of the Ferris Wheel a few paragraphs back. You pictured a Ferris Wheel in order to help you recall it’s name, didn’t you? Many of you also remembered experiencing a Ferris Wheel in some way – either the glee (or terror) of riding it, looking up at it all colorful and bright, or being at the carnival – with the smells and sounds – where you encountered it. You have a vivid memory of a Ferris Wheel. That memory is defined in a picture.

Important Ways to Incorporate Visuals in Learning

Because using visuals is so crucial to understanding and remembering, it is imperative that we give just as much thought to the visuals we use in training, as to the content we are creating. Here are some ways you can utilize visuals in your training:

Slides / Photos – include pictures – especially photos – especially photos of people – on your slides. Photos are more realistic than graphics or clip art and therefore more engaging to the brain. Photos of people are especially memorable. We like to see people “just like us.”

Physical objects – whenever possible, include a real representation of the visual. Sometimes you’ll have to stretch to make it work – but the stretch will be worth it because it will sear the message in to the learner’s brain. More than 2 decades ago I attended a presentation given by a man. I have no idea who he was. I have no idea what his topic was. I DO remember that we were in a hotel meeting room (visual) and I DO remember that he said “Many years ago a computer would fill a room of this size, and now that same computing power can fit in something as small as this little pink packet.”  And he held up an artificial sugar packet.  The room was large; the little pink packet was hard to see. It’s a bit of a stretch from computer processing power to sugar packet… but the image (and the point he was making) has remained for decades. That’s powerful.

Mental imagery – sometimes it’s just impossible to find a photo or physical object to represent your message. Perhaps you are teaching virtually and there is no way to show the physical object (or the object is too big, or too small, or doesn’t actually exist yet).  Instead you can help learners to create a visual in their “mind’s eye.”  (Definition: To see something in one’s visual memory or imagination. Bet you always wondered what that phrase meant. Now you know. The first known use of the term dates back to Chaucer, in 1390. By the time Shakespeare used it in Hamlet, the phrase had been around for over 200 years! )

In Medina’s book, Brain Rules (see link above), he talks about DNA and how long and complex it is. He says fitting a strand of DNA in to the nucleus of our cells is like trying to stuff 30 miles of fishing line in to a blueberry. IMPOSSIBLE! But memorable.  I may not remember much about DNA in the future, but I will always remember that it is long and complex.

Here is a challenge for you: Go back through the courses you already have and re-evaluate the visuals you are using. Can you add visuals to slides? Can you associate the content with physical objects? Can you make an analogy or tell a story that causes the learner to create a mental image in his “mind’s eye?”  If you can – I guarantee – recall and comprehension will increase.  You will also see test scores go up. Your learners will become brilliant – thanks to you (and visuals).

Updated May 15, 2017

Nelson Dellis, the USA Memory Champ, was recently a guest on Lewis Howes’ podcast, discussing how he can easily remember things. One of his tricks is to make abstract things – such as numbers – in to visuals that are easier to remember.  For instance, the number 32 is Charlie Brown and the number 95 is Tom Brady.  Associating those images with others helps him to combine numbers more easily – so Homer Simpson fighting a sword battle becomes a 4 digit number . This type of visualization technique earned him the record for the longest string of numbers committed to memory – 201. If you have an hour, listen to the podcast and learn about the power of Mind Palaces as a visualization / memorization technique as well.