Pictures & Memory: Worth a Thousand Words

When it comes to memory, researchers have known for more than 100 years that pictures and text follow very different rules. Put simply,the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognizedand recalled. The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.

Human PSE is truly Olympian. Tests performed years ago showed that people could remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90 percent accuracy several days post-exposure, even though subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63 percent. In one paperadorably titled Remember Dick and Jane?picture recognition information was reliably retrieved several decades later.

Sprinkled throughout these experiments were comparisons with other forms of communication. The favorite target was usually text or oral presentations, and the usual result was picture demolishes them both. It still does. Text and oral presentations are not just less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.

The inefficiency of text has received particular attention. One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. Data clearly show that a word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letters. Instead of words, we see complex little art-museum masterpieces, with hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters. Like an art junkie, we linger at each feature, rigorously and independently verifying it before moving to the next. The finding has broad implications for reading efficiency. Reading creates a bottleneck. My text chokes you, not because my text is not enough like pictures but because my text is too much like pictures. To our cortex, unnervingly, there is no such thing as words.Thats not necessarily obvious. After all, the brain is as adaptive as Silly Putty. With years of reading books, writing email, and sendingtext messages, you might think the visual system could be trained torecognize common words without slogging through tedious additional steps of letter-feature recognition. But that is not what happens. No matter how experienced a reader you become, you will still stop and ponder individual textual features as you plow through a book, and you will do so until you cant read anymore. Perhaps, with hindsight, we could have predicted such inefficiency. Our evolutionary history was never dominated by text-filled billboards or Microsoft Word. It was dominated by leaf-filled trees and saber-toothed tigers. The reason vision means so much to us may be as simple as the fact that most of the major threats to our lives in the savannah were apprehended visually. Ditto with most of our food supplies. Ditto with our perceptions of reproductive opportunity.
The tendency is so pervasive that, even when we read, most of us try to visualize what the text is telling us. Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap, George Bernard Shaw was fond of saying. These days, there is a lot of brain science technology to back him up.About the Author:Developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Medina is also the author of the bestselling book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.
1 2 3 Next
Print Article