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Let me see

September 27, 2010

RSA animates shows that there’s more to a talk than its words. Each speaker’s message is brought to life by witty illustrations that make even the most intellectual subject seem like cake. Behind the drawings is company Cognitive Media, who specialize as visual practitioners. They’re part of a larger trend that acknowledges the power of visualization. Infographics are widely circulated throughout the web to describe say the years’ most viral brands, while the New York Times website has won numerous awards because of its graphics team, whose members are interviewed in a neat video here.

What makes seeing an idea even more powerful than hearing it? The theory about working memory in cognitive psychology can help explain. In 1974, researchers Baddely and Hitch suggested that working memory, the capacity to hold information in the mind during the complex tasks of learning and memory, is governed by distinct components. One is a system that processes the sound of language, while the other main system processes visual and spatial information. The sound system is thought to have evolved from human’s capacity of speech perception and production. Meanwhile the visual and spatial system is believed to be more primal, being intimately related to the processes of visual perception and action – both innate human functions. Additional systems direct attention, and integrate the components together.

In our context, a visually stimulating talk triggers not only the sound but also the visuo-spatial processes. Both key components of the working memory system are mobilized. Although there is little research examining exactly how the two subsystems work together, I predict that an illustrated talk maps an integrated message into your mind and embeds it more deeply in your memory that otherwise.

So imagine if this methodology were employed more widely in education, for example: science classes animated with visualizations would become fun and not forced.

Image from CognitiveMedia’s blog here.

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