Your brain can do a lot of awesome things. Here's proof.
Your brain can remember what you were doing 15 years ago, it knows how to get from your home to your workplace, and it remembers the words to your favorite song. But those are just some of the things your brain can do. It can also interact with the world, learn, grow, and understand. And part of the way it does this, is through seeing. Our brains are made for looking, and if you're visual marketing and brand is not trying to take advantage of our brains constant craving for new visual information, then it is missing out on one of the best ways to tap straight into peoples’ heads.
Vision is one of the most researched areas of neuroscience, and though we still have a lot to learn, we do know a few things about why humans are so responsive to pictures and visual information, and why it is such a great way to interact with people.
Your brain is really one big organ for making sense of the world, and it does that almost entirely through vision. Fine, we smell, taste, touch, hear and such (we actually have way more than five senses, perhaps up to 21) but seeing is our primary sense, by a long distance.
About 20% of your brain is their purely for vision, and that’s actually at the back of your head. Your optic nerves snake through the middle of your brain, and spread out into the occipital lobes right at the back. It has long been thought that your brain is compartmentalized. That is, there are certain bits that do certain things – you have a part of the brain for moving, a part for feeling, and a part for breathing in and out. While this is largely true, the actual picture is a lot murkier. The visual cortex at the back does the bulk of the processing of visual information, but it then sends that information out to almost all other areas of the brain, where it is combined with our sensory information, retained in memory, or used to recall something once remembered.
Your visual system reaches out and interacts with at least half of your brain, sending electrical impulses all over the place.
When your eyes are open about two-thirds of the electrical impulses firing in your brain are related to the visual information cascading in. This means that your brain cells could be firing up to 2 billion times per second just to compute, integrate, and remember all of the visual information that your brain is taking in.
Color is one of the best tools visual marketing has at its disposal. In fact, I have talked before about how important color is to design and what effect it has on us. Adding color to documents such as safety notices and warnings has been shown to increase recall of that technical information by up to 82%. The same addition of color to otherwise bland information can reduce errors, reduce search time, and increase comprehension.
But why? Well, evolution. The world is a wonderful array of colorful things, some of which are awesome – the clear blue sky, fresh fruit, and running water – and some of which are not – rotting fruit and stagnant water.
A 2009 study from Berkeley, California looked at why we associate certain colors with good and certain colors with bad, and it comes down to what those colors represent, and our own personal preferences. Because blues and greens are associated in nature with good health and cleanliness, they have come to mean that for us still. Advertising often uses blues and whites to mean ‘freshness’ and clean living.
There is a good reason that Facebook, X (Twitter) and a number of other companies use blue as their brand color – it is inherently likable to our brains.
Just the same, browns and yellows are generally colors we wanted to avoid when foraging for food, so we still dislike them, thousands of years on.
Because our brains are starting to catch up with the fact that we do not have to go out looking for food anymore, this phenomena is starting to shift so that we can think that good colors are ones that we have a personal preference for, even if that is brown.
But, if you want to play safe, always pick blue. And if you want to play dangerous, always pick red.
Most of us will have experienced the phenomena of something shooting by past in the corner of our eye. Just as we turn to focus on it, it’s gone.
But actually it’s not. You have two types of cells in your eyes, rods and cones. Cones are in the middle, and what light is focused on when we are looking directly at an object. They are good for detail and for color. Rods on the other hand cannot see in color (you may think that your peripheral vision is in color – it’s not. Your brain fills the color in from small eye movements called saccades, and from memory. Get someone to move a crayon from your periphery slowly around. You won’t be able to tell its color until it comes near your focus). But rods are great at seeing low levels of light and detecting movement.
These rods in our eyes are more sensitive to movement for one very good reason, perhaps the ultimate reason – to keep us alive. At our hearts, and certainly in our minds, we are still out there on the savanna trying desperately not to get eaten. The rods react very well to tiny changes in our peripheral vision, alerting us to any sabre-tooth, wolly mammoth or T-Rex that was about to pounce.
Now they can tell us if a ball is about to hit us on the field, a car is about to hit us on the road, and they can help in visual marketing to keep the brain alert and interested in what it is seeing.
Anyone who has held a newborn baby will have had that magical moment when they stared back at you with their baby blues (or greens, browns, oranges…). The visual system is not really ready for the world when a baby comes out of the womb, but it is soon assailed by thousands of new sights, and it learns quickly what to pay attention to.
First the baby learns to focus on individual objects and will start to learn about different shapes, testing and learning what objects are related to different behaviors. The spoon-shaped object means food, the ball-shaped object means play, the face-shaped object means love.
One of the things we are watching from day one is faces. Babies, even before their eye muscles are capable of focusing, still turn and face their mothers. We are hardwired (see below) to seek out a round object with two dark bands (one for the eyes, one for the mouth) even before we can see them clearly.
So we are watching as soon as we open our eyes, but we do not learn to read until years later. Most children do not learn to read until they are a few years old. Though there is a significant industry surrounding the idea that you can teach your baby to read from just a few months old, at least one study has found that this is hokum. A 2014 study from New York University tested baby media to see if it increased babies reading abilities. It did not. In fact, the senior author, Susan Neuman said “While we cannot say with full assurance that infants at this age cannot learn printed words, our results make clear they did not learn printed words from the baby media product that was tested.”
This is one of the reasons that visuals are so appealing to humans. We inherently understand visual metaphors because we have learned to associate objects with behaviors from such an early age, far before we learned how to describe those objects or behaviors in words.
One of the first things we focus in on when we are born is the faces of our family. This isn’t just because they are always around in those first few weeks. The brain has a specific circuit for recognizing faces called the fusiform gyrus, or the fusiform face area.
One of the best pieces of evidence that there is a certain area of the brain that responds to faces comes from a seminal study in 2005 by researchers at Caltech. During operations for epilepsy where electrodes are inserted into the brains of patients, while they were awake, to record the seizure activity, researchers showed the patients a series of faces of celebrities and people known to the patients (as well as random faces for control purposes). When the electrodes were in the fusiform gyrus they recorded specific neural activity for these faces.
What was incredible about the cells responding to these faces was that they were highly specific.
In one patient there was what has become known in neuroscience as ‘the Jennifer Aniston cell’. This neuron fired only when the patient was shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston.
No other faces or objects or anything else got a response from this cell – it only wanted Jen.
We are not alone in recognizing faces. Monkeys have specific cells in their brains that respond to faces, and are well capable of recognize each other’s faces. As are sheep. Yep, the animal that epitomizes sameness are actually complete unique to each other and have the same face area in their brains. In fact, to sheep all humans look the same.
Though we are primarily visual animals, the other senses are important as well, but particularly when combined with vision. If you hear a piece of information, then a few days later you will only remember 10%. But if you add a picture to that information, recall goes up to 65%.
It might be wrong to say that our brains love to be stimulated. Rather, they are very good at sifting out unimportant information. You are bombarded with information every second (just sit now and think of all of the sights, smells, touches, etc that you are taking in from your 21 senses. It is overwhelming) and your brain has to act as gatekeeper to your conscious mind, throwing out everything that you do not need to deal with at this very second.
If you can constantly change the information coming in, you can trick your brain into constantly paying attention. An unsourced (read: Mmm) statistic is that they average attention span in 2015 is 8 seconds. We are bored and moving on after only 8 seconds of reading, or listening, or seeing. Likely it is longer than that, but our brains will switch off if not constantly entertained. Adding visuals to a written piece (like this) can help keep the brain entertained, attending, and interested. Here’s a pretty picture.
As much as our brains need stimulation, they do like simple ideas. Visuals are a great way of reducing information to simple ideas. It may be a cliché, but it is also true: a picture speaks a thousand words.
Consider road signs. Is it better to have a sign say “there is a school ahead. Watch out for children crossing the road” or to have an image of two schoolchildren walking. Our visual brains are going to convert that text into an image for us of schoolchildren crossing the road, either brining forward a memory, or through imagination, so it makes it much simpler to start with the visual representation.
Emotions are incredibly important for all human interactions, and they are integral to marketing. The best way to get people involved with a brand is through personal connections and personal stories.
If there is something our brains love more than an image, it’s an emotion. Though you can of course get emotion across in words, we are masters at reading other people’s faces for emotional cues. In fact, you do it almost all the time. Facial expressions are universal, and we spend a great deal of energy and visual time trying to decode microexpressions on peoples faces when we meet them.
How much we do this and how much it impacts our lives is probably best understood in terms of what happens when it goes wrong. Some people have difficulty readin emotions in other peoples faces, and I am not just talking about psychopaths. A wide array of disorders and diseases have symptoms where facial expressions are not understood. Parkinson’s patients have difficulty recognizing facial expressions in others, as do people with mood disorders, schizphrenia, and even anorexia.
Because we are always on the look out for emotional cues in images, especially of people, these are a great way to get across positive emotions to associate with your brand.
If you want to get an idea over quickly, then an image is by far the best way to do it. We can process images far quicker than we can process written text. Studies have shown that it takes only 150ms for us to process and image, and then another 100ms for us to attach any meaning to it. That is literally the blink of an eye. Words take us much longer to understand, even if you are a speed reader. It can take you up to twice as long to process and recognize words.
Recent studies suggest that we might be even faster at taking in image-related information, up to 10 times faster.
An MIT study published last year suggests that we can understand the meaning of an image in only 13ms!
Ten times faster than the blink of an eye.
Again this comes down to the fact that we are made to recognize and understand images. We were born and evolved to do it, whereas reading has only been around for a few thousand years (and a few hundred for most people).
If you try to remember something right now, a picture will come to your mind. Even if it is a passage from your favorite book or poem, you cannot but help make it into an image. It is simply the way our brains work. We have not evolved for words, we have evolved for images. Before the wonders of GPS came along you definitely wanted to remember your surroundings, otherwise a sabre-tooth tiger might eat you for breakfast. Therefore, it made sense for our ancestors to be very good at object and scene recognition, something that has been passed down to us as a talent for visual understanding.
Not only do we remember visually, we remember visuals far better than words.
We can remember up to 2,000 pictures with only a little learning, and recognize them days later,
which is far better than our ability to remember and recall words. A 1998 study from Canada suggested we remember pictures better because they elicit multiple representations and memories and that the two areas for remembering pictures and words are completely different.
Words, unfortunately (especially unfortunately as a writer) just don’t cut it. Yep, they are good, but they don’t quite do it the way pictures do. By including visuals in your marketing you can tap into the raison d’etre of our brains, allowing people to understand in an instant, a 13ms instant possibly, what your brand is about and what you want to say.
You can take advantage of 200,000 years of human evolution…
and tell stories that cut right to the heart of human experience. You can play with emotion, color, and movement and have it all help. And you can make your marketing and brand look great while you do it.