Balancing the Visual and Verbal Minds

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How do people’s brains process information and ideas? A crucial question for communicators, and yet one that hasn’t adequately been addressed with respect to sustainability communications.

Visual thinker Dan Roam, author of ‘Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work’, delves into the deeper subtleties of the left brain/right brain model. He points out that while human beings are of two minds, it’s not quite as clear cut as the left side of the brain being ‘analytical’ and the right side being ‘creative’.

Roam explains that while one half of our mind has evolved to perceive the world in ‘bits’, lines, sequences – and this is where words are stored – the other half likes to see the ‘whole’, maps, pictures, and this acts as the ‘glue’ to synthesise the words.

He uses the metaphor of a Fox to represent the verbal mind and a more linear communication style, and the Hummingbird to represent the visual mind, and a non-linear style of communication where the mind flits, darts and leaps.

Roam says that over thousands of years, we’ve taught our verbal ‘Fox’ mind to dominate our visual ‘Hummingbird’ mind:

Ever been to so many meetings that you couldn’t get your work done? Ever fallen asleep during a bullet-point presentation? Ever watched the news and ended up knowing less? Welcome to the land of

the words 'blah-blah-blah' in blue

The Problem: We talk so much that we don’t think very well.

Powerful as words are, we fool ourselves when we think our words alone can detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today. They can’t – and that’s bad, because words have become our default thinking tool.

Roam’s approach is to combine the verbal and visual into an approach he calls ‘vivid thinking’, balancing out the Fox and Hummingbird minds.

As a wordsmith, I would love to have more visual abilities in my skills kit, to create images and visual metaphors, to learn more about graphic arts and making short movie clips – I know that in terms of content disseminated on Facebook, images are shared much more extensively than links or words, and the meteoric rise of image curating/sharing site Pinterest also demonstrates the power of images.

Roam also notes that visual thinking is often dismissed as being of lesser value than the use of words, as we have been conditioned to think of art as just for artists, or that a visual approach has no role in the workplace. How can drawing stick figures and smiley faces possibly be as credible as pages and pages of words? Yet by their nature, images demand brevity and clarity, something that is even more essential in today’s fast-paced, information-saturated, limited-attention span world.

The devaluing of the visual begins long before we arrive in the workplace – we keep writing into high school, university and beyond, but many of us leave our visual skills behind in childhood. Roam is on a mission to highlight the value of visual skills and show why words don’t always work:

What do leaders today do to clarify their ideas? They talk, talk, talk, talk. We’ve come to equate intelligence with our ability to speak. That’s a big mistake.

Standardized testing focuses on math, critical reading and writing. It ignores visual reasoning. But while our educational system may ignore visual thinking as soon as we leave kindergarten, some of the world’s greatest minds keep returning to it.

‘I rarely think in words at all. My visual images have to be translated laboriously into conventional mathematical terms.’  – Albert Einstein.

Aside from the possibility that the meaning has not been effectively synthesised from pages and pages of words, visual thinking requires the brain to use different processes and neural pathways, which could mean creative breakthroughs that would not have otherwise emerged.

The Power of Visual Communication

Still skeptical of the ability of the value of visual communication? Take a look at how Ukraine’s Kseniya Simonova uses it to tell a story and move people (this clip has almost 22.5 million hits).

Not only is it one of the most amazing pieces of visual art, but the viewer doesn’t have to be ‘of’ the culture or the place, or know the history, to feel the emotional power of her story:

Not a word is needed. Note the audience’s reaction. The music adds an extra element, but the story is still easily conveyed without it. There are clearly cultural references which are of profound importance to the people watching, but without a viewer even being aware of what they are, the story still resonates.

The advertising world has long been aware of the power of images and visual communication, and while there have been some vivid examples in sustainability communication (artists such as Chris Jordan spring to mind with his ‘Intolerable Beauty’ series), it would be fair to say that the vast majority of what is being produced by government, business, science and well-intentioned educators is not engaging with the Hummingbird mind. We train people to write well – could we put equal emphasis on developing visual skills?

Given that 75% of our brain is devoted to visual processing, in creating a world of wall-to-wall words, are we missing vital opportunities to connect with people through other means of sensing and perceiving?

How could we begin to give more weight to our ‘Hummingbird’ minds? 

What would it take for visual approaches to be afforded the same credibility as verbal?

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  1. Hi Sharon,

    Very nice post. As an architect I can relate to this topic very well. Sitting down and sketching with clients has been one of my most effective tools of communication. Love the sand art video; thanks!



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