Science and Research on Visual Learning

Exploring vision, understanding and retention in the light of recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the workings of the brain and conclusions for brain friendly teaching.


Large demo materials create powerful learning environments and makes the displayed image seem important in itself. As a result of my work as image editor for our visual encyclopedias, I have been fascinated for years by the reactions of users as they initially browse through our transparencies in the files and see these projected afterwards. The large illuminated image produces, time and again, an amazing motivating effect which has little to do with the subject. It is as if the viewer becomes defenceless to the information presented - also body language reveals the heightened interest. Any teacher knows that a new and bright full colour projection will start up the student’s brain like a computer as piece after piece switches on. It can take 10 to 20 seconds before a large image has activated the subject-related brain parts. Than the new information is compared with existing knowledge. This phenomenon, so easy to apply in the classroom, can partly be explained from the workings of the brain as discussed in the first article and partly from the role images play in knowledge processes.

Why visual imagery boosts efficient learning?

Ideas on education are constantly developing. In 1983, when brain research was starting and ‘brain friendly learning’ still unheard of, Howard Gardner (Cambridge University) challenged in ‘Frame of Mind’ the narrow view of IQ and testing by proposing his ‘multiple intelligence theory’. This theory was hailed by educators and worked like a catalyst in the wave of educational changes already taking place since the 1970s. The innovations incorporated Gardner’s views, such as individual learning styles to which teaching strategies were adapted. For this, schools were even re-built, from here to Australia.

Gardner’s ‘theory of multiple intelligence’ includes visual, mathematical, spiritual, logical, practical, emotional and social abilities. Each type of intelligence complements the others and rarely exists on its own. Not all of these forms of intelligence require mental images as a condition for understanding. No two students learn in the same way, as no two brains receive, process and save information in an identical manner. Some knowledge and understanding is best transmitted in written, verbal (audio) or other forms. Nonetheless, Gardner’s theory promotes and supports the use of visuals whenever possible. How can we explain this by using today’s cognitive psychology and new insights in the workings of the brain?

The frontal brain lobes
‘the home of human reason’


The knowledge we teach our students get processed first and for all in the frontal lobes. This part of the brain evolved for executive functions such as logical thinking and planning. Human intelligence (IQ) probably resides in two small areas within the frontal lobes.

The frontal brain lobes house our “think-centre” and its working memory, the more contemporary term for the short-term memory. These sections complement each other and function as a unit. The short-term memory retains brief and limited amounts of new information, allowing for assimilation with existing information in the long-term memory. Specific brain areas are developed for language abilities which support logical thinking. We translate and express the images and feelings of our thoughts into words and sentences.

Neurological scans of thinking brains reveal as much activity in the brain parts associated with language as those of vision. Language is able to create connections between mental images, allowing us to add abstract values and changes in meaning. In thinking, it seems that language is linked to vision and an idea is often a mental image with visual characteristics.
Not language, but images

The evolution of the frontal brain lobes together with the language centre can be considered as the neuro-physiological basis for the rise of higher civilisations. Until recently, the notion prevailed that language allowed for consciousness, and that man could only define and understand the world in terms of language - consider Noam Chomsky’s famous theories.

But people with serious speech disorders or even aphasia, are able to think and can carry out purposeful acts. For such reasons neuro-scientists believe the role of language within thinking to be similar to communicating with other people: words are symbols reversing between the non-language thinking processes which merely take place in images and abstractions. Words as symbols may differ, as language does in every culture.

Moreover, the role of conscious thought is now considered to be much less important than was always assumed, just like the role of language in the thinking processes.

It is no co-incidence that the spoken is losing its traditional central role now that new technology facilitates teaching through visual learning techniques. Students who learn easily through audio or reading, use powerful imagination skills to translate new information effortlessly to the mental images in the brain. Nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that audio orientated students also benefit from visual information presented by TV, books and the new media, - as well as the so called ‘visually orientated’ students who need to visualise concepts to learn and understand.

Visualisation: students see the meaning of the word

Children taught in a language other than their native tongue, face double learning problems because they make a double shift. Research proves that new information presented in another language, is firstly translated in a intuitive manner into the native language, symbol to symbol. It is only then interpreted by the student, starting to create mental images.

Children with language difficulties such as dyslexia, experience extra problems in a bi-lingual situation because of the urge to translate the words first into the native language.

Image language is easily understood by all students. Transparencies are simple tools to let your students see what you mean at any moment.

Image language is the only universal language

Images at the basis of thinking activities
Man in his evolutionary process has come to understand the world primarily via visual perception. That’s why images play an important part in all thinking activity.

The eyes register more neutrally than other senses, because this form of observation is, like language, linked to analytical thinking. To touch, taste and smell we react more emotionally as these are linked more direct to the limbic system, but for conscious thinking these stimuli are often translated into images.

Modern man has existed for 80,000 years, lived for 8,000 years as farmers and for 5,000 in cities with ‘higher civilisations’. Now, after 200 years of industrialisation, we are probing the mysteries of our brain via the computer.

Images in levels of learning

Similarity between thinking and seeing
When the eye ‘sees’ something unfamiliar, the image passed on will be in detail, in so far as it seems important. When the eye ‘sees’ something familiar, the observation centre only passes on an abstraction. The more familiar, the more abstract: you hardly notice your own house when you come home, unless you pay special attention.
The same applies to thinking: well processed knowledge and understanding engage the thinking process via abstractions (which may then be enhanced or checked with images stored in the memory). To process unfamiliar ideas, the thought-centre requires concrete images for thought formation and understanding.

We understand in images
You only understand something when you can see what it means; when you form a mental image. Also abstractions are translated into images. For example, we create mental images to help us understand concepts such as air pressure, war or the models of society. For many, the feudal pyramid forms the basis for a wider understanding of the notion of ‘feudalism’; and ‘democracy’ is often visualised as a three-pillar system: legislative, executive and judicial power. As the child’s mind develops, more connections can be made between images which may change their meaning.

Insight thanks to the image
If something is explained but no image comes to mind, then you might not have understood the concept. Only when an image comes to mind does a concept seem to be clear: you think you understand it. This image is then stored, most likely in the visual memory. It becomes a key for future recall and the basis for further insight and thought development. By classifying we bring order to stored images and we bring structure to schemes by using stories and theories.

Images as keys to the memory
Scents easily awaken a memory because in the brain the senses of smell and memory are sited next to each other. Sea-air easily brings to mind that first time at a beach. Emotions and colours occur and images appear: the visual memory is activated. Gradually the memory of past experiences clearly come to mind.
The more familiar the memory the more abstract it will be. Moreover, the content of the memory changes through learning and experiences. In his final year a graduate has a different meaning of a trapezium than a young pupil has.

Seeing is interpreting – learning is processing

What we think we see with our eyes is largely interpretation (according to some this is even more than 90%). Learning to interpret together is useful and can be a pleasant variation to working individually on the computer. The projected image motivates and gives the teacher a leading role in directing the involvement of the students. When appropriate, the teachers’ story telling skills can be unleashed. Team spirit and learning both are developed. Local brain activities with their specialist functions are measured in micro-volts.

More than a modern supplement to independent learning

Memory traces – physiology of the memory
The long-term memory is activated more by a large projection. In subject-related parts scattered over the brain, memory traces from existing knowledge can be strengthened and misconceptions might be corrected; new memory pathways called ‘engrams’, are built for new knowledge. The synapses, the connections between the nerve cells, become more or less permanently altered. This is the physiological basis of remembering.

‘Long Term Potential’ LTP – intellectual skills
The heightening of the ‘Long Term Potential’ – LTP, is important to the memory: with the strengthening of the connections between the nerve cells, stimuli can be passed on more easily. By learning we do not simply mean memorising or discovering the ‘point’ contained in an image. It is as much about the development of intellectual skills such as reading maps and other graphic material.

Team spirit for independent thinking
Research has shown that the sense of belonging to a group is a condition for learning. Modern education is striving to develop students’ independent thinking faculties. Both are promoted through a systematic collective searching for coherence in a large image, discovering relationships between details and drawing conclusions.

A baby’s brain responds to the many impressions obtained of the outside world by growing more and more neuronal connections. In addition, some are strengthened and others are weakened as the baby learns new skills and forms memories.In the brain of an attentive student millions of connections are changing every minute. Whether this happens in the right places and in the correct way depends mostly upon the stimuli.

Teaching will never be the same again. Nowadays the emphasis is on independent learning, on skills instead of memorising and on learning to process information from a variety of sources and to use functionally gathered knowledge. The question now is - how do you keep your students on track, focussed on the essentials whilst retaining an overview of what they are doing? Anchors in the long-term memory are indispensable.

- Copyright © 2002
TTE-Visual Transparencies to Educate BV, The Netherlands

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