Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Teaching Strategies


Guess which of our senses our brains devote the most resources to? Might it be touch? How about hearing? What would our quality of life be without our sense of taste and smell? And finally, vision.

According to John Medina, the answer is vision. In fact, in his book Brain Rules, Medina writes that vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half our brain’s resources! This fact leads to many important points for educators when teaching or presenting information to students.

In fact, in comparisons with other forms of communication such as text/reading or oral presentation/speech, pictures demolish them both.

What are the reasons? In regards to memory, vision and text follow very different rules.

First is the concept of pictorial superiority effect or PSE. PSE pertains to the fact that the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled.

For example, Medina cites research that demonstrates adults can remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy several days post-exposure, even though subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds. And one year later, the accuracy rates still hovered around 63%. In another study, picture recognition was reliably retrieved several decades later.

Most importantly, there are certain aspects of pictures that our brains pay exceptional attention to. Our brain pays particular attention to color, to orientation and to size. And of paramount importance, the brain is tremendously attentive to objects in motion. Keep in mind that most of the things in our environment move and the brain has unbelievably sophisticated methods to detect it.

This leads to an important point for educators to remember when teaching or presenting information: when information is presented just orally, only 10% of the information is remembered 72 afterward. If the information is presented orally with a picture, 65% of the information is remembered within the same time frame.

Why is text/reading so inefficient as compared to pictures? Medina notes that the brain treats words as many small, individual pictures. Text chokes us not because it is not enough like pictures but because text is too much like pictures. From the brain’s point-of-view, it sees words as lots of tiny pictures. A word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letters. Instead of words, we see hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters. We independently verify each feature before moving to the next. Reading causes a bottleneck in the brain and has broad implications involving reading efficiency.

In other words, to our cortex, there is no such thing as words.

In summary, pictures are the efficient delivery mechanism of information and we learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.

Read below for a more detailed discussion of the above information.


1. Use less text and more pictures


Why? Recall doubles when a picture is added as compared to when information is presented using just text. Hear a piece of information, and 3 days later you will remember 10% of it. Add a picture, and you will remember 65%.

Three days after instruction, the average a person will remember 10% of the oral presented information, 35% if the material was presented only visually, and 65% if information was presented both orally and visually.

Additionally, our visual short-term memory or working memory, the brain area dedicated to storing visual information, can only hold 4 objects at a time.

This video will add further insights to this topic.

2. Remember the brain pays a lot of attention to Color, Orientation, Size, and special attention to things in Motion

When you use computer animation or simulations in your classroom, do not forget to captures the importance not only of color but also motion. Studies show that simple, 2-dimensional models are effective. Additionally, if the drawings are too complex they can distract from the transfer of information. The brain pays a significant amount of attention to color, to objects in motion, to object orientation, and to movement in general. However pictures do not necessarily communicate all information skillfully, such as conceptual ideas and language arts.

***  Insights ***

Visual perception doesn’t assist in the perception of our world; it dominates the perception of our world.


Pictorial superiority effect or PSE

PSE means the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina notes that "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 recognized - and recalled." Some of the research is astounding.

~ People could remember 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy several days post-exposure, even through subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds.”Moreover, accuracy rates were appropriately 63% one year later.

~ As noted above, when a person is tested after 72 hours, they remember 10% of the information that was presented orally, but only 65% of the information when a picture is added.

Why is text so inefficient? The brain sees words as a lot of little pictures. We analyze each feature in a word before moving on to the next word. Medina writes that, “data clearly shows that a word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letter.” Our cortex does not recognize words; it recognizes pictures. Text slows a person down because it creates a roadblock, which affects reading fluency. To our brains, words are just many little pictures created and strung together.

For a moment consider USA Today. When USA Today was first published in 1982, some predicted it would never work. Within four years, USA Today had the second highest readership of any newspaper in the country, and within 10 years, it was number one. Its theory is less text plus more pictures equal increased sales.

Why? Pictures are a more efficient delivery mechanism of information than text. Pictorial information is initially more attractive to consumers, in part because it takes less effort to comprehend, a more efficient way to get information to a neuron.


We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brain

The brain interprets the electrical information from the retina, and we become visually aware. But it is not a 100% accurate representation of what’s actually out there.

Our brains insist on helping us create our perceived reality. It actively hallucinates. You perceive parts of this page that do not exist, which means you’re hallucinating. Your brain likes to make things up. In other words, we actually experience our visual environment as a fully analyzed opinion about what the brain thinks is out there.

Our brain can decide to take shortcuts. It decides that speed vs. accuracy is useful in a particular situation. Most of the time, the brain favors speed, interpreting events speedily, but not logically. The rest of the time, it uses a slow, careful approach, such as in solving math/logic problem.


Below are four examples of how the brain favors speed over accuracy.



Do you see the arrow in the FedEx symbol below? Don’t see, look again and if you still don’t see it, the answer is at the bottom of this page.  The FedEx symbol illustrates how the brain favors speed over attention to accuracy.



The famous ‘FedEx Logo’ is a quality example of sheer ubiquity and inspiring symbology. The FedEx logo has won many distinctive awards and is often regarded as the best creative design ever.


Next, look closely and examine below the face of Margaret Thatcher.


The photos at the top look fairly normal to most people-except for being upside down. The bottom pictures are the same images turned right side up. Now you can see that the one on the right is really weird! Both the eyes and the mouth have been turned upside down within the face. But you probably didn’t notice that when looking at the top right picture.



Third, the Kanizsa triangle

Kanizsa triangle

Directions: Look at the object. A white triangle has formed in the center but there is really no triangle drawn in the center.

In the picture, a floating white triangle appears although it does not exist. The brain makes sense of different shapes and put them together to formulate an object that really isn't there.

Kanizsa noticed that we see a white triangle, on top of and partly occluding disks and another triangle. The triangle, however, has no physically measurable existence although they appear to observers as significantly brighter than the background. When looking at the Kanizsa triangle, one sees the shape of a white, equilateral triangle in the center that appears to occlude the shapes around it. The nonexistent white triangle also appears to be brighter than the surrounding area, but in fact, it has the same brightness as the background.


Finally, the Necker Cube.

Necker Cube


The Necker Cube is an example of context is everything. There is no cube, the cube is in your head.



Blind spot

Each eye has a blind spot, a region where retinal neurons that carry visual information gather to begin their journey into the brain. There are no cells that perceive sight in this region, it is blind in this region and you are too.

But we don’t have black holes in our field of vision that won’t go away? Why? Because the brain plays a trick on you called filling in. As the signals are sent to your visual cortex, the brain detects the presence of the holes and examines the visual information 360 degrees around the spot and calculates what is most likely to be there. Then it fills in the spot. Some believe the brain simply ignores the lack of visual information, rather than calculating what’s missing. Either way, you’re not getting a 100% accurate representation.

The brain is far from a camera. It is actively deconstructing the information given to it by the eyes, pushing it through a series of filters, and then reconstructing what it thinks it sees. Or what it thinks you should see.

Not only do you perceive things that aren’t there, but also exactly how you construct your false information follows certain rules. Previous information plays a role in what the brain allows you to see, and the brain’s assumptions play a vital role.


Visual cortex

All visual information ends up in the visual cortex within the occipital lobe. Place your hand on the back of your head; your hand is now a quarter of an inch away from the visual cortex. The visual cortex is extremely specialized, some neurons responding only to certain pieces of information such as diagonal lines, others only to specific diagonal lines tilted at 40 degrees but not at 45 degrees. Some neurons process only the color in a visual signal, others only edges, and others only motion.



Each brain is wired differently: Our environment causes permanent physical changes in our brains

The Jennifer Aniston neuron example demonstrates the specificity of neurons and illustrates that no two brains are wired exactly the same including identical twins.

John Medina relates a story of a conscious man lying in surgery with his brain partially exposed. He is feeling no pain because the brain has no pain neurons. The reason for surgery is life-threatening epilepsy.

Suddenly, a surgeon shows the patient a picture of Jennifer Aniston and a neuron in his brain fired rapidly and intensely. The neuron responded to 7 photos of Aniston, while ignoring the 80 other images of everything else. Furthermore, the neuron fired to all images of Aniston except the one where she appeared with Brad Pitt.

Photos and drawings of Halle Berry, and even her written name activated another neuron. Although this neuron responded to a picture of Halle Berry dressed in her Catwomen costume, it did not respond to the photo of another women in a Catwomen costume. Other neurons responded to Julia Roberts, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton, or even a famous building like the Sydney Opera House.

By using this example, Medina illustrates the principle that all brains are wired differently because “our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.” In other words, each interaction with our environment that our brains experience changes the physical structure of our brain forever. He refers to this concept as “experience-dependent wiring.”

Even identical twins brains that watch the same movie are wired differently. He goes on to explain that, “even though the differences may seem subtle, the two brains are creating different memories of the same movie” because “learning results in physical changes in the brain, and these changes are unique to the individual.”

Use the link below as John Medina demonstrates and explains this topic.


Educational implications

Naturally, this interesting example has educational implications.  This example is called experience dependent wiring; the brain’s wiring is determined by its experiences. Medina explains that, “we can divide the world’s brains into those who know of Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry and those who don’t. The brains of those who do are not wired the same way as those who don’t.” This means that are brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.


Given this data, does it make sense to have school systems expect every brain to learn like every other? The data offers powerful implications for how we should teach kids. Medina summarizes the above information in the following manner:


a. What you do in life and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like-it literally rewires it.


b. The various regions of the brain develop at different times in different people.


c. No two people’s brains store the same information in the same way in the same place.


Survival insight.

Our ancestors were confronted with leaf-filled trees and saber-toothed tigers, not text-filled billboards or Microsoft Word. Most of the major threats to our lives on the savanna were apprehended visually. Ditto, our food supplies and reproductive opportunities. Most of the things in the Serengeti moved and the brain have unbelievably sophisticated methods to detect it.


Answer to FedEx symbol

FedEx answer




“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.