Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

October 17 Vision: Pictures vs Reading

USA Today


First edition of USA TODAY published Sept. 15, 1982


On September 15, 1982, the first edition of the newspaper USA Today, the flagship publication of the Gannett company, was published. Many predicted that its style would never work, or if it did work, it would signal the beginning of the end of western civilization. Wall Street gave it little chance. No large-circulation daily had been born in the USA since World War II. More than 20 metro newspapers had merged or gone belly up in the months leading up to the launch.

Critics branded USA Today as “McPaper”, deriding the pie charts and bite-sized stories as junk-food journalism. If USA TODAY is a good paper, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said, then “I’m in the wrong business.” A staff guide titled Writing for USA TODAY offered tips on how to tell stories quickly and clearly. One precept obeyed its own command: “Don’t waste words.” Phil Musick, an original columnist in Sports, liked to say he used an adjective once a week, whether he needed it or not.

As of January 5, 2016, Agility PR Solution ranks USA TODAY and as number one in total circulation reaching a combined seven million readers daily, topping the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The newspaper that invented “short” is made for the age of Twitter. Last month attracted more than 1 billion pageviews: The paper of the people is now the people’s website as well.

What factors contributed to USA Today’s success? What lessons can be learned by educators from its success?

To begin this discussion, let’s start with two questions.

Question 1. After information is presented orally, what percentage is remembered after 72 hours? a. 5%, b. 10%, c. 20%, d. 45%, e. 65%

Question 2. After information is presented orally including a picture, what percentage is remembered after 72 hours? a. 5%, b. 10%, c. 20%, d. 45%, e. 65%

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 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 and presenting information to students.

Moreover, Medina cites research which demonstrates that 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 amazingly one year later, the accuracy rates still hovered around 63%. In another study, picture recognition was reliably retrieved several decades later.

Remembering Pictures

Why is this so? According to Medina, it is caused by a phenomenon called pictorial superiority effect or PSE. PSE is due to the fact that the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled.

Most importantly, there are certain aspects of pictures that our brains pay exceptional attention to. Medina writes that “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.”

Color Size Motion

Why is text/reading so inefficient as compared to pictures? Because of another important phenomenon regarding how our memory deals with vision: vision and text follow very different rules.

Medina posits in his book that the brain treats words as many small, individual pictures. In other words, the brain 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 and we independently verify each feature before moving to the next.

The process of breaking down words into tiny pictures essentially causes a bottleneck in the brain when reading and has broad implications involving reading efficiency. In other words, text chokes us not because it is not enough like pictures but because text is too much like pictures. Amazingly, to our cortex, there is no such thing as words.

Why does the brain devote tremendous resources to vision and have a great dependence on it?

Possibly because our survival as a species has in the past depended on vision and continues to do so. When our ancestors were living in the Serengeti, noticing a sudden, slight movement in the tall savanna grass while walking could mean the difference between life or death for them. The brain has developed unbelievably sophisticated methods to detect movement and it even has regions to distinguish when our eyes are moving versus when our world is moving. These regions routinely shut down perceptions of eye movements in favor of environmental movement, Medina observers.

In Brain Rules, Medina writes that “our brains are wired for novelty because we pay attention to any and every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. This has always been a wonderful advantage because our survival as a species depended on this aspect of brain development.” Similarly, David Ropeik, Instructor at Harvard University, author, and a consultant on risk perception, risk communication, and risk management, says that “The human brain is a survival machine, not a figure-it-out computer. After you wake up in the morning, its primary job is to get you safely to bed at night, not to get good grades or discover something.”

Another factor to consider that might contribute to the brain’s preference to pictures over text is that reading is a comparatively new skill for our brains to master. Steven Feifer in his book The Neuropsychology of Reading Disorders, writes that reading and literacy is a relatively new phenomenon, encompassing approximately the last 5,000 to 6,000 years of human history.

To illustrate Medina’s concept, what do you remember about the first edition of USA Today at the beginning of this article? Is it that Princess Grace dies in Monaco? Or is the chart on the lower left of retirement costs in the U.S.? How about the cover story New Suburbs Old Pains in the Sun Belt? Due the effects of PSE, it is probably the pictures of the airline crash.

When the USA Today arrived in 1982, some predicted it would never work. But within four years, it had the second highest readership of any newspaper in the country, and within 10, it was number one. Why? Simply because it embraced the philosophy of less text, more pictures. Whether knowingly or not, their philosophy is based on the fact that 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.

The answers to the two beginning questions are contained in the following pictures.

Answer 1.

Answer 1

Source: Brain Rules

Answer 2.

Answer 2

Source: Brain Rules

Recognitio soars


Chart Black


When designing lesson plans educators must remember that in comparison with other forms of communication such as text/reading or oral presentation/speech, pictures demolish them both. Pictures are the more efficient delivery mechanism of information than text and we learn and our brains remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words. Medina observes that pictorial information is initially more attractive to our brains, in part because it takes less effort to comprehend, and is a more efficient way to get information to a neuron because with regard to memory, vision and text follow very different rules. Following this line of thinking, Medina recommends that Power Point slides contain a maximum of 40 words, preferably less.

Teachers should always be mindful that vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. Medina recommends that when computer animations are developed, what teachers must be attentive to is that students pay lots of attention to color, to orientation, to size, and exceptional attention to motion.

The most important fact that educators should always be mindful of is the 10/65 rule: when information is presented just orally, only 10% of the information is remembered 72 hours afterward. If the information is presented orally with a picture, 65% of the information is remembered within the same time frame.


“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.