Saturday, October 10, 2009

Visual Cognition

Linda and I awoke this morning with two guests at our feet at the far end of the bed - energy on the right and thoughtfulness on the left, embodied in our cats Karma and Tina. Karma is an athletic, short-haired black kitten with strategic white spots who experiences no discernable synapse between a visual stimulus and her pounce. Tina, a few years older, with long gray hair that makes her appear much bigger than she is, is the thoughtful one, the one who looks, sniffs, and lightly paws at the world before taking any action. It was Karma who caught my attention this morning, and whose pouncing on my right hand stimulated the topic of this post.

Visual cognition is a topic that is long overdue for this blog. Here I have been blogging about thinking and cognitive skills for two months, and have never once used the word visual. Didn't I read somewhere that the optic nerve is the only sensory receptor that has a direct pathway into the neocortex? (My apologies to neurologists everywhere if I've got that jumbled a bit.)

But the point is that there is a vividness and immediacy about visual stimuli that is markedly different from our other senses. Perhaps it's really just the speed at which cognition occurs from a visual stimulus, that immediate recognition that enables us to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, that enables Brett Favre to spot an open receiver in time to drill the ball into his arms. Maybe that's why TV and films engage us so quickly, when sound, touch, smell, or taste alone each take a few more seconds to process.

One of my avocational interests for many years has been the potential of visual organizers for enhancing communication and learning processes. My first real awareness came from meeting Tony Buzan during one of his trips to the United States in the mid-1980s, participating in a 3-day workshop he conducted for the Department of Education. His invention of mind-mapping still strikes me as perhaps the purest form of visual-verbal cognitive organization, if only because of its flexibility to support both structured and unstructured content.

Working with Tony and his books engaged me with an entire realm of tools that my verbally-centered background had kept from me. If this subject is of interest to you, here are some starting points:

Writing the Natural Way, by Gabrielle Rico, published in the eighties as well, using visuals specifically to organize and develop thoughts for writing.

Group Graphics Guide, by David Sibbet, also published initially in the eighties. David's incredibly accessible work focuses on using graphic recording to support group facilitiation. His gentle teaching in a seminar I attended reversed 30 years of conditioning for me: he actually made me realize that I could draw a bit.

VizThink, a west coast organization devoted to sharing and promoting the use of visuals of all kinds for thinking. Their conferences and seminars bring the work of people like David Sibbet to larger audiences.

Thinking Maps, Inc., a company based in Cary, NC that trains elementary and secondary school teachers using David Hyerle's invention of cognitive maps to support the six thinking skills described in this blog.

Just yesterday, our local chapter of the American Society for Training and Development published a short article by David Amdur, a teacher and member of the chapter. David highlighted a graphic organizer called VUE, developed at Tufts University, flexible open source software for creating visuals for communication, presentation, and learning. Here's the reference from David's article:
"For information, demos, and a free download of VUE, go to:"

Did it again. As Click and Clack would say, just helped myself (and you, if you've read this far) waste a perfectly beautiful Minnesota morning, missing the experience of the earliest snow in St. Paul in 60 years. Look out the window!


  1. I love this post! Artists everywhere will agree with you! I also agree that using visual stimuli to teach is important. I am not a teacher, but I am a student. I know that I am far more engaged when an instructor does something even as simple as write on the board, or walks around the room. Not to mention an instructor that actually uses imagery by way of PowerPoint slides, or field trips. Sitting in a room for two hours and listening to a lecture while the instructor stands behind a podium and only blinks at the crowd of students is not stimulating at all.

    By the way, I too, have two cats - a thinker and a pouncer. It seems they often end up that way when you have them in pairs.

  2. Thanks, AT. Great to have someone appreciate both the content and spirit of a post. And here I thought our cats were unique...