Visual Thinking: How the Brain Represents What we See

The concept of Visual Thinking is introduced by Rudolph Arnheim, who published in 1969 a book with this title. It is the work of a psychologist interested in the processes of perception and visual reasoning that uses examples of art as a developed expression of these processes.

However, Visual Thought is a construct that explains the mental, artistic and scientific representation we make of the world and the reality that surrounds us.

Is it another of these fashionable Anglicisms?

Visual Thinking is used as an innovative concept in some areas. It is suggested to increase motivation and productivity in work meetings when “words do not work”.

In education, it accompanies design in problem solving (Design Thinking) or suggests strategies to improve our connection with artistic expression (Visual Thinking Strategies).

However, its cognitive nature allows it a general development. To the abstract reasoning that occurs independently of the words we call it visuospatial reasoning and with it we visualize, we orient ourselves and we represent the environment. This reasoning is part of the study of intelligence since its inception.

For Jean Piaget, recognizing the forms and their changes when moving in space are the mental operations resulting from the interaction with the physical world.

The National Research Council of the United States points out that these abilities of perception, visualization and graphic representation are not taught in a universal and explicit way. In our work, most participants show more difficulties with simple questions of perceptual and proportional reasoning than with standardized exercises in spatial reasoning:

Imagine that you are standing at the seashore and see in front of you the horizon line that divides the sea and the sky. Imagine now crouching, squatting: what does this line do?

You have three options: the line goes up, down or stays the same.

This exercise of perceptual imagination involves our perception and visual representation. They are the capacities that our brain has to understand and represent what we see. The most recent studies suggest the existence of a visuo-spatial cognitive processing parallel to a non-spatial process associated with the recognition of the object, which indicates a visual way of thinking in close connection with verbal thought, but not subject to it.

We interpret reality by reasoning around visual information and we represent it with drawing and writing.

Is Visual Thinking “doing little pictures”?

When we remember the first visual reasoning, drawing and value judgments tend to be very close, but it does not seem that drawing, like writing, is something exclusive of artists or writers.

Beyond aesthetic judgment, when we represent something, we establish relationships that respond to our perception of changes in shapes and light. We are talking about abstract visual qualities that, although we turn them into words (wide, wavy, blue …), they are of a presemantic nature.

Being prior to writing, drawing acquires its universal character in front of languages. The Anglo-Saxon world uses the terms literacy and graphicacy to clearly distinguish verbal and graphic languages.

We learn both as the main forms of expression, but we limit graphic education to the learning of writing. This has taken us so far away from the perceptual experience that today we consider visual literacy to be an essential component of education.

It’s about learning to see

The image has always had an extraordinary value along with the text. Printing methods, such as printing and photography, have mechanized the graphic representation of writing and drawing. However, technological development has not prevented the education of the human graphic gesture, from the first printed publications to the current digital media.

Today we can ask if the graphic gesture has an educational interest in the construction of knowledge, beyond the achievement of learning to write.

Little dedication to visual education

Visual education is dispersed in an excess of content with little time of dedication. The teachers of the scientific areas know that the visual and graphic competence affects the scientific-mathematical thought, but it is not included in the curricular approach.

The application of optics and light, proportion, geometry and forms of representation are assumed by the teachers of the “visual and audiovisual plastic area”. Here, the graphic competence is diluted between technical-artistic content around classic and contemporary heritage, traditional crafts and the modern alphanumeric language of the image.

It is hard to understand that, with an eminently visual brain, we leave little space to learn to see, to reason visually and to represent what we perceive and imagine.
We need to ask ourselves why the main psychoeducational conclusions of the twentieth century put aside this reasoning.

Perhaps it has been possible to influence the interest of modern states to alphabetize the population or the power of representation attributed to the mechanical image in front of the artisan image or, perhaps, the prevalence of a non-visual system of graphic representation that has accompanied the industrial Revolution.

By reflecting on it, perhaps we can recover the importance that we sometimes gave to our visuospatial reasoning.