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What is visual thinking? And why it is useful?

By: Leanne Armstrong

Visual thinking – aka thinking in pictures – is made possible by our ability to tap into the brain’s powerful visual processing center. Even if you’re not artistically inclined, visual thinking makes it easier to organize your thoughts, form new ideas, and remember essential details.

While studies suggest that we all generate visual images, whether we’re envisioning a concept or thinking verbally, it’s widely believed that two-thirds of the population predominantly see words and thoughts as a series of pictures.

Are you one of them?

If not, that’s okay. Verbal thinking is equally important.

In fact, research indicates that creativity may very well stem from a cross-section of both visual and verbal thinking. And no matter which way your thought process leans, visual aids like brainstorming techniques and mind mapping tools are readily available to help you think about and share your ideas.

Curious to find out more about how visual thinking works?

Then let’s dive into this fascinating topic!


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What is visual thinking?

Even though our brains are predisposed to think visually, it was assumed until the late 1980s that all thought was language-based. Since then, studies in behavior and imaging have confirmed that visual thinking is not only real, it’s relatively wide-spread.

Given its abstract nature, drilling down to a definitive visual thinking definition that makes sense to everyone (especially verbal thinkers) can prove challenging.

A good place to start, however, is by recognizing that visual thinking brains have a knack for:

  • Organizing ideas graphically
  • Remembering and recalling information as images
  • Estimating number-based, physical attributes

You may know people, for example, who read books or listen to music purely in order to visualize, who are capable of memorizing instructions by visualizing notes on a page, or who always seem to know at a glance whether that new desk is going to fit through their office door!

To accomplish this, people who think visually rely on two distinct groups of skills: object visualization (the ability to picture scenes in rich detail and process them holistically) and spatial visualization (the ability to judge distances, dimensions, and velocities).

Though these don’t necessarily function equally or in tandem in everyone, it’s been suggested that visual thinkers incorporate various aspects of object and spatial visualization to analyze visual details and prepare to take action.

Visual thinking brings clarity to information

No matter what kind of thinking you tend to do, your brain is wired to quickly understand and remember visual input. So, applying visual thinking to everyday events and relationships can bring greater clarity to information – whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of things.

Visual thinking tools and techniques help you:

  • See or show how data and other information connects so it can be grouped and sorted more efficiently
  • Explain or understand complicated concepts better so relationships between ideas can be established and explored
  • Teach or learn new procedures or information by associating it with images that can be remembered and applied more effectively

Using tools like infographics, concept maps, timelines, charts, drawings, and other “pictures” to produce well-designed visual images is a much more powerful way to share experiences and knowledge than verbal or textual information alone.

When it comes to study and education, for example, visual learning techniques have been shown to improve everything from reading comprehension and writing skills, to long-term retention and test scores.

In the workplace, meanwhile, business visualization experts like Dan Roam (author of the bestseller “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures”) believe visual clarity is something everyone can learn to express if they have the right tools and techniques.

Do you need to write a story, instruct a class, or plan a work project? Alone or as part of a team, you’ll find it significantly easier to introduce, share, and make sense of new knowledge when that information is represented visually.

How visual thinking differs from other types of thinking

People who think visually use mental imagery on a conscious level to plan, problem-solve, or simply imagine. What’s interesting, however, is that a lot of people aren’t aware that not everyone thinks the way they do.

Allowing for many shades of grey in between, there are essentially two types of thinkers: visual and verbal. To get a better idea of what their thought processes look like, here’s a simplified view of visual thinking vs verbal thinking.

Visual thinkers:

  • Think about information by seeing pictures in their head (somewhat like watching a movie)
  • Experience abstract thoughts that sometimes need to be verbalized before they can be fully formed
  • Often require time to respond to a question or find the right word or phrase to express what they’re thinking

Verbal thinkers:

  • Think about information in words (somewhat like talking to themselves)
  • Experience an internal narrative or monologue that plays out in sentences they hear in their head
  • Often need to shut down multiple verbal threads before they can direct their full attention to new information

While people who are good at verbal thinking are often only average when it comes to the object and spatial visualization skills described earlier, evidence also suggests that there’s no single visual thinking style.

Cognitively speaking, ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ used to occupy opposite ends of the thinking spectrum. Now it’s clear that things aren’t quite that simple.

Not only do visual and verbal thinking skills coexist in everyone’s mind, some of the best creative thinking is achieved when the two interact.

So, if you want to bring out the best in your team from a business perspective, start by acknowledging that there are different types of thinkers in every workplace – then employ proven visualization tools and techniques to make it easier to address and engage every one of them.

Putting visual thinking to work

The notion that when people can see what they need to do, they’re much more likely to be able to do it (and do it well) certainly rings true in light of the wealth of research that’s been done on learning styles and the brain.

The key to benefiting from visual thinking, however, lies in recognizing that it’s an active process – not a passive one.

Rather than just watching images float by, thinking visually involves working to:

  • Brainstorm abstract ideas by laying them out graphically
  • Consciously create a new picture to help connect others
  • Manipulate imagery to better organize and reflect the information it’s meant to project

Integrating visual thinking tools as a business professional can enhance your presentations, foster more insightful discussions, and improve team performance.

So, whether your aim is to grasp an idea better yourself – or share important knowledge with others – remember that the best thinking emerges when you use pictures to join information from different people and different contexts together.

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