Why a Picture Really Is Worth a Thousand Words According to Neuroscience

In today’s digital marketing landscape, many marketers still downplay the importance of images. In a recent survey by Venngage covering hundreds of marketers, fully 31% of respondents did not agree that visuals are “very important or an absolute necessity” for their marketing strategy, and just 56% said they used visuals in every piece of content they publish.

Yet decades’ worth of scientific research consistently demonstrates that people are much better at remembering pictures than words. Recognition memory tests dating back to the 1950s found that people are able to correctly identify 98% of images they’ve seen before, compared with just 88% of sentences and 90% of words.

Visuals might just be the most important—and most neglected—marketing tool we have.

Are 600 Pictures More Memorable Than 600 Words?

In the 1950s, psychologist Roger Shepard used recognition memory trials to test subjects’ recall of words, sentences, and images. He showed participants 600 words, 600 sentences, or 600 pictures and then tested their recall of the stimuli they had seen. He would show the “old” word, sentence, or picture next to one that subjecst hadn’t seen before, and ask them to identify which they had already seen. Though participants demonstrated strong recognition of words and phrases (90% and 88%, respectively, as noted above) image recall at 98% was off the charts.

Since the publication of Shepard’s paper, studies have consistently demonstrated that subjects recall pictures better than words or phrases. Brain-mapping research suggests that more effective and automatic engagement of areas important for visual memory, such as the medial temporal cortex, may be responsible for our superior visual memory—why it’s easier for us to recall something we’ve seen than something we’ve read.

And that isn’t surprising. In the grand scheme of human history, mass literacy—or even just literacy—is a relatively recent phenomenon. “From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to remember various aspects of one’s visual environment must be vital for survival, so it is not surprising that memory for pictorial material is particularly well developed,” according to researchers from the University of Toronto.

For thousands of years before the written word, our ancestors’ existence depended on their visual memory.

The Power of Human Visual Memory


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