For every person, the creation of inner images is fundamental to understanding. It’s how we put information together in our minds. By putting what we learn in relation to what we know, we construct it’s meaning for ourselves. Technology is shifting more of our conscious thought to acts of looking, finding, matching, comparing, balancing and other types of visual reasoning. It ‘s providing the necessity and the mechanism to make an important shift from verbal language as the dominant communicator of information, to image based approaches that show what’s significant in data by the way the it’s arranged. The possibilities of a visual approach to all levels of thinking offer the promise of greater clarity in our understanding of any subject. Verbal language is always partial, and extraordinarily bad decisions can be made when just a few facts are stripped of their context. Through the synthesizing knowledge offered by infographics and other visual presentations we can transform the parts into wholes, integrating information into understanding.
Barbara Stafford sensed just how profound would be the shift initiated by the computer regarding display of information. She felt that in the near future, the artist would be responsible for the design of knowledge as the visual potential of the screen is better utilized. Showing the relations of information enables the viewer to recognize key patterns and relationships. She wrote, “Perceptually combined information… avoids the intellectual limitations of linearity.” For Stafford, this means that the artist will change how information is understood. This shift is still in its infancy. The Internet still has a lot of words, but its structure is well described with the image of a three-dimensional web with every site the center of a constellation of other choices. This empowers every individual to develop a personal picture of information of in terms of location in space.
Young people have grown up interacting with animation and developing their spatial intelligence while playing video games. Recent studies have shown that this has improved scores in other subjects as well. Winston Churchill said one reason he liked to paint was because it reinforced and educated the mind’s best faculties- things like sense of proportion and balance, spatial concepts so important to all reasoning.
Communication depends on our shared responses to visual form. Paul Ekman’s decades of work studying facial expression in all cultures underscores the universality of visual understanding. Ekman is one of the teachers thanked by Edward Tufte in his book, ”Visual Explanations”. In this, as well as in his other books, he demonstrates how clarity of thought corresponds to a clear visualization and representation of the information. He wrote, “When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight.”
Education in visual thinking emphasizes how things relate rather than what they are. Philosopher Susanne Langer took the position that if we want to improve our capacity for insight we should look at art. She felt that the field of psychology could build its understanding of human feeling from the arts, as she wrote, “Art looks like feelings feel.” Art gives us a way to recognize our responses to visual form, and a means to reflect on how they underlay the rest of our thinking. How much clearer the understanding of a person’s emotions might be if asked to choose a painting from an art book instead of trying to describe a complicated inner state in words. As Joseph Campbell said, “The eyes are the scouts of the heart.” Perception is not passive. It is always searching for whatever will help us with our ongoing understanding of our unfolding being.
This approach to understanding may meet resistance because it relies on a model of reality created by each individual to determine the correct course, rather than the correct course being directed by external ideas of what’s right. But both the study of semiotics and quantum mechanics take us to a place where objectivity disappears. The observer affects the observed. The personal directs reasoning. William James pointed this out in the nineteenth century when he said a person builds their philosophy on the basis of what they already feel. Around the same time, John Dewey said that when the personal was taken into account it would revolutionize philosophy. Today the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that feeling directs thinking.
Broadening our ideas of intelligence to include and cultivate visualization could rescue us from a trail of woes resulting from dependence on language. Nobel laureate David Bohm’s work in quantum mechanics led him to conclude that the structure of language itself was responsible for many of the world’s problems. He saw the attention focused on nouns as placing too much emphasis on separate things, fragmenting the essential reality, which is interconnected, relational and dynamic.
Emphasis on more visual understanding could shift our approach to verbal discourse. Instead of disputes over the right idea, we could shift to a model that accumulates different ideas and finds relationships between them. In contrast to fixed opinions about the world, building a broader personal overview would include the full spectrum of views on any subject being considered, to see what’s most relevant to decisions to be made. Rather than reject what doesn’t fit our current view, we could welcome what’s different as an opportunity to enlarge our picture. Dogmas that exclude certain areas will be seen for what they are, barriers to an overview. Using intelligence to defend one way of thinking seems to resist learning, and have more to do with power than with understanding.
Thomas West wrote that the skill of the future would not be having the right model of how things work, but having the ability to continuously adapt and change our model, adjusting it to new information. He saw image based thinking as essential for coping with the sheer volume of information that verbal language would not be comprehensive enough to handle anymore. Technology creates new ways to use art as a tool to strengthen our understanding and develop skills utilizing the visual brain to imagine the form of knowledge and the abstract ideas constructed on its matrix.
Art extends our visual awareness and ability to think in images. Conscious visual reasoning may give us a way to understand the mind itself. It’s a resource to be tapped in the project of evolving our intelligence.