From our guest blogger: Corrie Macdonald

I’m a writer by trade, so I love words. But recently, I’ve been intrigued by brain research that shows how important pictures are in helping people remember information, and how this research might apply to using images on the web.

Our brains are primed for pictures

I first came across this idea in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, published in 2011 by journalist Joshua Foer.  Foer became fascinated by memory after covering the USA Memory Championships, and wrote what became an international bestseller on the topic.

Among many other things, Foer talks about how images are the best way to remember things, because our primitive brain was wired to rapidly receive and process visual stimuli in our surroundings.

I didn’t think much more about this until I recently came across another great book, Brain Rules , by molecular biologist Dr John Medina.

Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, offers 12 rules for how brains work. Number 10 is ‘Vision trumps all other senses’.

Pictures improve recall

Medina uses a visual to show how much pictures aid recall.

Medina uses a visual to show how much pictures aid recall.

Medina offers these striking stats:

  • Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture, and you’ll remember 65%.
  • Even for immediate recall, pictures beat sentences (98% recall vs 90%).
  • In memory tests where people are shown hundreds of photos, they can remember 90% three days later and 63% after a year.

Like Foer, Medina suggests that our preference for visuals may be linked to our cavepeople origins: ‘Perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.’

The best pictures for your website

Medina also uses icons — a type of picture — to aid recall of the brain rules themselves.

Medina also uses icons — a type of picture — to aid recall of the brain rules themselves.

Some researchers are ambivalent about the use of pictures on websites. But it seems to me that if you want people to remember your information, this research suggests that you should be using them— including photos, illustrations, cartoons, infographics and symbols.

On the web, the best pictures:

  • are compelling — they draw users in and make them want to find out more
  • are relevant and explanatory — they relate clearly to your text and help convey your message
  • can stand alone — they make sense in their own right, separate from your main text (captions can help here)
  • don’t distract your reader — no matter how stunning the picture, it fails if it diverts attention from your main message.

A few other practical tips:

  • Good original images are generally more effective than stock images
  • Follow the rules for copyright and attribution
  • Use keywords for your pictures so that they contribute to your SEO (search engine optimisation).

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