If you are new here, welcome. This is my space to workout my thoughts about sketching and other forms of graphic recording. In these posts I use the terms sketching, drawing, and doodling interchangeably unless I specify otherwise.

The last posts have been focusing on a brief history of sketching and/or drawing, the types of sketching, why we sketch, some questions I have about not everybody sketching, and others. Today, however, I want to talk about the brain and discuss some things I have learned about how our vision works.

I will be summarizing the chapter titled Vision from the book Brain Rules by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant who is also the director of the Brain for Applied Learning Research Center at Seattle Pacific University. I came across this book while reading Wendi Pillars’ Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity. She cites the chapter Vision, which is what I will be discussing.

This chapter is amazing. I devoured every word. And as it turns out and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, at least for me, is that we don’t see with your eyes. We see with our brains. In my own words, it is like our eyes are a window through which the brain, which would be the inside of our house, sees and in an instant develops an informed visual analysis of what it is seeing. And when I say it is fast, it is fast. We don’t realize how much goes on in our brains through the sense of vision. This process, which takes a lot of parts and participants, happens so fast that we are never aware of it. This information was very intriguing and exciting to me. Sometimes I think I should have been a neurologist because these things fascinate me.

Let me explain. As it turns out, the retina is really an outgrowth of the brain. It is actually connected to the brain through the nerve optic, which goes through the thalamus, and the thalamus connects to the visual cortex. The visual cortex is in the back of our heads. So, it is like we have a little motor that is on ALL. THE. TIME. I made (you know I had to) a little diagram for me to understand. See below.

Diagram explaining the process of how we see and interpret what the brain sees. © Alma Hoffmann.

See, light, which is actually groups of photons, enters our system through the cornea. Once the light hits the cornea, it continues to travel through the lens where it hits the retina. The retina is actually a group of neurons that are in the back of the eye. But when light hits the retina, the retina sends an electrical signal which travels to the visual cortex through the optic nerve passing through the thalamus. Pretty cool, huh?

What happens then? First, let’s emphasize one thing. According to Medina when we refer to our vision as a camera, it is an inaccurate description of what really happens. It is more like experiencing an immersive visual environment and the brain as it turns out, is a very opinionated organ. It has already made up its mind about what is seeing and the details of it.

Now, the retina has nerve cells whose only job is to interpret the photons it is receiving and make patterns out of them. According to Medina, it creates small movies of what is going on. These movies however, are called tracks and are very specialized to interpret or categorize the light the retina is receiving. Say, one analyzes motion, another analyzes shapes, etc.. But these little movies travel from the optic nerve toward the thalamus. The thalamus is like distribution center or similar to Amazon? In any case, it sends this information to the visual cortex through neural paths.

The visual cortex is a very specialized region that deals with everything we see. It is so specialized that one area alone interprets diagonal lines—but even that is highly specialized. According to Medina, one area interprets a line titled at 40 degrees but another one interprets a line tilted at 45 degrees. Some other areas process color, edges, motion, etc.. These areas are called V1, V2, V3, V3D, V3P, V4D, V4V, V5, V6, V7, and V8. Each area analyzes a very specific input. But here is something even more impressive: all of this information the brain is receiving, that is being processed simultaneously and Medina calls fragmented, the brain organizes them, looking for patterns, comparing, analyzing, and then sending these analysis to other two areas that are called higher centers of the brain. Are you tired yet? This is quite the workout!

“… all of this information the brain is receiving, the brain organizes them, looking for patterns, comparing, analyzing, and then sending these analysis to other two areas that are called higher centers of the brain. Are you tired yet? This is quite the workout!”

One of these higher centers is called the ventral stream and handles form and color. The other is called dorsal stream and handles depth and motion. And yet if this is not enough, something called “association regions” integrate it all together. So, the brain gathers, disassembles, and then reassembles the information received.

Yet, here is something that I found shocking. The process, according to Medina, is not a 100% trustworthy or accurate. Medina cites instances where subjects “saw” things that were not there. And no, we are not talking about mental illnesses. As it turns the optic disk in the retina, has no cells that perceive light at all. It is usually called the blind spot and each eye has one. So, based on this, we should be seeing black holes in our field of vision but our brain “detects the presence of the holes”, “examines the visual information 360 degrees around the spot and calculates what is most likely to be there. Then, like a paint program on a computer, it fills the spot.” Medina says that though it is called “filling in” it should really be called “faking it.”

So, how do we know that what we see is actually what we see when we see it? The answer relies on two things: we are born with some “pre-loaded software” and the accumulation of experiences and knowledge acquired facilitates and corroborates the information we receive. The principle of “faking it” is also evident in why we see one image when we have two eyes and there are two images being processed. The brain takes that information and remember when we said that the brain disassembles and then reassembles the information? It does that too with these “two images” entering through the cornea.

I must confess that while I was reading this I was not only fascinated but skeptical as well. In the meantime, I am summarizing what I read and working out my thoughts here in writing. But bear with me, there is more.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this entire process is that according to Medina, the brain dedicates a lot of thinking resources to process vision. Medina states: “it takes about half of everything you do.”

Medina states: “[vision] takes about half of everything you do.”
Vision is so dominant that according to Medina, when people lose an arm for example, in certain circumstances, they “see” the arm they lost. This is chilling. It is called visual capture effect. Basically when a person sat a table with a divided box with two portals (one for the arm and one for the stump) and a mirror as a divider, when the person looked at the reflection of his arm in the mirror, “the phantom limb woke up.” The person felt as if  the arm that was missing was there. The words Medina uses to describe this are these: “This is vision not only as dictator but as faith healer.”

What we see, the things we see, what is in front of us, what we process through our eyes, is very powerful. Not only because the brain dedicates a lot of resources to process this information but also because we are kind of wired to respond to visual stimuli. Think about it. I am right now typing these words letter by letter on a keyboard that somehow appear on this colorful 21″ monitor that has a rectangular shape and its edges are black. The logo is in front of me which is a word and there is  bright blue light that is supposed to tell me the monitor is on. And let’s not mention the browser itself. If you are like me, there are 10+ tabs open on my browser and each one is color coded. Plus my dock is also color coded at the bottom of the screen. My browser’s window in WordPress is a nice blue and the boxes on the side are several tones of gray with words, of course. And I have not mentioned all the stuff I see next to my monitor, which includes a photo of my graduation to remind myself that perhaps I have some intelligence, and all of my cups holding all of my pens and pencils. I have only talked about my right side. To my left are… I think you get the idea, right? Our brains process a lot of visual information, a lot. Instantly, quickly, and for the most part efficiently since even though we live in a 3-D the world, the retina sees in 2-D.

In addition to all of these things we have mentioned above, vision plays a crucial role in memorization. Medina states: “the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized—and recalled.” This process is called Pictorial Superiority Effect or PSE. According to Medina, oral information will have a recall of 10% after 72 hours. But information that is accompanied of a picture will have 65% recall after the same amount of time.

But you may be wondering why? And how is this a reason to sketch, draw, or doodle? Good questions. Well, think about this; when we read what do we do? We imagine. We play a movie in our heads. We default to a visual. Isn’t that amazing?  When you read something, do you ever felt caught up with the shape of the letters? I do. Well, it turns out that according to Medina, what we see is tiny works of art. This is, by the way, an excellent argument in favor of Beatrice Wardes’ essay The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should Be Invisible. Imagine for a moment a textbook, an organic chemistry textbook with quirky type? If you are like me, my time would be spent in fascination or hatred for the letters and their negative space.

Imagine for a moment a textbook, an organic chemistry textbook with quirky type? If you are like me, my time would be spent in fascination or hatred for the letters and their negative space.

But let’s go back to the predominance of our vision. See, when we started as a civilization or as species—and here, it does not really matter if you are an evolutionist or a creationist—we did not have computers, billboards, posters, smart or dumb phones, TVs, newspapers, magazines, and etc.. We had flora, fauna, food, the opposite sex, and a very deep desire for survival. Relying on our vision and the ability to recognize threat were crucial for survival. There is a quote by George Bernard Shaw that Medina uses in the chapter that I found very appropriate:

Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.

So, what does this means? It simply means that making these pictures called drawing, sketching, and or doodling actually do help us remember because it helps us encode or attach data to a physical representation of it. It is as Medina puts it, glue for the neurons.

And there is yet another benefit: it is kinesthestic. It engages not just our vision, but it also engages our hands giving us something to do while we listen in real time. In addition, it helps us boost our critical thinking skills. We are not passive listeners but we are engaged in not only taking in that information but also in recording it in our own words in an expressive and graphic format that helps to seal the verbal mode and the visual mode.

I think that sketching and/or drawing, doodling is what we should be doing in our classes. Our students, no matter what class they are taking should be taught to sketch the content of their lectures. Lectures will not go away, not completely anyway. There are instances in which a lecture would be more effective because of various reasons. But if we are there engagingly recording in a graphic way—even if we are talking only of stick figures and very little development—we will definitely retain more of that information. As designers, however, we reap a bigger benefit, we become really, really good at page layout, hierarchy, contrast, and we continue to exercise and hone a skill that to us is precious.

To be continued…