Draw On All Three Brains

Why are people so impressed by visual communication? I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong, I crave the mad love I get when I use my funky diagrams to explain complex details of the projects I work on. And it doesn’t suck that visual thinking, something I’ve been working at my whole career, is suddenly sexy. I guess what’s bugging me a bit about the reckless enthusiasm for all things sketched is that not only is my stuff not THAT good, it’s also that people seem to go nuts for diagrams that are real crap, too.

I blame our old and mid brains.

The human brain has three distinct sections with three distinct functions. Susan Weinschenk refers to them as the old, mid, and new brains and uses them as the key device in Neuro Web Design, her book that repurposes research to explain what makes users click online.

The part of the brain that scientists think developed first in the evolution of animals is the old brain and it deals with survival issues like digestion and breathing; the mid brain deals with our emotions; and the cortex (a.k.a. new brain) takes care of reasoning, logic, and processing information. (“It’s your new brain,” Weinschenk writes, “that is reading this book.”)

We have a close relationship with our new brains because they’re talking to us all the time, while the old and mid brains are more mysterious because most of their work goes on outside of our conscious awareness. In fact, we need that work to go on in the unconscious. Weinschenk explains:

“Imagine a day without the unconscious. We wouldn’t be able to get through five minutes. The estimate from neuroscientists is that our five senses are taking in 11 million pieces of information every second. And how many of those are we processing consciously? A mere 40! So we need the unconscious to deal with the other 10,999,960 pieces of information each second, or we would be overwhelmed in a matter of seconds. Our unconscious mind lets us process all the incoming data from our environment, and it instantly decides whether it is good or bad, something to avoid and run away from, or something to run toward.”

In one experiment, researchers had participants press one of four buttons based on the location of an X within four quadrants. There were complex rules in place that directed where the X would appear and while participants didn’t know those rules, the improvement in their performance over time meant their unconscious minds learned the system. When researchers changed the rules midway through the experiment, participant response times increased. Participants knew they were making mistakes, but never consciously understood why their performance got worse.

We like to think that although we may be influenced by emotions and other factors, decision-making is a conscious activity. Our new brains get downright snotty about it, practically ignoring the contribution from the meat deeper inside our skulls. But Neuro Web Design‘s central argument is that we are largely unaware of the real reasons for our behavior.

“Most of our decision-making,” says Weinschenk, “Is governed by unconscious processing.”

I think we can see a dominance of the unconscious in the enthusiasm people show for visual communication. Why are pages (or screens) of text and images more readable than just dense blocks of words? MRI studies show that our mid brains get more active as we imagine quickly getting something rewarding. So while the new brain would be perfectly content with endless linear text, the nearly instant gratification offered by visual elements activates our mid brains, making for a more stimulating experience.

The old brain constantly monitors our environment for potential danger, potential sexual activity, and for potential food and it treats each of these factors in a very binary way where something is either absolutely a danger or it is not a danger at all. In other words, the old brain deals with contrast.

Contrast creates hierarchy and hierarchy creates eye movement. A well-designed newspaper page generally depends on a CVI (center of visual impact); online users tend to respond well to Web pages where they can easily chunk information. In both cases, the old brain’s need for unambivalent simplicity is activated.

So the popularity of highly visual diagrams, charts, and whiteboard sketches can be traced to their ability to stimulate all three brains, with the conscious, reasoning new brain very much in the minority.