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Visual learners process words and pictures differently, says psychology study

A research study has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to reveal how people process information depending on their cognitive style.

A research study has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to reveal how people process information depending on their cognitive style. The research was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and indicates that those who identify as visual learners convert linguistically presented information into a visual mental representation. In contrast, verbal learners have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations.

Understanding the differences in cognitive styles and how the brain processes information could have important implications for educators who may be able to better cater to students’ learning preferences.

Measuring cognitive styles

The researchers measured cognitive styles of 18 subjects using a self-report exam called the Verbalizer-Visualizer Questionnaire. They also used the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, a standard intelligence test, to measure cognitive abilities. During the fMRI session, participants performed a novel psychological task that involved both word-based and picture-based feature-matching conditions designed to permit the use of either a visual or a verbal processing style.

The participants were then placed in an fMRI machine to observe which regions of their brains were activated while performing these tasks. The results demonstrated a pattern of activity in modality-specific areas of the brain that distinguished visual from verbal cognitive styles. The areas corresponded with prior knowledge of brain utilization.

Visual and verbal processing styles

The study revealed that visual learners activate the visual cortex when reading words. The more strongly an individual identified with the visual cognitive style, the more that individual activated the visual cortex when reading words. On the other hand, verbal learners have brain activity in a region associated with phonological cognition when faced with a picture, suggesting they have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations.

The fusiform gyrus, a functionally defined brain region that responds to viewing pictorial stimuli, is more active during word-based tasks. It correlated with self-reported visualizer ratings on the Verbalizer-Visualizer Questionnaire. In contrast, the supramarginal gyrus, a phonologically related brain region, is more active during the picture-based condition. It correlated with the verbalizer dimension of the Verbalizer-Visualizer Questionnaire. These findings suggest that modality-specific cortical activity underlies processing in visual and verbal cognitive styles.

Visual learners convert linguistic information into mental images

The study’s results showed that people who identified as visual learners had a tendency to convert linguistically presented information into a visual mental representation. When reading words, those who identified as visual learners activated the visual cortex in their brains.

Educational Implications

The study’s findings suggest that cognitive styles are something one is predisposed to or can learn. Future research based on these findings may determine the flexibility with which one can adopt a style. Educators could cater to one style over another to improve learning.

Often, job applicants are required to offer opinions on whether they consider themselves visual or verbal learners. Some school districts even require students to wear buttons identifying themselves as visual or verbal learners. Until this study, there was no direct evidence linking these cognitive styles to specific neural systems in the brain.

Implications for infographics

The study’s findings have implications for creating infographics for PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoint presentations are ubiquitous in today’s business and educational world. To communicate information effectively, it’s essential to consider cognitive styles when creating PowerPoint presentations.

Visual learners prefer information to be presented visually, with graphics, charts, and pictures. Verbal learners, on the other hand, prefer written and spoken explanations. The study’s findings suggest that using visuals, such as infographics, in presentations can help visual learners convert linguistic information into visual representations. It can also help verbal learners convert pictorial information into linguistic representations.

Conclusion

The study’s findings reveal that people who consider themselves visual learners have a tendency to convert linguistically presented information into a visual mental representation. The opposite is also true. These cognitive styles influence how children acquire knowledge and how adults reason in everyday life. Future research based on these findings may determine whether cognitive styles are something one is predisposed to or can learn. Depending on the flexibility with which one can adopt a style, educators could cater to one style over another to improve learning. Similarly, creating infographics for PowerPoint presentations can help cater to visual and verbal learners.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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