Why Data from Charts and Infographics Stick in your Brain

12.11.2015 by admin

In a given day, the average American consumes 100,000 words of information. It can be overwhelming out there in the Information Age, and when we come across content that’s visual and displayed in an appealing way, be it on the web or TV, we take notice.  

This graph shows message retention by media:

When it comes to memory and recall, the most advantageous way to ensure people retain, recall and respond to information is by working in concert with how the human brain has evolved to process, store and retrieve information- visually. Adding charts and infographics to articles can generate 34% more social engagement than without them. Visuals can also help that information to stick better in our minds. The Wharton School of Business, found presentations that offered both verbal and visual features were 17% more persuasive than verbal speeches alone.  

Among Infogram’s customers, gains have been even larger.

We’ve seen a 40% increase in page views on blog posts using Infogram from those blog posts without,” says Amrita Konaiagari from ResellerClub, a platform for web hosting and domain reselling.

“If you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualization, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle,” remarked David McCandless in his 2010 TED Talk The beauty of data visualization.

David McCandless is a leader in today’s world of data visualization. He’s famous for synthesizing large and disparate data sources, into interactive charts and infographics, to convey a deeper meaning. And he’s not alone. Since 2012, Google searches for “infographics” have risen sharply.

Numerous research studies prove the cognitive advantages of presenting data in graphic from, including expanding the limited human memory, and ensuring what is remembered is the relevant information.

“Studies…are revealing our surprisingly limited ability to hold multiple items simultaneously in awareness,” says Stephen Few, international speaker and author of “Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten” as well as the study Data Visualization for Human Perception.  “This recognition leads us to augment attention and memory by relying on external forms of information storage.  One of the most powerful ways to do this is to encode information visually, which allows more information to be chunked together into the limited slots available in working memory.”

Web-based tools like the award-winning Infogram make it easier, faster and more affordable than ever before to develop charts and graphs for any type of communication.  No longer are beautiful infographics restricted to those with the talent to create them or big budgets. Organizations like Euronews, The Verge and Transparency International, are using the platform to make their content sticky, and memorable.

“Infogram is a great service to make impactful charts, maps and easily bring life to a story in a few clicks,” says Thomas Seymat, of Euronews.

Visual Information Sticks in the Brain

By placing several views of information in front of our eyes at once, our brains are able to explore the data multidimensionally and from various perspectives. Having access to the information in more than one way, at one time allows us to make comparisons and see connections that are often missed when our minds consume data views one at a time, due to the limits of working memory.

“The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape and pattern. It loves them, and it calls them beautiful. It’s the language of the eye,” says McCandless in his TED Talk. “If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other. So, you have the eye, and then you drop in the concepts. And that whole thing — it’s two languages both working at the same time.”

In human cognition, understanding and memorability are intertwined, due in large part to the occipital lobe. Located in the rear area of the brain, it handles visual processing.  Unlike the frontal cortex, which handles executive functions like logic and short-term memory, the occipital lobe connects visual stimuli to images stored in long-term memory. Stimulating the occipital lobe results in much stronger retention than text alone. Just as importantly, it is more likely to result in engagement with data.

In building data visualizations, it is therefore advantageous to partner the occipital and frontal lobes, so as to help the user process and remember information, not just some semblance of the facts.

Data should be qualitative, not merely quantitative. Few organizations want people merely to grasp information; they want them to interpret it, recall it and use it. Well-made interactive data visualizations can allow this to happen and companies like Infogram are making it easy for everyone.

Infogram user Shani Sherman created this visualization to measure brand mentions in popular songs within a ten-year period. In addition to text, several easy-to-grasp graphics were used:

  • Three dots in a row of ten dots, conveying the concept of “30 percent”
  • A simple, interactive donut chart that shows the percent of decline in brand mentions over two four-year periods
  • Next, a line chart indicating the decline in total number of brand mentions
  • An interactive graphic showing a “cloud” of brand names, changing over time
  • A bar chart of the overall Top 10 brands
  • Two treemap graphics displaying the frequency of brand mentions by rectangle size, comparing these both between categories of brands and within each category. (Passing one’s cursor over the squares allows one to see the actual percentages in the data.)

This data visualization illustrates the capacity of this powerful tool to heighten both the retention of information in the user’s brain and the relevance of that information. The interactive donut chart, in one graphic, shows percents of brand mentions over two periods, strengthening retention. The interactive cloud graphic allows comparison of brands with each other by font size and also comparisons of the same brand over time, also by font size; the treemap graphic allows comparison between brand categories and comparison of brands within each category, both grasped immediately through the size of the rectangles. In each case, the relevant information is isolated and sticks in memory.

Thoughtful data visualization can change the world. The creative synthesizing of data into visual stories can increase the communication of ideas and improve the data literacy of a wide variety of populations; especially in regions of the world where reading is not widely taught, or where propaganda keeps power in the hands of the few.  Continuing to challenge ourselves to convey information in ways that work in concert with how our brains receive, retain and recall data holds the potential to change the world in ways we can only imagine.