The Science of Visual Thinking

The science behind the process of how we see our world is as miraculous as it is mysterious. Today we know a great deal about how the visual thinking processing system in the brain works, and yet we are still perplexed and bewildered by its complexity. Within this article I will attempt to unlock some of these elements by digging into how we process the world visually on a daily basis.

This is not a glorious article that will transform your life beyond your wildest dreams, nor is the next article I will post on the site. However, what both of these articles do, is they help you gain an understanding of the brain and how we perceive the world. Knowing this information is not necessary to reap the benefits of visual thinking, however it is worthwhile understanding as you move along your journey towards becoming a better visual thinker.

How We Process the World

Every second of the day our eyes are exposed to millions of visual signals that enter the retina as photons of light. These photons are converted into electrical impulses and are passed along the optic nerve into the left and right hemispheres of the brain. 10% of these signals end up reaching the superior colliculus located atop the brain stem/Reptilian brain which is responsible for the fight or flight response — controlling our reactions to fear. These signals are subsequently transferred to the pulvinar nucleus where they begin the first stage of processing.

How Reptiles See the World

At this stage of the visual processing system we discover where things are, however we don’t yet have the comprehension or understanding that helps us interpret our visual experiences. We therefore have the coordinates, orientation and position of where we are in relation to other things and as a result can take action if something approaches, however unfortunately at this stage we don’t yet realize what it is we’re seeing. In other words, we have the ability to see things, but we don’t yet have the ability to recognize or name what these things are. This is in essence how reptiles see the world around them.

Seeing the World More Clearly

The other 90% of signals that don’t enter the brain stem are passed through another newer pathway — evolving within mammals over the last million years — of the brain along the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), which is located across the front of the right and left lobes of the neocortex.

The neocortex is mainly responsible for all things related to conscious thought including analytic decision making, naming and high level processing. While the brain stem handles basic survival needs, and the limbic brain handles our emotional needs, the neocortex is the central system that separates us from reptilian creatures.

After a brief period of categorization within the LGN, the visual signals are shot through towards the back of the brain and find their way into the primary visual cortex. The moment the visual signals get here, they are once again collated and divided up into two new pathways that direct the visual signals to the temporal and parietal lobes.

As the visual signals reach our temporal lobes we begin recognizing and identifying objects within our environment. Likewise, as the visual signals get transferred into the parietal lobes we begin receiving more detailed information about the position, orientation and location of objects within our environment. This therefore allows us to identify where objects are in relation to us, which means that we have the ability to reach out and grab them.

From here the visual signals get transferred to various regions of the visual cortex where more detailed processing is undertaken. Eventually these signals get processed into the pictures we interpret as our visual reality.

For a more detailed explanation of this process, please read The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam.

We Have Only Scratched the Surface

Given these scientific breakthroughs pertaining to the visual thinking process, the reality is that we have only scratched the surface of neuroscience and of our understanding of the visual processing system. More scientific study in this area in the coming years will reveal remarkable things that will help us see the world in a new way.

Within the next post I will discuss the purpose of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and their importance to the visual thinking process.

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