The Visual World

Marcel Just is the director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, where he and his team use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to examine brain activation as people perform various high-level tasks such as spatial thinking, problem solving, multitasking, and real-time, dynamic decision making. In a conversation with Nieman Reports editor Melissa Ludtke, he describes how the human brain processes information.
Edited excerpts follow:
Ludtke: As journalism moved onto television, news began to be conveyed in visual ways and this often led to what is referred to as a “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting. 
Just: Processing print isn’t something the human brain was built for. The printed word is a human artifact. It’s very convenient and it’s worked very well for us for 5,000 years, but it’s an invention of human beings. By contrast Mother Nature has built into our brain our ability to see the visual world and interpret it. Even the spoken language is much more a given biologically than reading written language.

Ludtke: Does this mean that as we move out of the era of print and paper and into the digital era with more visual media, it’s going to be a more natural environment for humans to take in information than when it was the printed word?

Just: Yes, and it can be informative in a visual way. Now you can circumvent written language to a large extent. A lot of printed words are there to describe things that occur spatially. In many cases a picture is worth a thousand words. Now we can generate these pictures and graphics and we can convey them to other people very easily. I think it’s inevitable that visual media are going to become more important in conveying ideas and not just about raging fires.

Ludtke: Ideas?

Just: Ideas of physics and biology and politics and so on. Now I think there’s a role for the printed word. I don’t think it’s going to go away.

Ludtke: With children gaining a facility with digital media that many in their parents’ generation don’t have, would you expect that years from now brain imaging is going to show the brain functioning in different ways because of this orientation?

Just: Yes, I think that’s very plausible. Nobody has done that yet. But let me give you an analogy done without imaging. In the 1970’s there was a psychologist who studied people who were illiterate in Portugal. He found a group of people who had never learned how to use written language. He compared them to a control group who could read. He found that they processed things differently just as a function of having learned to read. I think that’s a counterpart to your question.

Excert of a “Conversation with Marcel Just” :


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