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  • Writer's picturePrasanna Adhikari

The unmatched visual intelligence of our workforce

What did you notice when you first saw this abstract painting? Do you see patterns emerge after looking at it for 10 seconds or so? How about if you look at it for one minute?

Our visual system is fascinating. To understand what I mean by it, let us start by asking ourselves a few questions about your memory, starting with that of our childhood. Do you remember the faces of your friends? How well do you remember their names? How about specific dates? I still remember the faces of many of my childhood friends, but I can hardly recall the name of more than one or two.

Now, try to recall a memorable day much later in your life, perhaps the day you graduated from college. Do you have a recollection of the commencement ceremony, the commencement speaker giving his or her speech? You probably do. However, do you remember anything the speaker said? Let us make it even easier. Do you remember the date of your graduation? If you do, you likely have to think a bit hard to recall it.

It does not have to be a memorable incident in your life. Let us try to recall something mundane from your vacation a few years ago. You likely still remember some detail about the hotel where you stayed: the location, the structure, the layout of the room. But do you remember the room number? Despite having memorized it for the duration of your stay, you likely have no recollection of it.

Finally, instead of dwelling on memories from your long past, let us try to recall something more recent, such as the dinner you went out for recently with your friends or family. I am sure a visual recollection of it came to you as soon as I mentioned it. But, do you remember the total amount on the bill? You likely have to make some effort to recall it, and I am sure some visual recollection of the receipt came to your rescue to help you remember it.

What is fascinating about our brain is that it is virtually infinite storage of visual memories but is terrible at storing and recalling words and numbers. However, if we think about it in the context of our evolution, it makes perfect sense.

We humans have been using and perfecting our vision throughout our evolutionary history. The survival of our species and the species that preceded us was dependent on having a sophisticated visual system. Everything from recognizing predators, foraging for food, to navigating a complex terrain to make back to one's safe hideout, relied on an extraordinary visual faculty. Because of its importance in our evolutionary history, it has become an essential part of our cognitive system.

On the other hand, languages, written words, and numbers became part of our evolutionary history only during its latest epoch. Experts claim that our ancestors invented spoken language about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. The use of numbers appeared much later about 10,000 years ago. The foundation of the modern writing system based on symbols appeared only about 5000 years ago.

To understand how well developed our visual system is, here are some numbers to consider: 50% of our brain is devoted, either directly or indirectly, to vision. Links to retinas in our eyes account for 40% of our nerve fibers. 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual information.

Our brain functions using two different systems: an impulsive system and a deliberative system. The impulsive system, our lizard brain, is what gives us the animal instinct to fight or flight. The deliberative system is what gives us our ability to be creative, analytical, notice trends and patterns, and find and solve problems.

Our visual faculty works incredibly well with the impulsive system. Seeing a rattlesnake sends a chill through our spine and makes us recoil instantly. Standing at the edge of a cliff makes us feel dizzy. It also works equally well with our deliberative system. Babies learn to recognize their parents' faces at a very early age. Children quickly identify animals from their simple sketches.

Just looking at this picture makes some people feel slightly dizzy for a moment.

Our visual faculty is also very powerful in its ability to evoke emotion and leave an imprint in our memory. Love at first sight is not uncommon, whether it is people we like, the house we want to live in, or the painting we want to hang on its wall. Seeing someone smile makes us feel better, but seeing a child cry breaks our heart. Our visual memory is encoded in the same part of our brain (medial temporal lobe), where emotions are processed. Our visual stimuli and emotional response are easily linked and, working together, they form memories.

Visual cues like these evoke emotions.

Given the versatility of our visual faculty, it should come as no surprise that our ability to learn is also much better when we use visual methods. 65% of us learn better using visual methods compared to only 5% who learn better using textual methods. As one education expert put it, "…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear."

What fascinates me the most is that virtually every aspect of it happens effortlessly. We do not make deliberate efforts to memorize visual information. They end up in our memory without us making an effort. One the other hand, the words and the numbers we work so hard to remember recedes quickly from our memory. I do not remember even one digit of my phone number from my college days (this was when we had to memorize our phone numbers!). But I still remember what the phone looked like, the AT&T logo on it and the wall where it hung. Recalling a visual memory seems to be equally effortless and seems to take place instantly. We may not recall every detail of it, but we can remember the general outline without much effort.

What does all of this mean for visual data? Our brain treats visually presented data the same way it treats all other visual information. Visual data engages our impulsive system. Numbers shown in red draws our attention to it instantly. Visual data also elicits a response from our deliberative system and gets us to think more deeply about it. We instinctively look for and see patterns and trends in visual data. It gets seamlessly etched in our memory, and we can recall it with much less effort than we can remember numbers.

One can instantly discern the pattern from the chart but not so much from the table showing the same data.

There is no doubt that we have a phenomenal ability to process and remember visual information, much more than our ability to process words and numbers. And if that is the case, should we not leverage this amazing ability everyone in our workforce has to help them perform at their best?

Every business has what is inarguably the most valuable assets: its workforce. Their natural intelligence to process visual information is unmatched by even the best artificial intelligence systems out there. Every business (and especially construction business) also has what is arguably one of the most valuable assets: its data. It only makes sense to bring the two together. By sharing visual data with our workforce, we not only help them make a better decision at that instance, but we also tap into their incredible innate ability to remember it, see trends and patterns in it and learn from it. It helps them deliver better outcomes.

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