Friday, 6 May 2005

Humanist Discussion: Visualization and Narrative

An interesting thread came up on The Humanist listserv around the topic of Visualization and Narrative. People were discussing the following books:

> Edward Tufte: Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Data Analysis for Politics and Policy.

> Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past
Authored by: David J. Staley

Here's my two cents on the topic:

In a timely addition to this debate concerning the power of words and images, a recent neuroscience study out of California has found that words and pictures are both similarly attached to just one tiny, individual neuron, in what appears to be a clustering of meaning surrounding any single concept. Please see: Jay Ingram (of the Discovery Channel) in The Toronto Star’s “The Brain’s Jennifer Aniston Cell” (Saturday, July 2nd, 2005). Ingram writes, “the human brain entrusts the job of remembering the faces and names of people to single brain cells.” Specifically, the California study looks at how pictures and words (verbal and non-verbal) -- regardless of the size/intensity/perspective of their delivery -- fired one individual neuron in the brains of epileptic participants involved in the research. The study used well known words and images associated with celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston or Will Smith. To note, this single neuron theory is called the “Grandmother cell” theory.

So, perhaps the case is that words and pictures are equal, according to the physical structure of the brain’s memory at least; however, the use of the remembered signs depends on the context of how each sign is perceived. As well, recall depends on the training and preference of those who perceive the same signs. In many cases, researchers found if one’s visual processors did not exist, or were damaged, or had not been "trained" well, then other parts of the system make up for the shortcoming (some respondents to this thread have already suggested this possibility).

To add to this dialogue on visualization and narrative, when Gerda, Eric, and Chris stated that words say more than pictures, what might ideographic or pictorial languages such as Chinese or Japanese demonstrate, especially when an extra layer of metaphor is often added in poetic works written in these languages because the ideographs themselves have meanings other than that of a single word’s meaning? Also, Chinese characters and Japanese Kanji’s meanings depend on their contexts and positions in sentences for all levels of meaning (1. pictorial, 2. metaphoric, and 3. literal) -- how might such signs be processed by the mind?

In the Microsoft Information Age, the return to pictorial/ideographic interfaces might suggest that a picture can say just as much OR more than a word can… Think of a no smoking sign or a happy face emoticon; why wouldn’t that sign say just as much as, or MORE THAN, the single word “happy”? A sign is a sign is a sign, and differing values can be assigned to a sign by any individual that uses a particular sign (whether it is a verbal utterance, a non-verbal picture, or a non-verbal discursive word).

I’m still brain-storming and considering these issues, and I’m very interested in what others have been writing in this thread!

Lastly, please feel free to add these texts to the growing list for interesting points on visualization and images:

1. West, Thomas G. Thinking like Einstein: returning to our visual roots with the emerging revolution in computer information visualization. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.

West’s book explores the late-blooming visual thinker’s life and achievements, researching the claim that the wiring of Einstein’s brain is what helped him become the greatest physicist of the last century.

2. Waisanen, John T. Thinking Geometrically: Re-visioning Space for a Multimodal World. Jennifer Daryl Slack, Ed. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Waisanen’s book is a lament for the loss of visual training based in traditional tools such as the pencil and drawing on paper at universities, because of the change to using computer technologies. His work mostly concerns Engineering students, but he does consider the Arts and Humanities aspects as well. He argues that both skills provide differing perspectives and tactics for developing well-rounded visual thinkers.



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