A picture is worth a thousand words…


How do you try to make sense of the world?


When I was at medical school I spent two years studying anatomy: learning about the connections and convolutions of the body’s tissues. My main activity during this intensive period was converting the myriad of words into pictures, trying to represent the complex descriptions as diagrams and using dissection to help me create three dimensional models in my head.

A friend of mine approached the subject in exactly the opposite way. A lecturer might spend a whole hour developing a multifaceted diagram which would sum up all we needed to know in that area, and she would convert it all to words. Pages and pages and pages of words.

It’s the same with directions. As soon as someone starts to tell me how to get somewhere, I want to get out pen and paper and make a sketch. If I don’t have a pen, I’ll make a mental map. My wife does the opposite. She’ll take a route map and write down line after line of turns and waymarks.

Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words.

Linda Silverman

Linda Silverman suggests that about a third of the population have a strong preference to think in pictures. She calls this visual-spatial learning, and contrasts this approach with auditory-sequential learning where words are used to think with. About a quarter of people strongly prefer thinking, understanding and learning with words, she says, while the remainder use a mixture of pictures and words.

Silverman equates visual-spatial learning with right brain activity. Her focus is not so much on the pictures themselves but on the mode of thinking behind them. In The Master and His Emissary, Ian Gilchrist presents a nuanced account of two very different ways of thinking. An older, master brain, the right brain, engages with the unfiltered experience of being in the world as a unique, embodied individual in relationship with others. The newer, left brain has developed as a way to filter and organise these experiences, to allow us to grasp, focus and manipulate the world around.

What begins in the right hemisphere’s world is ‘sent’ to the left hemisphere’s world for processing, but must be ‘returned’ to the world of the right hemisphere where a new synthesis can be made.

Ian Gilchrist

The right brain is present to a world in constant flux, while the left brain represents that world in static, bounded, compartmentalised abstractions. The left brain acts as an emissary, building an account of the outside world. The right brain is then able to take the rationality of these models and add reason and meaning, nuance and emotion. It can re-integrate the abstractions within a wider context based on breadth of personal experience, intuitive wisdom and holistic understanding. The right brain considers the whole as more than the sum of the parts re-presented by the left brain.

In Gilchrist’s account, the left brain has been allowed, indeed encouraged to usurp the right brain in western culture. Since the enlightenment, he argues, the process of discerning the nature of the world has often stopped at a left brain understanding, preventing the re-engagement of the right brain.

Silverman similarly argues that our education system is based on a left brain, sequential approach: follow the steps, memorise the facts, show your working, keep organised and tidy. Whereas right brain activities such as seeing the whole, building relationship and dealing with complexity and uncertainty are sidelined.

There is a common, but misleading tendency to equate words with left brain rationality and pictures with right brain creativity and reflection. In many cases, words are indeed used in this way. As fixed symbols that denote a specific meaning. As 1:1 signifiers without ambiguity: the traffic light is red. However, words can also connote and emote: the metaphorical, playful, perhaps paradoxical associations of a red rose. Or a red nose. Of a Little Red Book. Or a seldom read book.

In our culture, these ways to engage with language are often confined to the ghetto of poetry; serious writers of prose are instructed to avoid ambiguity and wordplay. But, as Gilchrist says, while the left brain holds the paint box of syntax and vocabulary, it is the right brain that paints the word picture. It is the right brain that engages with nuance and tension, humour and irony, empathy and relationship.

Similarly, pictures and diagrams can be focused, analytical and reductive. The left brain attends to the surface meaning of the image, producing order and regularity from the confusion of our daily experience. But the right brain can look through that surface, fashioning it as a lens with which to explore the true complexity of the world we inhabit.

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heavens espy

From The Elixir by George Herbert

I remember a TV advert from the 1980s, which started with a shot of a stained glass window. We’re inside a church looking at a colourful but simplistic representation. Then the point of view changes. And now we see the light streaming through the windows, illuminating everything around, the colours of the glass mingling and mixing to reveal a world newly painted in vivid and vibrant ways.

In these posts I want to share some of the ways that I have tried to understand and make sense of the world around, blending images and text, encouraging you to use your left brain to look at the surface and structure of the stained glass, but also your right brains to look through to the world beyond.

The phrase: “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is often taken to mean that one picture is equivalent to a thousand words, just as one pound sterling might be worth one US dollar and 27 cents. That they are exchangeable. That an incisive picture is a way of cutting down, and cutting through to the heart of the matter. 

But worth can also mean deserving of. Looked at in this way, the phrase becomes a statement about value, rather than price or cost. This particular picture is good enough, or important enough, or interesting enough to warrant 1000 words. As in so much of life, with all its complexity, uncertainty and paradoxes, the best answer is not either-or but both-and. Words and pictures are complementary, synergistic and inter-dependent. A picture and a thousand words…