Seeing Is Believing: 5 Studies About Visual Information Processing

Have you ever wondered how we see things the way we do? Are you curious about how we take in the visuals in an environment filled with strong sensory stimuli and how we interpret what we see?

The phenomenon is called visual information processing or visual perception.

Visual information processing is the visual reasoning skill that enables us to process and interpret meaning from visual information that we gain through our eyesight.

Visual perception plays a big role in our everyday life. It helps us in learning and interacting with others. Because of the ease with which we rely on perception, we tend to overlook the complexity behind it. Understanding how we interpret what we see can help us design and organize our visual information.

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Let’s take a look at five psychological studies that reveal some remarkable insights into how people perceive visual information.

1. Gregory’s Visual Assumption Theory

Psychologist Richard Gregory believed that visual perception relies on top-down processing.

Top-down processing, also known as conceptual-driven processing, happens when we form our perceptions beginning with the big picture. We make our best guess of what we see based on expectations, beliefs, prior knowledge, and past experiences. In other words, we make calculated assumptions. According to Gregory, we are typically correct in those assumptions.

The Hollow Face Experiment

One of the trials Gregory ran in order to test his theory was called the hollow mask experiment.

hollow mask experiment, perception experiments

He used the rotation of a Charlie Chaplin mask to explain how we perceive the hollow surface of the mask as protruding based on our expectations of the world. Our prior knowledge of a normal face is that the nose protrudes. So, we subconsciously reconstruct the hollow face into a normal face.

Based on Gregory’s theories, we can say that:

  • Nearly 90% of what we see is lost by the time it reaches our brains. Because of this, the brain has to make its best guess based on our past experiences or prior knowledge.
  • The visual information we see is combined with previously stored information about the world, which we have built up as a result of experience.
  • Our surroundings help to provide context to the visual information we absorb.

visual information processing infographic

2. Sanocki and Sulman’s Color Relations Experiment

Studies have shown that a group of similar colors is deemed harmonious and pleasant while contrasting colors are associated with chaos or boldness.

In 2011, Thomas Sanocki and Noah Sulman conducted an experiment on color relations in order to gauge the impact of color on visual short-term memory.

Four sets of trials were carried out using both harmonious and disharmonious color palettes. In each trial, observers were presented with two sets of color patterns and asked to compare them. Participants were asked to rate whether the patterns shown were ‘same’ or ‘different’. Observers were also expected to rate whether the pattern was harmonious.

The following examples are the four types of color patterns used:

color patterns examples, visual memory experiment

Based on the results of the study, Sanocki and Sulman were able to say that:

  • People remember color patterns better when the color palette is harmonious.
  • People remember patterns with fewer colors (two-color palettes) better than patterns with more colors (four-color palettes).
  • The contrast of surrounding colors impacted how well we remember the color pattern. In other words, color differences between the content and the background may enhance our ability to focus our attention on the content itself.

visual short term memory infographic

3. Binocular Rivalry Phenomenon

Binocular rivalry occurs when our eyes see two different images in the same location. One image dominates while the other is suppressed. The dominance alternates periodically, so rather than seeing a single combination of both visuals at all times, we experience the alternation of the images over time as the two visuals compete for visual dominance.

The Binocular Rivalry Experiment

In 1998, Frank Tong, Ken Nakayama, J. Thomas Vaughan, and Nancy Kanwisher observed this phenomenon firsthand.

In their experiment, four participants were shown, through red-green filter glasses, an image of a face and a house in an organized set. Each eye was set to see one specific image at a time. The visual-selective responses of observers were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

binocular rivalry experiment

According to their experiment,

  • The fMRI for all observers indicated strong binocular rivalry when dissimilar visuals were presented.
  • Binocular rivalry happens during the visual processing stage. In other words, during the short period of time when our eyes rest upon two dissimilar images that are close together, we will not be able to determine what we actually see.

4. Influence of Typography and Aesthetics on Reading

Did you know that typography can affect your mood and your ability to solve problems?

In an experiment conducted by Kevin Larson of Microsoft and Rosalind Picard at MIT, researchers determined that typography can have an effect on a reader’s mood and cognitive performance.

In two different studies, participants were divided into separate groups and given 20 minutes to read a typeset issue of a magazine (The New Yorker) on a tablet device. One of the groups was presented with a badly typeset version, while the other group was presented with a properly typeset version.

typography examples

During the session, participants were interrupted and asked to estimate the amount of time they thought had passed since the experiment began.

The results of the study showed that:

  • Participants from both groups underestimated their reading time. This implies that reading is an engaging task.
  • Participants in the proper typography group greatly underestimated their reading time compared to participants that were reading items with poor typography. This implies reading with good typography is even more engaging.

typography influence experiment

5. Castelhano and Henderson’s Perception of Scene Gist

Have you ever wondered what “a picture’s worth a thousand words” really means? Why are we able to understand visuals more thoroughly than text?

As humans, we have the ability to gather context based on what we see. When we fix our eyes on something, we have the ability to form an understanding of the environment and recognize the meaning of a scene.

What Is Perception of Scene Gist?

According to Ronald A. Rensink, a research scientist from Nissan Research & Development, Inc., perception of scene gist or scene perception is the visual perception of an environment as viewed by an observer at any given time. It includes not only the perception of individual objects but also things like their relative locations and expectations about what other kinds of objects might be encountered.

The Influence of Color on Scene Perception

In 2008, Monica S. Castelhano from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and John M. Henderson from the University of Edinburgh conducted an experiment on the influence of color in activating scene gist.

The experiment was conducted in three different trials. Undergraduates were exposed to a few hundreds of photographs of natural or man-made objects in various conditions. Participants were asked to determine whether or not a target object matched the scene they were seeing.

Normal and blurred photographs with colors and monochrome sample photographs were presented.

blurred image examples, color scheme examples

To determine the role of colors in our scene perception, the following sample photographs were used:

color perception examples

They also studied the range of abnormality with the following samples:

color perception experiment

According to Castelhano and Henderson’s findings:

  • Observers were able to match the scenes and target objects within a second.
    • This implies people can quickly get the meaning of a normal scene.
  • Observers were able to match the scenes in less time if they were colored correctly (as compared to black and white).
    • This means colors help us understand scenes better.
  • Overall, colors help define the structure of objects. As long as the colors are not too different from what we normally perceive, we’ll be able to easily understand the meaning of an image.

visual perception of colors

How Does This Affect Your Design?

Understanding how people perceive visual information reveals a great deal about the best practices for designing your infographics. Based on these findings, here’s a list of some important visual information design tips.

how to use data visualization

What’s Next?

Keeping these points in mind, now you can get to work creating beautiful and compelling infographics.

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01. The Basic Infographic

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02. Niche Focus Infographic

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03. Company Values Infographic

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04. Customer Journey Infographic

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This post was originally written and published by Shaun Thing on October 31, 2014. It has been updated for style, clarity, and consistency.

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