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Seeing Is Believing

You’ve heard it before. Most of us are primarily “visual learners.”

You know that using images will make your presentations more memorable and compelling. You teach leaders to tell stories that stimulate a listener’s brain.

But what does neuroscience tell us about the process of visualizing our world? And what might that mean for the human capital professional?

How we see

Here’s what we know so far. Keep in mind that we are still learning about the brain and how it works, so more  than likely if you re-read this post in a year, some of the information will have been updated based on new discoveries.

Light enters the eye and hits the retina in the back of the eye. The light stimulates specialized cells in the back of the brain (rods and cones) to emit a chemical called activated rhodopsin. This chemical produces electrical  signals that are sent, one pixel at a time, to the brain. The raw data sent to the brain must be organized into a recognizable image, making meaning out of a steady stream of images that constantly are changing.

The brain is selective about what it sees

Studies show that different neurons seem to “like” different types of objects and tend to focus on specific types of images. These preferences may relate to survival, since paying attention to food or faces might be more important in the short run than looking at a pretty sunrise.

Understanding this selectivity has some interesting implications for the human capital professional. Scientists now are able to look at the patterns of firing neurons and identify the single object out of all of the objects in the visual field that is receiving the bulk of our attention at any given moment. This decoding of attention eventually may help us make training or reference materials more compelling and efficient. We may be able to train technicians to develop greater focus on those specific components that are most crucial to their work.

Eye wire: the game that maps the brain

When I started this blog I promised that we would have a chance to witness history together. How would you like to join me and thousands of others in actually making history? This innovative approach from MIT marries the power of crowdsourcing and the appeal of video games to create a map* of the retinal neurons in the brain. The game is easy to play and somewhat addictive. (Apparently, my brain was producing lots of oxytocin when I took the game for a spin.) The images that make up the maze come from the astounding work of the Big Brain Project, a 3D interactive image of the entire brain. Become a volunteer neuroexplorer! No experience necessary.

Is perception really reality?

When I was a new supervisor at a Fortune 100 company, my manager was constantly telling me that “perception is reality.” This mantra seemed to be a justification for anyone to form any opinion of me that he chose, without any requirement for factual evidence. After all, what mattered most was how someone was “perceiving” me, and it was up to me to somehow manage that perception. But we now know that “reality” is a construct that is formed in each brain. It changes every fraction of a second as new information comes in. Our brains sift through the information and select or reject the information that fits our conscious and unconscious priorities. So it seems to me that a good leader, armed with this understanding of how the brain works, should hold people accountable for their perceptions and empower them to change those perceptions to be more productive.

What other uncharted lands will be mapped in the future?

Neuroscience is pointing the way towards a greater understanding of our inner world, and I hope with that understanding will come an increased ability to enhance our outer world—even though each of us sees it a little differently.

*Image from

Margie Meacham

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