Debunked: 10 Common Myths About Our Visual Brains

Debunked: 10 Common Myths About Our Visual Brains

Written by:
Samantha Lile

Mar 22, 2017
common myths visual brains debunked - header wide

Brain science is commonly taken into consideration when developing marketing and communication strategies, particularly concerning visual content. After all, the best way to influence behavior is to understand its drivers. And behavior is driven by our psychological brains. At the same time, basing a strategy on invalid data can quickly waste time and resources.

Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding our visual brains, plenty of myths clutter the published universe. To save everyone a lot of wasted effort, we’ve debunked 10 common myths about our brains and their visual abilities.


1 Some people are left-brained, while others are right-brained.


As marketers, we are constantly concerned with reaching our target audiences. One of the most basic divisions among demographics is determining if it tends to be more left-brained or right-brained.

Those who rely more on their left brain are considered logical, analytical and mathematically inclined. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, are the artistic types, more creative and in touch with their emotions.

Under the left/right brain premise, marketers can better determine the best way to communicate with their audience. Except the entire theory is a myth.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain "one side of the brain doesn't dominate the other"

It’s true many brain functions are compartmentalized – with sections dedicated primarily for vision, speech, hearing and smell. Some functions, such as language and visuospatial processing are even lateralized on the left and right hemispheres, respectively. But neuroscientists have proven that one side of the brain doesn’t dominate the other in people of particular personalities or cognitive styles.

In one such study, brain scans of 1,011 individuals between the ages of 7 and 29 were compared. Functional lateralization was measured across more than 7,200 brain regions. While certain hemispheres showed more activity for particular functions, those differences were consistent across all subjects.


2 Men are more visual than women.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain men are more visual than women

It’s practically considered common knowledge that when it comes to attraction, men are more visual. Whereas men are stimulated by sexual images, women prefer positive personality traits and character qualities. It’s a theory that marketers hold dear when devising strategies. Think about it: Are you more likely to see skin in ads targeting men or women?

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact women react just as strongly to erotic images.

Unfortunately, the widely held belief is severely misguided. When researchers at St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine measured brain activity of 264 women viewing a series of 55 color slides, they discovered women’s responses to sexual images were surprisingly similar to men’s.

"Usually men subjectively rate erotic material much higher than women," lead study author Andrey P Anokhin wrote. "So based on that data, we would expect lower responses in women, but that was not the case. Women have responses as strong as those seen in men."


3 People are either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain "people are either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners"

Parents and educators have long relied on the idea that everyone is either a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. More than 90 percent of teachers worldwide agree that students benefit from being taught according to their preferred learning styles.

The concept has also been embraced by marketers, who design campaigns to reach target audiences through the communication style in which they learn best. Except none of it is true.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact everyone learns best when information is presented through a variety of styles

In fact, everyone is a visual learner. After all, we process most information through our eyes. That’s a matter of science, not perception. And while people obviously absorb information through other senses, little evidence supports that certain people learn better when taught in their favored way.

Evidence to the contrary, however, suggests that everyone learns best when information is presented through a variety of styles, targeting multiple senses.

Even if you believe in learning styles, there are a lot more than three. Sure, people can communicate through sight, sound and touch. One 2004 publication actually identified at least 71 different learning styles.

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4 Subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact check subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products

It’s absolutely true that signs and sounds can be presented so faintly or briefly that observers fail perceive them. But can subliminal messages actually impact purchasing decisions? Science tells us no.

The myth first took hold in 1957, when author Vance Packard recounted the claims of marketing consultant James Vicary in his bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders.

According to Vicary, when cinema patrons were repeatedly exposed to messages flashing on the screen for 1/3,000 of a second, urging them to purchase popcorn and soda, concession sales skyrocketed. By 1962, however, Vicary admitted that he’d made up the entire tale.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact researchers found audiences were influenced by what they were told they'd perceive, not the actual messages they were exposed to

The entire theory may have been based on what we’d now call “fake news,” but that didn’t stop it from persisting among popular culture. In fact, even after Vicary’s admission, his “experiment” continued to inspire similar psychological theories, some rather far-fetched.

In his 1973 work, Subliminal Seduction, former professor Wilson Brian Key warned advertisers were embedding sexual images into renderings of ice cubes, plates of food and even Ritz crackers. While he offered plenty of hype, Key could provide no evidence to support his claims.

Instead, multiple tests have disproved the idea. When the Canadian Broadcast Company tested its audience’s reception of subliminal messages instructing them to “phone now,” it found that phone usage did not increase.

And in a 1991 double-blind study of commercially-marketed subliminal audiotapes, researchers found audiences were influenced by what they were told they’d heard, but not the messages they’d actually been exposed to. The results led researchers to label the phenomenon as an illusory placebo effect.

RELATED: Are You Being Influenced by Subliminal Messages? [Infographic]


5 Bigger is always better.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain bigger images attract more attention

Everyone knows that people pay more attention to larger type and images, right? Wrong. The core principle held dear by many marketers was disproven by scientific research.

One study from the Poynter Institute tracked users’ eyes as they viewed 25 news sites. Researchers found that when they encountered large type, people actually did less reading and more skimming.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact larger images don't always attract the greatest focus

On the contrary, smaller type invited users to focus and actually read each word. Large type encouraged viewers to scan for informative words or phrases of interest.

Research has also shown larger images don’t always attract the greatest focus. When presented with a variety of images, Internet users focused more closely on small photos of recognizable people than larger images on the same Web page.


6 The average person uses 10 percent of his or her brain.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain "the average person uses 10 percent of his or her brain"

The granddaddy of all brain science myths, the claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains is so prevalent it’s practically cliché. But it’s total bunk.

"It turns out that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," John Hopkins School of Medicine neurologist Barry Gordon told Scientific American. "Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy."

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact we use virtually part of the brain

Most of that energy supports the intercommunication of millions of neurons that provide for higher functions, as well as control unconscious activities such as heart rate. While it’s true that at any given moment, each of the brain’s regions may not be concurrently firing, imaging technology has illustrated that over the course of a day, we use practically 100 percent of our brains.


7 Today’s audiences are adept at multitasking.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact check today's audiences are adept at multitasking

With the constant barrage of sensory input, people have to be expert multitaskers to navigate the modern world. Marketers are always seeking innovative ways to reach a distracted audience.

But research actually tells us that our brains aren’t as skilled at completing tasks simultaneously as we’d like to think. Instead, people are getting better at quickly switching between tasks, and even that leaves plenty of room for improvement.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain fact the human brain can only focus attention on one item at a time

Truth be told, the human brain can only focus attention on one item at a time. Sure, we can breathe and see and smell at the same time. But when it comes to the prefrontal cortex, the thinking parts of our brains, we can only switch back and forth.

And according to Stanford University psychology professor Clifford Nass, our nonstop attempts at “multitasking” actually waste more time than they save.

“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” Nass told NPR. “They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”


8 People process images 60,000 times faster than text.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain we process images 60,000 times faster than text

The “fact” has been used by countless digital marketers and visual storytellers over the past 30 years. It’s so pervasive, in fact, that no one bothers to research its original source. That is, until blogger Alan Levine made it his mission to discover the truth.

If lack of evidence is enough to debunk a myth, then Levine accomplished the goal. On the occasion, the assertion does reference a source, citing 3M “internal research.” And the statement was found in an old 3M brochure design, but no specific research has ever been uncovered.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain there is no scientific evidence to back up this figure

Levine was even able to track an early claim to a 1982 article in Business Week. There, Computer Pictures Corporation’s then-president Philip Cooper said, “people assimilate visual information about 60,000 times faster than they assimilate printed copy.” But Cooper didn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim. Cooper, who is now a lecturer at MIT, has declined to comment on his source.

None of that has stopped the claim from being repeated as though it were fact in a plethora of infographics, articles and books, as well as on more than 195,000 websites referenced by Google.

RELATED: 8 Mind-Bending Optical Illusions (And What They Reveal About How Our Brains Work)


9 Content is king.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain "content is king"

In a 1996 essay, Bill Gates predicted that content would one day be king of the online world. And by most accounts, Gates’ prophesy has been fulfilled. But they’d be wrong. The reason why can actually be found in Gates’ original prediction.

“One of the exciting things about the internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create,” the Microsoft juggernaut wrote. “The internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain presentation and design are as important as content

Because content can be created and distributed so easily, it’s not necessarily trustworthy. So while content might draw eyes to the page, it can’t keep them there by itself. Design, it’s been found, is the glue that holds an audience’s attention. People are simply more likely to trust content in a well-designed presentation.

One study asked participants whether they trusted a health-related website. In their decisions, participants cited design-related factors 94 percent of the time. And according to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, more than 46 percent of people say a website’s design is the No. 1 criterion for determining a company’s credibility.

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10 Neuromarketing is just another brain myth.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain "Neuromarketing is just another brain myth"

Neuromarketing is the application of brain science. Neuroscientists study, analyze and seek to explain consumers’ neural responses to various marketing stimuli. It’s based on hard data, so why would anyone wonder if it’s based on fact?

The distrust is likely related to all the pervasive myths regarding our brains, as exemplified in this article. After all, if the marketing strategy is a myth, then how reliable can any sums of such findings be? Even reliable brain studies are sometimes dismissed because so much is still unknown about our brains’ inner workings.

debunked 10 common myths about our visual brain Neuromarketing is a real field that applies the principles of neuroscience to marketing

But neuromarketing is a real and useful technique precisely because of what people don’t know. It all comes down to understanding the audience. While asking questions in traditional surveys can reveal what people openly think, brain scans and EEG measurements can reveal what they don’t even realize they feel. Such results can provide a powerful tool for marketers.


Your Turn

With the recent attention given to "fake news" in the media, it's more important now than ever to provide verified and trustworthy information to your audience.

What do you think about these common myths? If you know of one that isn't on this list, let us know in the comments section below!

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    About the Author

    Samantha Lile is a web content creator with a journalism and mass media degree from Missouri State University. She contributes news and feature articles to various web publications, such as the Huffington Post. Currently, she resides in the beautiful Ozarks with her husband, four dogs and two cats.

    22 responses to “Debunked: 10 Common Myths About Our Visual Brains”

    1. Mel says:

      Nice presentation….as a school psychologist,
      a little difficult to accept learning styles don’t matter…
      all for the multi-modal learning though. You have
      a grammatical error, if you’d like to know…
      “there’s a lot….” should be “there are”. This is
      a common verbal and written error these days
      and I’d like society to take action to correct it.
      Thanks for the visme!

      • Good catch! We’re correcting it right away. Thanks so much for the feedback. I’m so glad you found the article useful.

      • Julie says:

        As an English teacher, technology trainer, former librarian, and teacher of oral and written communication, I would like to add the additional incorrect usage of the word “than” instead of “then.” In the context of the sentence “If lack of evidence is enough to debunk a myth, than Levine…,” the word “than” should be “then.” When establishing credibility to an audience, correct grammar, including spelling and punctuation, is as important as aesthetic appeal in any visual presentation or written message. Also, in #9, a reference is made to “one study” without citing the source of the study. The wording doesn’t link it to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. If that is the source, better clarity is needed. Mel, I agree with your comment and wanted to add my input as well. Visme, this was a great article. I hope you will share our comments with your editorial department as our suggestions would greatly enhance the credibility of the stated facts that support the myths.

      • Payman Taei says:

        Thanks for your feedback, Mel. I think the point made in the post is that we all learn through a variety of learning styles; the problem arises when learners are restricted by rigid categorizations, leading some to believe that they can only learn through one specific learning style.

    2. Mike Wicoff says:

      The Myths that quote”one study” should be taken with a grain of salt.
      I mean come on 🙂

      • Thanks for your feedback, Mike. We diligently try to either verbally cite the source of each study mentioned or link directly to it. If we missed one, we’ll be more than happy to update the article.

      • Thanks for your comment, Mike. I’m not sure if you refer to the studies cited in the myth-busting sections or the ones that support the “myths.” In any case, according to the Black Swan theory, you only need a single observation to invalidate a statement, even if it is widely believed to be true.

    3. Phil See says:

      Fact, number 7’s fact is completely wrong. The brain CAN focus on more than one item at a time and often does when someone ls listening to music and particularly when someone plays music in a group. e.g.,

    4. Serena P. says:

      I see how most of these facts are true. The one that I’m still not sold on is number three. I agree that mixing visual, audio and kinesthetic methods is the best option. However, you can’t deny that, when separated, some people will learn much faster with visual material, such as reading a book. If we take that same material and make it audio (ex. audiobook), that same person would barely remember half of it. Of course, if you combine all 3 methods, you’ll still have “your” method mixed in, and other 2 could be a good ad valuable addition.

    5. Euroinnova says:

      Great Post, thanks

    6. Chris Needham says:

      I think it’s a fact that your ‘mostly’ gauge reference in your fact check infographics is spelt incorrectly: ‘mostrly’

    7. Gordon Graham says:

      Thanks for this post! I just started down the same rabbit hole about “brains process visuals 60,000 times as fast as text” and you saved me a lot of time. In the past, I also sought proof for the myth that “color communicates more powerful than black and white” as seen in marketing materials from Kodak and HP–no original research into this ever done. As well as the myth about “learning styles”–again, using all the resources in the Metro Toronto Reference Library plus numerous queries to librarians, I could find NO original research that confirms this myth. These fables, once started, take on a life of their own, with many circular references all pointing back to some vague claims published decades ago with no scientific validation. Thank you for questioning all this.

    8. David W. Bennett, Ph.D. says:

      Great article. Well researched. Instead of proofreading the article I believe the idea is to get everyone’s input. Please don’t be dismayed by people who want to criticize everyone.

    9. Cody says:

      I appreciate this post! You did your due diligence, and we all benefit from it. My one gripe is that you posit “everyone is a visual learner” in #3, and then there’s an internal link to the home page at the bottom of the screen that says, “Did you know? 65% of the population are visual learners.” Visme’s ad contradicts the author’s claim.

      • Payman Taei says:

        Hi Cody, thanks for your feedback. Yes, you’re correct; there’s a contradiction here. In reality, there is abundant evidence to favor both positions, which is why learning styles is such a hotly debated topic, especially among educators and those in academia.

    10. Gautam Sawhney says:

      There is great contradict in this article, as per point 9 , its been established that Content without Design is nothing , but in point 8 this article is denying the importance of Visual. Either it has to be established if its not 60000 times faster but could be 2 or 3 times faster, but just denying the power of Visual vis a vis fact and then identify the importance of Design seems confusion.

    11. Amy Balliett says:

      The original source for the 60,000 times faster stat comes from Michael Gazzaniga (1992) and Allen Newell (1990), as cited by the SAGE Handbook of Political Communication, 2012, via Amazon.

    12. Paul Claireaux says:

      Hey there,
      Neat article, thanks
      I’m interested to know where I can find the evidence for your CTA at the bottom – that 65% of people are visual learners

    13. raj says:

      #7 Is NOT a myth. There ARE human beings who can multitask, and I’m one of them. I’ve also written many articles for clients on the most efficient ways to multitask, based on research, info collected from people over time (I was a college teaching assistant for several years, and have taught in the workplace as well), and my own experiences.

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