Think in Images

Take a look at the table given below. Which sentences comes alive to your mind’s eye when you read? If you’re not an alien then chances are very high that you will find the sentences on the right hand side more vivid and easier to remember. Why is that? These sentences contains phrases like (1) kiss your foot (2) Adam and Eve (3) bees to honey (4) burning hot. And they turn on images in our mind’s eye which makes them come alive.


What is so special about images and why does our brain give more importance to them? Daniel Coyle answered this question in a single word – evolution. Let’s do a simple experiment to find out if our brain is a product of evolution. In the image given below, one set of circles appears to be bulging outwards and the other appears to be dented inwards. Can you identify them?

The images are far easier to grasp, recall, and perform. This is because your brain spent millions of years evolving to register images more vividly and memorably than abstract ideas. (After all, in prehistoric days, no one ever had to worry about getting eaten by a hungry idea. But they did have to worry about lions.). Whenever possible, create a vivid image for each chunk you want to learn. The images don’t have to be elaborate, just easy to see and feel. – The Little Book of Talent


The circles that are lighter on the top appears to be bulged and the ones darker on the top appears to be dented. Why did our brain develop this perception? Until the invention of fire and more recently the invention of electricity, all significant sources of illumination for billions of years came from the sun. So light almost always came from above. This made our brain to build a simple rule that objects lighter on the top will be bulged. From this we can conclude that our brain is a product of evolution. Let’s do another experiment to show that our visual memory is powerful. Spend few minutes to test your visual memory.

After recalling 10 out of 13 images, I am convinced that our visual memory is powerful. Let’s put Daniel Coyle’s advice into action. He advices us to create a vivid image for each chunk we want to learn. Chunking enables our brain to store information in an efficient way in long term memory. I wrote about it in detail here. Associating the chunk with a vivid image enables us to recall the chunk with ease whenever needed. At this point I’m not sure how to implement his idea. Whenever I’m stuck on a problem I look at my role models for solutions. I know couple of them who think in images (1) Prof. Sanjay Bakshi (2) Richard Feynman.

“Sidecar” investing is a term introduced by Richard Zeckhauser in his famous essay Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable. In investing, big money is made by those who possess complimentary skills. Those who lack those skills (99% of them) can partner with those who possess complimentary skills and still make it big. Think of buying shares in Berkshire Hathaway in 1980s and riding along with Warren Buffett by paying nothing to him. This is a power mental model (chunk) and how does Prof. Bakshi remember this chunk? He associates this chunk with a famous scene from the movie “Sholay”. Non-Indian readers should think of riding along with Jason Statham. If you go through Prof. Bakshi’s presentations carefully you can see that he associates every chunk with a vivid image.think-in-images-sidecar

When Richard Feynman was a small boy his father read him about dinosaurs from the Encyclopedia Britannica. In it he read “This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across”. His father didn’t stop there and he taught Feynman how to visualize them.

“Let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.” Everything we’d read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that–everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying by translating and so I used to read the Encyclopedia when I was a boy but with translation, you see, so it was very exciting and interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude–I wasn’t frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this. – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Around 70% of sense receptors and 30% of our cortex is devoted to visual processing. It’s a crime if we don’t use it to our advantage. Let’s follow the advice of Daniel Coyle and copy the implementations of Prof. Bakshi and Richard Feynman and develop the habit of thinking in images. Update: Prof. Bakshi shared some materials on thinking in images which can be found here and here.

20 thoughts on “Think in Images

  1. Jana, nice to see the cross section of examples.

    Using visual imagery to learn and think is indeed very powerful. One of the powerful variants of this that I have come across is ‘Perceptual Learning’ described by Benedict Carey in the book How We Learn. Two case studies are particularly impressive. One was on how cognitive scientist Philip Kellman developed a Perceptual Learning Module (PLM) to teach new learners how to read a plane’s instrument panel. He could do that in 1/1000th of the time that it would take for prevailing traditional flight instruction methods and was much more accurate too. Another equally impressive case study is how the author with help from his daughter developed a PLM to identify painting styles like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, etc. Though many findings in Benedict’s book overlap with Barbara Oakley’s excellent book – Mind for Numbers (also at Coursera – Learning How to Learn), he covers several new areas and reports a number of other interesting studies.

    Experts in many fields, investors included, develop a massive latticework of images in their mind over many years of experience. PLM is a method of accelerating that learning.

  2. As always, very insightful article Jana. ALways look forward to your posts. If you find time please put your views on the recent statement made by RBI Governor warning great depression like problems ahead. Thanks

  3. Hi Jana,

    I came to your blog just 2 weeks ago, articles are wonderfully written and great source of knowledge. Your articles keep introducing me to many other great people and a list of good books.


  4. Hi Jana,

    Have been following your blog for some time now and find your posts thought-provoking. So firstly, thank you very much for writing! However, I would like to share my slightly diverging view on the sphere example. In fact, I took Mr. Feynman’s advice of translating what I read into reality.

    Here is what I think. I am not sure if our instinct to choose ‘lighter-on-top spheres’ to be ‘bulging outwards’, is a product of evolution. Because, even after the advent of electricity, almost all light forms are over-head. So this choice possibly emanates from our own life experience. What do you think?

    Interesting article nonetheless.


    • Hardick,

      Excellent point. I thought in the same lines and then realized that it takes millions of years for evolution to unlearn its wiring and electricity is a recent phenomenon in evolutionary timescale.


  5. Hi Jana, why would the fact that light comes from above make us feel that the circles with light spots at the top are bulged and vice-versa?

    • Vivek,

      (1) Our brain built in a simple rule that if light comes from the top then the circle is bulged outward. This is evident from the image. I don’t know why the brain built in such a rule.

      (2) We know that for billions of years the only source of light was Sun. Fire and Electricity are very recent in evolutionary timescale.

      Combining (1) and (2) we can tell that our brain is a product of evolution.


  6. ‘Around 70% of sense receptors and 30% of our cortex is devoted to visual processing’. I did not realize this dimension.

    Thanks as always!

  7. Hi Jana. How are you. Waiting for your next post. I was going through the Annual reports of Rain Industries after it was on news that Pabrai Investments have made some huge purchases of the stock. I didnt invest in it but it has now moved from Rs.28 to Rs.45. Too many subsidiaries and too many acquisitions but one thing i found interesting is for the business of that sort to generate good FCF every year some thing like more than 10% of Sales which is good as i read in a book by Pat Dorsey, where he says 5% and more is good. But i dont understand with such good FCF why do they have high debt in balance sheet. If you have time please take a look and let me know have I missed anything or my understanding is wrong in any way.

    • Ram,

      Rain Industries is outside my circle of competence. So I didn’t look into that.


    • Sir,

      Thanks a lot for sharing the materials. I am super happy to see a comment from my teacher & role model.


  8. Nice blog. On the top table, I found the “bland sentences” to be deeper and providing me better mental imagery (for 1, 2, & 3) than the “vivid” ones!

  9. Jana,
    Thank you for the blog thought on a very interesting fact. Visual appears to hold our mind, and brain processes it without thinking consciously. And reference to develop learning models is a great discovery for me. And thanks to Shan also for reference to same perspective by others and how it can be made use of.


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