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TED2009

Tom Wujec: 3 ways the brain creates meaning

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Information designer Tom Wujec talks through three areas of the brain that help us understand words, images, feelings, connections. In this short talk from TEDU, he asks: How can we best engage our brains to help us better understand big ideas?

- Designer
Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He's an innovative practitioner of business visualization -- using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas. He is a Fellow at Autodesk. Full bio

Last year at TED we aimed to try to clarify
00:12
the overwhelming complexity
00:16
and richness that we experience at the conference
00:18
in a project called Big Viz.
00:21
And the Big Viz is a collection of 650 sketches
00:23
that were made by two visual artists.
00:26
David Sibbet from The Grove,
00:28
and Kevin Richards, from Autodesk,
00:30
made 650 sketches that strive to capture
00:32
the essence of each presenter's ideas.
00:35
And the consensus was: it really worked.
00:39
These sketches brought to life the key ideas,
00:41
the portraits, the magic moments
00:45
that we all experienced last year.
00:47
This year we were thinking, "Why does it work?"
00:49
What is it about animation,
00:52
graphics, illustrations, that create meaning?
00:54
And this is an important question to ask and answer
00:57
because the more we understand how the brain creates meaning,
01:00
the better we can communicate,
01:03
and, I also think, the better we can think and collaborate together.
01:05
So this year we're going to visualize how
01:08
the brain visualizes.
01:10
Cognitive psychologists now tell us that the brain
01:12
doesn't actually see the world as it is,
01:14
but instead, creates a series of mental models
01:17
through a collection of "Ah-ha moments,"
01:20
or moments of discovery, through various processes.
01:22
The processing, of course, begins with the eyes.
01:24
Light enters, hits the back of the retina, and is circulated,
01:27
most of which is streamed to the very back of the brain,
01:30
at the primary visual cortex.
01:33
And primary visual cortex sees just simple geometry,
01:35
just the simplest of shapes.
01:38
But it also acts like a kind of relay station
01:40
that re-radiates and redirects information
01:43
to many other parts of the brain.
01:45
As many as 30 other parts that selectively make more sense,
01:48
create more meaning through the kind of "Ah-ha" experiences.
01:51
We're only going to talk about three of them.
01:54
So the first one is called the ventral stream.
01:56
It's on this side of the brain.
01:59
And this is the part of the brain that will recognize what something is.
02:01
It's the "what" detector.
02:05
Look at a hand. Look at a remote control. Chair. Book.
02:07
So that's the part of the brain that is activated
02:11
when you give a word to something.
02:14
A second part of the brain is called the dorsal stream.
02:16
And what it does is locates the object
02:19
in physical body space.
02:22
So if you look around the stage here
02:25
you'll create a kind of mental map of the stage.
02:27
And if you closed your eyes you'd be able to mentally navigate it.
02:30
You'd be activating the dorsal stream if you did that.
02:33
The third part that I'd like to talk about
02:36
is the limbic system.
02:38
And this is deep inside of the brain. It's very old, evolutionarily.
02:40
And it's the part that feels.
02:43
It's the kind of gut center, where you see an image
02:45
and you go, "Oh! I have a strong
02:47
or emotional reaction to whatever I'm seeing."
02:49
So the combination of these processing centers
02:53
help us make meaning in very different ways.
02:56
So what can we learn about this? How can we apply this insight?
03:00
Well, again, the schematic view
03:03
is that the eye visually interrogates what we look at.
03:05
The brain processes this in parallel, the figments of information
03:08
asking a whole bunch of questions
03:11
to create a unified mental model.
03:13
So, for example, when you look at this image
03:15
a good graphic invites the eye to dart around,
03:18
to selectively create a visual logic.
03:21
So the act of engaging, and looking at the image creates the meaning.
03:23
It's the selective logic.
03:28
Now we've augmented this and spatialized this information.
03:30
Many of you may remember the magic wall that we built
03:33
in conjunction with Perceptive Pixel
03:36
where we quite literally create an infinite wall.
03:38
And so we can compare and contrast the big ideas.
03:41
So the act of engaging and creating interactive imagery
03:43
enriches meaning.
03:46
It activates a different part of the brain.
03:48
And then the limbic system
03:51
is activated when we see motion, when we see color,
03:53
and there are primary shapes and pattern detectors
03:56
that we've heard about before.
03:59
So the point of this is what?
04:01
We make meaning by seeing,
04:03
by an act of visual interrogation.
04:06
The lessons for us are three-fold.
04:08
First, use images to clarify what we're trying to communicate.
04:10
Secondly make those images interactive
04:14
so that we engage much more fully.
04:17
And the third is to augment memory
04:19
by creating a visual persistence.
04:21
These are techniques that can be used to be --
04:23
that can be applied in a wide range of problem solving.
04:26
So the low-tech version looks like this.
04:30
And, by the way, this is the way in which
04:32
we develop and formulate
04:34
strategy within Autodesk,
04:36
in some of our organizations and some of our divisions.
04:38
What we literally do is have the teams
04:41
draw out the entire strategic plan
04:43
on one giant wall.
04:46
And it's very powerful because everyone gets to see everything else.
04:48
There's always a room, always a place
04:52
to be able to make sense of all of the components
04:54
in the strategic plan.
04:57
This is a time-lapse view of it.
04:59
You can ask the question, "Who's the boss?"
05:02
You'll be able to figure that out. (Laughter)
05:04
So the act of collectively and collaboratively
05:12
building the image
05:15
transforms the collaboration.
05:17
No Powerpoint is used in two days.
05:20
But instead the entire team
05:22
creates a shared mental model
05:24
that they can all agree on and move forward on.
05:26
And this can be enhanced and augmented with
05:29
some emerging digital technology.
05:31
And this is our great unveiling for today.
05:34
And this is an emerging set of technologies
05:37
that use large-screen displays
05:39
with intelligent calculation in the background
05:42
to make the invisible visible.
05:45
Here what we can do is look at sustainability, quite literally.
05:47
So a team can actually look at
05:50
all the key components that heat the structure
05:53
and make choices and then see the end result
05:56
that is visualized on this screen.
05:58
So making images meaningful has three components.
06:01
The first again, is making ideas clear by visualizing them.
06:04
Secondly, making them interactive.
06:07
And then thirdly, making them persistent.
06:09
And I believe that these three principles
06:11
can be applied to solving some of the very tough problems
06:13
that we face in the world today. Thanks so much.
06:17
(Applause)
06:19

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About the speaker:

Tom Wujec - Designer
Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He's an innovative practitioner of business visualization -- using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas. He is a Fellow at Autodesk.

Why you should listen

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the makers of design software for engineers, filmmakers, designers. At Autodesk, he has worked on software including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall and Maya (which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry). As a Fellow, he helps companies work in the emerging field of business visualization, the art of using images, sketches and infographics to help teams solve complex problems as a group.

He's the author of several books, including Five-Star Mind: Games and Puzzles to Stimulate Your Creativity and Imagination.

More profile about the speaker
Tom Wujec | Speaker | TED.com