3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning


This above here courtesy of James Burton is a visual sketch of my 25-minute talk on making learning a habit at Dare Conference this past May. Animation, graphics, and illustrations create meaning and James captured the gist of what I was trying to convey nicely in a small space.

In a short video, information designer Tom Wujec helps us visualize how three areas of the brain help us understand words, images, feelings, and connections. A fellow at Autodesk, Wujec begins by showing a similar visual summary to past TED talks and proceeds to demonstrate why the answer to “Why does it work?” is important:

because the more we understand how the brain creates meaning, the better we can communicate, and, I also think, the better we can think and collaborate together.


Cognitive psychologists now tell us that the brain doesn't actually see the world as it is, but instead, creates a series of mental models through a collection of “Ah-ha moments,” or moments of discovery, through various processes.

We begin processing through the eyes, light enters, flows to the brain's visual cortex whose job is to identify simple contours then function as a relay to redirect the information to other, more sophisticated parts of the brain:

As many as 30 other parts that selectively make more sense, create more meaning through the kind of “Ah-ha” experiences.

The three key parts are the ventral stream, the dorsal stream, and the limbic system:

The first one is called the ventral stream. It's on this side of the brain. And this is the part of the brain that will recognize what something is. It's the “what detector. Look at a hand. Look at a remote control. Chair. Book. So that's the part of the brain that is activated when you give a word to something.

A second part of the brain is called the dorsal stream. And what it does is locates the object in physical body space. So if you look around the stage here you'll create a kind of mental map of the stage. And if you closed your eyes you'd be able to mentally navigate it. You'd be activating the dorsal stream if you did that.

The third part that I'd like to talk about is the limbic system. And this is deep inside of the brain. It's very old, evolutionarily. And it's the part that feels. It's the kind of gut center, where you see an image and you go, “Oh! I have a strong or emotional reaction to whatever I'm seeing.”

The combination of these processing centers help us make meaning in very different ways.

The point is “we make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation,” says Wujec. And this below is how Autodesk build an entire strategic plan as a shared mental model using low tech.

Strategic plan in one wall

Watch the six-minute video of the talk below.


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