Words and pictures

It is said: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words.

Unsurprisingly, the words have been traced back to advertisers in the early days of the twentieth century. The trade journal Printer’s Ink features a two-page spread advertisement, headed “One look is worth a thousand words”.

But others assert the saying goes much further back, to the days of ancient Chinese civilisation.

Academic bloggerΒ Paul Martin Lester has shed light on the whole business by capturing a slip of paper inside a fortune cookie which records both the original Chinese characters and the clumsy translation which has been accorded to them.

He asserts that a far better translation of the characters reads: “A picture’s meaning can express ten thousand words.”

So are pictures really worth more than words?To answer this we need to venture into the Wild West of medical science: the human brain.

Out here in the civilised world there are stimuli: pictures and words amongst them. They enter the brain as electrical signals through a sort of Reception: in this case, the visual cortex.

The other end of the journey for the electrical signals is towards the front; called the temporal lobe. The signals trek across the brain and back again in a bid to accord the stimuli meaning.

On what happens in between, scientists are hazy. But it has become a little clearer, thanks to a group of researchers working with youngsters who have epilepsy at Boston’s Children’s’ Hospital.

They implanted electrodes in the places where young people were having seizures, to record brain activity with unprecedented accuracy.

Then they showed the young people pictures: faces, animals, chairs, fruits, vehicles. They could pick up brain activity just thousandths of a second after the picture was shown.

Here’s the thing: the youngsters recognised the pictures too quickly. There was no way the signals could be traipsing to the temporal lobe and back.

No: each type of picture had its own place, buried at Reception in the visual cortex. In fact mathematicians got excited because they didn’t have to look at the picture: they could recognise what was being shown to the patient by the path it took inside the brain.

Pictures travel fast: these reactions might come in as little as 100 milliseconds. They are proving in experiments to be very close to meaning itself.

So are words slower, then? Are they second class citizens in the world of meaning?

Modern linguistics teaches us that language is a code: a complicated mix of words, sentences, intonation and so on.

So when we want to speak, according toΒ Harvard Neuroscientist David Caplan, we choose words which say what we mean; we activate the sounds for the word; choose the right syntax, and intonation for delivery.

Then we must get the footsoldiers to do our bidding: our mouth, our jaw, our larynx, our tongue must be coordinated to speak. We speak at three words per second on average; one sound every tenth of a second.

Yet we so rarely make an error.

A picture represents a concept with such immediacy it has astonished neuroscientists. But words hang a complex code onto the picture.

Turner and Dickens can help us with the distinction. Take a look at Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (above): a tremendous, atmospheric picture painting in the heyday of railway mania, first exhibited in 1844. It’s a scene painted not ten miles from where I write, at Maidenhead.

The sky glowers. On the river are small insignificant boats almost lost in the mist. And through the auburns and goldens scythes a black engine, its speed evident and relentless. Here is a new blade with which to slice through sleepy England, says Turner, and what a wonder it is, indeed.

It was 1866 which gave us The Signalman, a masterly ghost story by Charles Dickens. His portrayal of the steam engine paints a train in words.

“Just then,” he writes, “there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down.

“When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.”

Immediate: breathtaking, startling: these words evoke our senses with the vibration, a rush of wind, the steam vapour on the skin. they wake areas of our brain which slept; sensory memories which Turner’s painting, a work of genius as it is, cannot touch.

Shall I trade the Turner for the Dickens, or the Dickens for the Turner?

No: neither is worth sacrificing for the other. A picture is worth a picture.

And a thousand words is worth a thousand words.

Written for my good cyberfriend Sidey’s theme “A picture is Worth A Thousand Words”. You can find her challenge here


46 thoughts on “Words and pictures

  1. I’m fascinated by the part where the images are recognised too quickly, Kate, and the fact that the electrodes can record this speed. We can do some amazing things when we put our minds to it!
    I always thought the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ was to do with interpretation and story telling, each person’s interpretation being different; but the phrase itself must have come from somewhere. I don’t think I like the origin being with advertising though, I’m liking the Chinese origin much more, so I’ll go with that one! πŸ˜€
    Another interesting post here, Kate!

    1. Thanks Tom: no, we’ll let the ancient wisdom of the Chinese have that one, shall we? If you hover over the discussion of the Boston findings you can find the news article which deals with it. Wonderful stuff indeed: but we are still so far from working out how the whole thing works…

  2. Sometimes a picture is dramatic enough to tell a story on its own. For me, however, the written word generally provides so much more insight and detail — guess that’s why I’ve nearly always preferred reading the book before/instead of seeing the movie. πŸ™‚

  3. Your 825 or so words here offer information about the picture no picture could convey, just as the picture conveys what is almost impossible to translate into words. Same with music, isn’t it? Another element. The three can complement one another, or stand alone.
    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Col: and you have a point: I was on another blog just this afternoon quibbling about whether pictures need programme notes to supplement them; and I would say music is enriched by the story behind it. As always, you hit the nail on the head πŸ™‚

  4. You have my mind swirling here, Kate, in a most magnificent way.

    I love Turner’s picture. The more I look at it, the more I see, the more I see, the more I want to see, and what I want to see most is the real thing. Would I trade it for Dickens? No. I’m with Karen. I need the written word, or the oral rendition. Sometimes each brings different meanings to the same text, doesn’t it?

  5. Which I prefer depends on the depiction. I’d rather SEE a sunset than read one being described to me. I’d rather READ how the brain functions . . . than view a series of schematic diagrams.

    BTW: If you hadn’t interpreted Turner’s painting for me, I’d have missed its meaning entirely.

    So as between the two . . . I’ll take Dickens. πŸ˜†

    1. You and Dickens, Nancy? you have a special relationship πŸ™‚ I’m in agreement with you; horses for courses.
      Interestingly, I prefer diagrams to words when reading for information. You’ll see one of my links is a visual map if the brain.

  6. I love your conclusion. Words and pictures are very different media with discrete characteristics and one will never adequately replace the other. Choosing the right combination and presentation was an important part of my work in publishing. There were so many things to consider — the nature and complexity of the material, the ages and expectations of the readers, the results one hopes to achieve or the impression one wants to make.

    My post “The floor of the sky” is an example of an inherent problem. I wanted to illustrate and enhance my favorite quotation from Willa Cather. But Cather expected the reader to imagine the scene; any illustration I added, however harmonious and appropriate, probably shortcircuited the reader’s imagination. I was trying to substitute my imagination for his.

    I do prattle on. Sorry. Such a fascinating topic.

    1. Not at all, I love to listen πŸ™‚ What a fascinating take on this topic: it reminds me of all the film adaptations which I have seen which fall short of their novel counterparts. Words seem to supply something in the ether, something intangible one cannot put one’s finger on. Thanks: I’ll check out your link!

  7. Hi Kate
    I too love your conclusion, “Shall I trade the Turner for the Dickens, or the Dickens for the Turner? No: neither is worth sacrificing for the other. A picture is worth a picture. And a thousand words is worth a thousand words.” I wonder what you feel about the notion that pictures and words are symbols of a deeper and perhaps unrecognised meaning ie they are shorthand for a bigger picture, perhaps to be found in the unconscious mind or the collective unconscious.

    1. I would say you’re spot-on there, George πŸ˜€ Hello, by the way, and thanks for stopping by: I was forgetting myself. Meaning is the Holy Grail isn’t it? Those Boston experiments: I wondered if they demonstrated how thin a veneer a picture is over a piece of meaning itself.But what’s there at the bottom is the root concept. Ranging around to research this post I found models which begin with meaning, clothe it in pictures and then encode it into words. It’s a fascinating subject, but I’m no neurolinguist πŸ™‚

  8. Dear Kate,
    Your posting today really got my “ole brain cells” buzzing–I’m sure that’s not the expression the neuroscientists would use! Reading this and looking at Turner’s painting, I remembered vividly a paper I wrote in grad school.

    The professor asked us to take two artistic forms and compare them as to which spoke to us more immediately. I compared “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” by Emily Dickinson with “Guernica” by Picasso. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I did conclude that the poem spoke more clearly to me of pain because it didn’t hinder my imagination as the painting, which set me in a time and a place, did.

    Thank you, once again, for branching my dendrites!


    1. That is so interesting, Dee: I had never thought that a painting’s specificity might hinder its message. Guernica: an anguished scream on canvas; I think sometimes when pain is that immediate I get an overwhelming urge to distance myself from it. Whereas Dickinson never fails to draw me in, as if she is talking confidentially to a friend. Aesop’s Wind and the Sun all over again.

  9. I love pictures, I love words, what can I say? (I wouldn’t trade one for the other either.) The best writers make you see, using words only, the mental image from which they are writing – that is what I aim for as a writer, but… I have to say, I love adding the picture too, on my blog.

  10. This is so interesting, and it really makes me wonder away. On the one hand, could it be that a picture’s meaning can express ten thousand words because each of us sees and interprets each picture differently? But then our perceptions of texts, not least fiction and poetry, can differ from person to person, too. Looking at it another way, it’s true to say that as babies we see things around us before we have learned the words to categorise or describe them. As our language acquisition increases we become more adept at being able to apply terms to things, so I suppose we become better at remembering and interpreting what we see, simply because we are able to refer to them, and suddenly repeatedly. Or could it all be just as simple as light, highlighting the pictures we see, travelling at a quicker speed to our brains than the sound of words as we hear them in our heads?

    However, just as I thought that might be a point, it occurs to me that as we get older we start to read less with our “ears” as we stop hearing every word in our head at the sight of it on the page or screen. (Nothing like having an argument with myself in public!)

    Like you, I don’t think I would ever swap the word for the picture, or the picture for the word, I love them both too much. πŸ™‚

  11. I will take the visuals words conjure in the imagination of my brain a thousand times over a picture. That’s always my biggest problem with movies made from books I’ve read. I can’t ever get over my own mental picture of it. Not that it’s superior, just different.

    I love to read about how the brain works, even through stress and malfunction. A perfect response to Sidey’s theme this weekend.

    1. I know what you mean, Andra. I got furious with the makers of the Narnia films because in my eyes they were taking liberties with subtle things – like Lucy’s character – when anyone who had read CS Lewis’s words would know the screenplay didn’t ring true.
      The brain. The last undiscovered country πŸ™‚

  12. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but can you get that idea across with just a picture?

    I can’t remember where I read that, but I remember the words, and I can repeat them. I can’t repeat a picture. I can just describe it, and my description will always fall short.

    I have photographs (outsides) of relatives several generations back, many of whom I never met, but I would rather have their letters: “internal difference, / Where the Meanings, are.” (Dickinson does keep cropping up.)

    So much for my tangled ramblings. Thanks, Kate, for once more sending an idea to stir my brain a bit and keep it from becoming just a repository for cats.

  13. A most fascinating post, Kate. I find it interesting that many poetry blogs utilize pictures to parlay the feel or meaning of their poem. It would be interesting to see if the reader is more inspired to read a picture /poem than just a poem… more bang for one’s electrodes I suppose ~

  14. Shakespeare’s generation thought in words; we think in pictures. On the whole, we lose.

    You will understand that I got as far as the word ‘silverfish’ on your mothball post and had to retire to my couch, so no comment on that one. πŸ™‚

  15. I would add my own thought that an unpleasant visual stays with me longer or distresses me more than words. I learned decades ago that I could read a Stephen King novel, as an example, but couldn’t handle the movies. I could slow down the tension in print, but couldn’t temper the visuals of cinema. Very thought provoking post, Kate. Debra

  16. A picture is open range for me. Words coral what the writer wants to show. Is that enough Wild West of the Mind? πŸ™‚ Thoroughly enjoyed being on this velvet covered verbal slide!

  17. A wonderful post, Kate, and an insight into why pictures and words work in relay with one another with each bringing something different to the significance of the whole

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